Web of Lies
How a Marina man played the Nigerian e-mail con and won—for now.
Thursday, April 29, 2004
‘Don’t make me look like a shmo.” When Ben Klein said this, he gave me a hapless shrug.
“Well, you probably aren’t going to come off looking like a saint,” I said. Or like a genius, I thought to myself. But you might look a bit more like a shmo than a crook, if you’re lucky.
“Well I hope you don’t make me look like a shmo, that’s all I ask.”
I was pretty sure I knew what the word meant, but to be certain, I looked it up in Leo Rosten’s classic, The Joys of Yiddish.
Shmo: Rhymes with “stow.” 1. A boob; a schlemiel; a hapless, clumsy, unlucky jerk. 2. A butt; the fall guy; the goat of a joke.
What Ben was asking me to do—to protect a bit of his reputation—it was a reasonable request. After all, he had walked into the office on his own. He had brought along his laptop and showed me 50 or so e-mails that had passed between himself and the men who were scamming him. He let me listen to the voicemails that these scam artists left him—at first, as they set him up, collegial and conspiratorial, and later, after they had sent him the big check, stern and vaguely threatening.
And he let me accompany him to his bank, where he presented himself as the victim of a scam, and then practically confessed to defrauding the institution for close to $40,000.
A journalist can’t help but feel obliged to a source who is so forthcoming. But still, Ben had behaved like the dictionary definition of a shmo. And then, for his own reasons, he had behaved a bit like a crook.
In the three weeks I have known him, I have come to the opinion that Ben Klein is a basically decent man. He volunteers as a coach for his son’s sports teams. He does a bit of charity work. He has a stepson with a serious medical condition. He has child support payments, a job as a waiter and a fledgling career in business. He’s smart and funny, but not in the typical way.
Ben is probably in his early thirties, and he appears to be making the serious effort, in his day-to-day life, of becoming a more responsible man. He gives the impression of being someone who gives a damn. The thing about him, which doesn’t exactly square with the recent events of his life, is that he seems to be so for real. He is one of those people who pauses for a second before answering a question, like he would prefer to get it right.
Right now he is in a tight spot. The lure of easy money was
too much for him. For my own reasons, I do not want to indict
him in these pages. And so I have changed his name for the
purposes of this article.
The e-mail continues:
Since I have been unsuccessful in locating the relatives for over 2 years now, I seek the consent to present you as the Next of Kin to the deceased since you bear his last names, so that the proceeds of this account can be paid to you .
I trust that these words will sound somewhat familiar to many reading this story. This is a variation of the classic Nigerian e-mail scam. This scam has been around for at least four years. Almost everyone with an e-mail account has received a similar message. It is among the most prevalent subjects of spam, along with penis enlargement pills and pitches for offshore sources of Vicodin.
The Nigerian e-mail scam—and its predecessor, the Nigerian letter scam—has been, over the years, the subject of dozens of news reports and an episode of 60 Minutes . Ben says he had never heard of it.
One of my colleagues, incredulous that Ben would fall for the scam, pointed out to him that David Letterman makes jokes about it, and asked him: “Don’t you watch Letterman?” Ben said that, yeah, he does, and sure, maybe he’d heard something, but if he did it went right past him.
So he bit. He replied. And at that point, the story moved from the ridiculous to the outrageous.
I have in my possession an inch-thick stack of printouts that Ben has provided to me—a chronological record of an e-mail exchange that spans more than three months. Many of the e-mails are from the “barrister,” who goes by the name Milton Joe. There are several from two other men, whom Milton Joe put Ben in touch with. The top half of the stack contains almost no records of Ben’s messages to any of these men.
“In the beginning, I wasn’t that interested in saving my messages, only theirs,” he says, which makes sense, I guess. I have not seen his reply to the original e-mail. Ben reports that he said: “Sure, I’m interested, what’s up?”
On Jan. 6, two days after the initial e-mail was sent, Milton Joe responded to Ben’s reply:
All I require from you is sincerity and honesty so as to work together in safeguarding this huge deposit. Meanwhile you should go ahead and forward to me your full name, your contact address. As an attorney this will enable me to make an application to the bank on your behalf for the immediate release of this deposit to you as next of kin to Mr. William Klein.”
There is an obvious irony in the inclusion of the phrase “sincerity and honesty” in this paragraph. Ben shrugs it off.
“I don’t know if I really believed it, but I guess I had a little bit of hope,” he says. “It made sense, what they were saying. I mean, if this guy was dead, and they needed a beneficiary...”
He almost smirks as he says this.
A couple of weeks passed, and Ben says he gave the matter no thought. Then a message dated Jan. 23 came from the e-mail address donmilton@yahoo, under the subject line “Congratulations!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!.”
Attn. Ben Jason Klein:
I am happy to inform you that the governing council of the International bank has today approved the money to be paid to you accordingly.
However, they said that the money will be paid to you through their offshore payment centre in Leeuwarden, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
To get the money, Milton Joe instructed Ben to contact a Mr. Luke Anderson at a bank in the Netherlands: Pacific Trust Security and Finance.
The e-mail includes a telephone number, fax number and Web address. I have called the phone number several times and received no answer. The Web site claims to represent a bank in the Caymans. It is not clear whether this bank, or any of the banks or bankers named in the e-mails, had any idea that this thing was a scam.
Ben admits that he checked out the Web site and that it made him a little suspicious. Still, he played along. Again, his reply is missing from my records of the exchange. Ben reports that he said, sure, what have you got?
On Jan. 26, Ben received another message, this time from the e-mail address email@example.com, signed by a Mr. Luke Anderson. At the bottom of the page, there is a copy of an e-mail Ben had sent to Anderson. It is the first example of his communications in my records.
My name is Ben Klein and recently I was informed that a distant relative has died and I am named the next of kin. I am saddened by the loss of a family member that I never had a chance to get close to...Nonetheless I was informed by Bar. Milton Joe, Esq., (whom is handling Mr. Klein’s affairs) to introduce myself to you as next of kin to my deceased relative the late Mr. William Klein. Please let me know what you need from me to help the process along.
It seems clear that Ben was simply playing along. Maybe he is being snookered—I know that Ben would like me to believe that he was being snookered. I think that is what he himself would like to believe. But it sounds like he is doing some snookering himself.
Cons work because people are people, and people are naive and needy, even greedy. People can pretend that they are doing something that is okay, even good, and even though they know they are lying, they may start to believe it themselves. I don’t know for sure that Ben was doing this. I cannot be sure whether he’s conning me or himself.
On Jan. 29, Ben received another e-mail from Milton Joe, containing a deposit code, reference code and deposit number—purportedly for the bank account holding William Klein’s $38.5 million.
An e-mail from Mr. Luke Anderson, dated the 30th, confirms the receipt of Ben’s California drivers’ license, which he had faxed to Nigeria. At the bottom of this message is the text of an e-mail Ben had sent to Anderson. It says the following: “Don Milton will forward all legal documents to you.”
Don Milton? Okay. Whatever.
On Feb. 6, Milton Joe, or Don Milton, or whoever this guy is, sent an e-mail containing a file attachment. The attachment purports to be an “Affidavit of Fact,” drawn on letterhead of the “Federal High Court of Lagos Holden and Apapa.” It is a list of statements, all in legalese, numbered one through 10, presumably all lies. Its statements include the “fact” that Max William Klein died in a “ghastly car accident with the members of his immediate family,” and that a “detailed investigation” has determined that Ben is the next of kin.
The text of the message in that e-mail missive informs Ben that Milton Joe has “put a lot of [his] life’s savings into this project securing the necessary paperworks.” And it mentions that Ben will have to procure an “Indemnity Bound Certificate” from the Netherlands.
It concludes: “So far so good.”
Still, Ben’s side of the correspondence is absent from these records, as is any written explanation of the “Indemnity Bound Certificate.” Ben vaguely explains that there were some phone calls informing him that he needed to put up some money to get this piece of paperwork accomplished.
This, of course, is the point of the scam. The classic Nigerian e-mail scam requires the mark (that would be Ben) to send some money in order to release the funds allegedly coming to him.
The official name that United States Secret Service has given to this particular brand of scam is the Nigerian Advance Fee Fraud (AFF). (It is known internationally as a 4-1-9, which is the section of the Nigerian penal code that deals with bank fraud.)
The Secret Serice maintains a Web page devoted to the Nigerian AFF. In it, the Americans who willingly participate in the scheme are referred to as “targets” or “victims.”
The goal of the criminal is to delude the target into thinking that he is being drawn into a very lucrative, albeit questionable, arrangement. The intended victim must be reassured and confident of the potential success of the deal. He will become the primary supporter of the scheme and willingly contribute a large amount of money when the deal is threatened. The con-within-the-con is the scheme will be threatened in order to persuade the victim to provide a large sum of money to save the venture.
Milton Joe was keeping it simple. Ben says he was told to send 1,400 Euros to the Netherlands for the Indemnity Bound Certificate. In an e-mail of Feb. 12, Milton Joe said he would put up a similar amount. In heartfelt prose, in slightly broken English, Milton Joe pointed out that he had mortgaged his home to obtain his share of the money.
A week later, another e-mail arrived instructing Ben to send 2,800 Euros, via Western Union Transfer, to one David Paschal Solomon in the Netherlands.
Feb. 12, Ben replied to Milton Joe in an e-mail under the subject line “Ball is in your court:”
I appreciate your effort...and you will be handsomely rewarded…if this all works out. Nonetheless I am a man of my word and I must say at this time that if I were to inherit this money I will pay you back everything you have spent plus a million.
You know more than anyone about the ins and outs of this process. And I am sure that if all this is true and complete then your mortgage will be the least of your worries. Ask a friend to assist you in the finances and I will be true to my word. And would love to meet you. Maybe in Florida at the beach with a Margarita and a bottle of Dom...
Nonetheless I don’t have the finances today…
Here, again, Ben is trying to scam the scammer. His language sounds just like theirs. He has adopted the pattern of speech of the smiling, seductive liar. But when I read his words, my opinion of him is not much damaged. I am too used to this kind of talk—aren’t we all? This is the patter that saturates modern life, maybe a shred more corrupt than a television commercial for anti-balding cream.
I got 104 e-mails yesterday, mostly spam. I miss e-mails every day now because they get buried under the spam lies that fill my inbox. Wholesale Prices on V1c.odin. Watch Indemand-Pay-Per-View-Free. Match your needs with lenders. Johnny Depp recommends these enlargement pills. Heroin. A $95 value for $18.95! I like you.
I got an e-mail yesterday promising commotion hotrod frontiersman orbital anastigmatic batch levi deity greensboro brass curiosity enormity mcdougall. I don’t know what to believe anymore.
The fact is the Internet has become a web of lies. Ben just got caught up in it. I guess I’ve made the choice to hate the sin but not the sinner.
“I was playing with the guy,” he says. “Because I’m not gonna give him nothing besides what I already did give him, which is my identification.”
He says this as though he owes Milton Joe an explanation.
In fact, Ben really, honestly fears that Milton Joe is himself a victim of some larger scam. It’s uncanny.
My skepticism prevents me from believing this.
Ben happens to know that, even in this country, not much is required to prove that one is the beneficiary of a will or an insurance policy. He seems to know a lot about insurance—maybe his family is in the business, I can’t say.
He also seems to know something about how banks work—that will prove to be important later on.
On Feb. 19, Ben ups the ante in an e-mail to the “barrister.”
Please make this happen Joe Milton, and all of our problems will be solved... Again I am a man of my word and we will be sitting on the beach in Miami or on some island discussing our futures.
To be honest with you, everyone I have spoken to about this tells me it is a scam… and I have dome some research and found a letter just like yours on the net with the same exact letter except a different client died…but ironically on the same day as William Klein.
I am not stupid…I just have a problem trusting…so all I am asking you is to make this happen.
This letter will put you on an emotional rollercoaster
but pick yourself up man and make this happen…Don’t give
up…your monetary dreams will come true.
Naive or conniving? Or both? Shmo or crook? Or innocent victim? Or all three?
Ben shrugs it off as wishful thinking. He says words that sound as if he has some remorse, but he seems to have forgiven himself. “I had a little bit of hope that it would happen,” he says.
The next day, Milton Joe, from his donjmilton@yahoo e-mail address, protested passionately to Ben’s suggestion that the deal was corrupt.
If this transaction were to be a scam I would not have contacted you in the first place. Also attached is a copy of my international passport and call to bar certificate from the Nigeria Bar Association.
Sure enough, the e-mail contains an attachment including a color scan of what is supposed to be a passport, but which of course is almost certainly phony, along with a document posing as some kind of professional certificate, which appears at a glance to be completely phony.
At this point, it is dizzying to contemplate what must have been going on inside the heads of everybody involved.
Ben now almost admits he basically had figured out the thing was a con, kind of, but he will hardly even come right out and say that. He stops short of saying anything specific out loud. Maybe it was a money laundering scam. Perhaps it was a check-kiting scheme. He feared that it might involve identity theft. He almost seems to believe, or to pretends to believe, that it really was what it was presented to be—a scam to steal this William Klein’s actual inheritance.
“What did I know?” he says. “I didn’t know anything. I had a shred of hope, maybe, that somehow something would happen.”
I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt. I like the guy. But this is obviously a bunch of bullshit.
Ben clearly knew it was a scam. He is, as he says, not stupid. Joe Milton obviously knew Ben knew. Both are somehow simply playing some game of pretending, and why?
The answer is complicated. They played along so they could take advantage of some loopholes in international banking regulations, or something like that, to pull a bunch of money out of thin air.
They both seemed to believe that if they continued to go through the motions, to put one foot in front of the other in the performance of this criminal dance, something would in fact happen.
It appears to be almost an accident how it ended up coming
Over the following month, Ben and Milton Joe exchanged a series of bullshitting e-mails. Their correspondence develops a pattern. Ben is casual, friendly, encouraging, slippery. Milton Joe responds with lawyerly, old-world politeness, repeating charmingly misspoken phrases. “Your mail was received and the content noted.” “I await your quick response as time is of essence on this project.”
They become like pen pals. Milton Joe is sick for a while; Ben hopes he feels better. Ben’s stepson needs a medical procedure and he is called out of town for a week; Milton Joe welcomes him home. Milton Joe begins to address Ben as “My dear friend,” and Ben calls him “Buddy.”
It would be sweet if it didn’t reek so badly of deceit.
Throughout these exchanges, it’s the same story. Milton Joe says: send the money. Ben says: I have no money.
Finally, Milton Joe comes up with a solution. They will secure a third-party loan to cover the cost of the Indemnity Bound Certificate. Mr. Luke Anderson will assist.
More e-mails are exchanged. Milton Joe instructs Ben in how to get the loan, his language and logic a bit fractured, and Ben pretends to agree to comply, then makes excuses.
Finally, almost out of the blue, Ben receives a phone call from a man calling himself Johnson Newsom. This guy, allegedly a Nigerian banker, informs Ben that his loan has been approved, and that he can expect to receive the sum of $40,000 within a few days.
A week passes, during which time Ben loses his patience. He sends a series of e-mails to Milton Joe. Why $40,000 when all we need is 2,000 Euros? Why does Johnson refer to this as a loan? What is going on here? He receives no reply.
Ben finally seems to crack, lambasting Milton Joe, “shouting” in all-capital letters: NO CHECK. NO AUTODEPOSIT. NOTHING…THE DIRECTIVES ARE NOT CLEAR AND YOUR PROJECT IS NOW FALLING APART…SORRY JOE DON MILTON .
The following day, just like in the movies, Ben receives the check in the mail.
The check is drawn on a Toronto bank. The name on the account is Energie NB Power, an electric company in New Brunswick, Canada. It is made out to the amount $39,960. and signed by CEO Dan Skaling.
Almost everything about the check turns out to be real—the company, the bank, the name of the bank’s CEO, are all legit. It is, however, a forgery.
Ben figured this out by doing more research on the Internet.
“You should go to the Web site,” he told me two weeks later when we were talking on the telephone. I did so.
The Web site reports that Dan Skaling, the CEO, died on Jan 28—three months before the check bearing his signature was issued.
Ben had opened a new account at a bank on Reservation Road in Marina a few weeks earlier.
Like most banks, the Reservation Road bank puts a nine day hold on checks from out of the area before making funds available. Over the course of these nine days, Ben seemed a mess of contradictions. He says he called the FBI and the Secret Service. He was eager to go the Marina police. But all the while, he was openly hopeful that he might just end up getting to keep the money.
On March 24, another e-mail arrived. It instructed Ben that he was to contact a man “for further briefings and instructions.” The man he was to contact is named Paul Salami.
Ben deduced immediately that Paul Salami might be in some way related to David Paschal Solomon, whom he had been instructed to contact earlier regarding the Indemnity Bound Certificate.
He admits now that the name sounded phony.
“Yeah, sure, Paul Salami,” he says. “A nice Jewish boy from up in the Netherlands.”
Despite his apprehension, on March 24, Ben sent a sincere-sounding e-mail to Mr. “Salami” promising to forward the funds as soon as the check cleared.
On the 31st, he received a reply from Paul Salami that further “informations” would be forthcoming. “Thank you and have a nice day,” the e-mail concludes.
Two weeks later, on April 6, Ben received an e-mail from Paul Salami. It instructed him to send the money to an account at an institution called the Bank of Overseas Chinese, Shylin Branch, Taipei, Taiwan. Ben replied immediately that he would do so.
I am in receipt of your e-mail and understand what to do. I will forward 2800 Euros or equivalent in USD to your account correct? And that is to pay for the Clean source of record to release the rest of the funds correct?
He received this reply:
Johnson Newman gave you a loan value of $39,000 plus, based on my instructions and on request of your local representative, Milton Joe. Therefore, upon confirmation of the above fund in your bank A/C you are required to send $35,000.00 to the bank A/C I gave you. This is the agreement as signed by your representative Milton Joe as I must monitor the use and purpose of the loan.
Please your compliance with this directive will be appreciated.
On that day, the Marina bank released the funds. Ben walked
in and got a cashier’s check for $37,000—leaving $2,000 in a
checking account. He took the $37,000 to his own bank and
I don’t really know what has happened since. I do know that Ben’s new account—the one he opened last month for the sake of this transaction—was frozen. I accompanied him to that bank one day two weeks ago. That account showed a balance of minus $37,000 and change.
I accompanied him to the bank again late last week. He brought with him a check for $22,000, and gave it to the assistant branch manager. She could not credit it to his account, which is frozen, but she gave him a receipt. She apologized to Ben that she would have to turn the problem over to someone else, and explained that she is leaving town for a while because her mother is ill. Ben was sincerely sympathetic, and she was appreciative. “I hope things work out,” she said. “Good luck.”
The rest of the money, he says, is spent. He says he paid some back child support—he says his monthly payments are around $325 and he had fallen a little bit behind. He says he paid someone to build him a Web site for his fledgling business—that cost him around $500.
When I ask him what happened to the rest of the money—certainly more than $10,000—he shrugs evasively.
“I’m going to have to pay it back within a year,” he says. “Ultimately, in the big picture, anyone who does this has to know it’s their ass on the line.
“I know that I’m in a bad place,” he says. “I didn’t intentionally put myself there, but I need to intentionally get myself out of it. I am trying to be as responsible as I can.”
Meanwhile, Ben is focusing on the fact that the bank released the money before the check had actually cleared. “I thought when a bank verified funds, they actually did it,” he says. He sounds, when he speaks of this, as though he has been victimized by the bank’s sloppy bookkeeping.
“In the big picture, these scam artists zero in on a loophole,” he says. “They prey on vulnerability. And greed.”
Ben realizes that he is not out of the woods. He is afraid. At times when we talk, he seems scared that Milton Joe or Johnson Newson or Paul Salami might come after him to get “their” money back. He doesn’t seem to remember that it is not the con artists’ money—it’s the bank’s. When I remind him that it was a forged check, that there really was no money, he gets it.
There is probably some kind of denial at work. Underneath that, there is something like desperation. He really needed this money. Like the rest of us, he gets these e-mails promising that his troubles are over, he can add three inches. Unlike those of us who delete these e-mails ever day, his unrealistic hopes have been rewarded. His financial troubles are over. For now.
In some ways, he understands that far from being a shmo, he has pulled a fast one. “It’s almost like getting a free loan,” he says sheepishly. He seems to understand that he could be in legal trouble for this, but he says the Marina bank is going to give him a chance to make things right.
At any rate, he’s pretty sure the bank’s insurance company will cover the loss. But he promises that he’s going to do what he can to get the rest of the money to the bank.
“I realize that the situation is my problem, and in some ways it’s my fault,” he says.
After the check bounced, Milton Joe’s e-mails persisted. (“What is really happening with you? Are you trying to sit on my money or what?”) Paul Salami called. (“This is Paul Salami. I’ll send you an e-mail. Please go through it carefully and follow my instructions.” ) Johnson Newsom called. (“Hi Mr. Ben, is there a problem?”)
Ben replied to Milton Joe explaining that no money would be sent to the Netherlands or China or wherever because the check had not cleared.
If I sent the check and then it didn’t clear then I would [have] been in debt $40,000…thanks to you Joe Milton…how do you live with yourself?
The last time I saw him, late last week, Ben told me there’s this other guy, in his apartment complex, who was victimized by the same scam. He says a friend of his overheard the guy talking a few weeks ago, and that he has since met him. It was the same story—a Nigerian lawyer contacted the guy, and eventually sent him a bogus check for $35,000. The guy cashed it and spent it and now he’s owes the bank a lot of money.
I am dumbstruck. I say: “What are you talking about? Is this some kind of weird coincidence?”
“Yeah,” he says. “It’s a weird coincidence.”
I want to believe him.