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[whitespace] Illustration My Friend Glorja

By Annalee Newitz

I FEEL PRETTY COOL right now because I just got a very rare scam letter in my email. Some days it doesn't take much to entertain me. Maybe you've gotten those Nigerian scam letters before--you know, the ones that say URGENT BUSINESS PROPOSITION in the subject line and contain weirdly translated details of shady "fund transfers" and the like? Well, I got one of those scam letters, too, but mine is from Serbia. And that makes my scam rarer than your scam, okay?

Actually, my quest for a rare scam started a month ago, when I got a Nigerian letter from some guy named Tunde Cole, and I decided to answer it just to see what would happen. That was before I learned that these letters are a con that goes all the way back to the 1970s and snail-mail days. In fact, investigative branches of various governments have been fighting the Nigerian letter con for so long that it's been given a nickname--the "4-1-9 scam"--which refers to the section of the Nigerian penal code that addresses fraud schemes.

But back to my friend Tunde Cole, who had an URGENT PROPOSITION. I replied that I was old and feeble, but that I would help him in whatever way I could. Tunde wrote me back instantly, asking for BUSINESS NUMBER AND FAX AND BANK INFORMATION. I gave him my work number and fake bank account information. I got a call the very next day, and when I didn't return the call, somebody named Jubril called me back every day for about a week.

At that point, I was getting a little creeped out. So when Tunde sent me an email about how he was setting up a company in my name, I wrote back, "I need money badly, as my bank account has been cleaned out, and I am living on the street homeless. They are following my every move, trying to put small, wet animals into my ears. Write back, oh please!" I never heard from Tunde or Jubril again.

Apparently, I'm not the first person to respond to these Nigerian fellows on a pranksterish lark. For laughs, you can find 140 versions of the Nigerian letter on www.scamorama.com, which is devoted entirely to the 4-1-9 letters and people's weird rejoinders to them. For instance, a prankster calling himself "R.U. Sirrius" has contributed a series of letters and his responses, in which he invites his Nigerian friend to come to America, bring his cash in unmarked bills and crash on the couch. When the Nigerian says the cash "may be very expensive to ship," R.U. responds by suggesting that his correspondent should be assaulted with various household items.

Amazingly, people do get taken in by the people who send these letters, whom scamorama.com calls "the lads from Lagos." If you get deep enough into the scam (that is, give some money), you'll eventually be asked to come to Nigeria, where you'll be put up in hotels, introduced to Nigerian "government officials" and bilked out of thousands of dollars. The 4-1-9 scam is apparently a multimillion-dollar industry.

And I'm sure that's why my new friend Glorja Stojiljkovic wrote me recently from Serbia asking for help getting a large amount of money out of her country in the wake of her husband Vlajko's arrest for crimes against humanity. (Note: There really is an interior minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic in Serbia, who was indeed arrested.) My scam letter is so unusual that I haven't seen any references to Glorja on the scam pages. Maybe everyone is just too focused on the Nigerians to realize that other war-ravaged, developing nations are getting in on the URGENT action.

When I told Glorja that "they make it noisy in my head sometimes, but I'd love to help," she wrote back, offended, "You think this joke not worry bye." But I insisted on helping her, explaining that I also had an angel who could help transfer funds. Finally, she said--rather politely, I thought--"Bye please not worry." My favorite parts of the Glorja letter were the little details, though, such as how she kept misspelling her alleged last name. I guess the Serbs still haven't got the bugs worked out of their scam.

But at least Glorja told me not to worry. And you can talk to Glorja too: [email protected]. Say, "Hi," to her for me.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who has AN URGENT PROPOSITION.

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From the February 14-20, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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