Fake Inheritance (“419”) Documents and Emails

Inheritance Scam 419 DNA

Advance fee scams, “419” scams, inheritance scams — they’re all the same.

Who hasn’t received spam mail from Nigeria by now? Who doesn’t know about inheritance scams?

These days, they primarily come from Gmail addresses or from lesser known email warehouses. Hotmail and Yahoo were the email addresses of choice in previous decades. Once upon a time the signatory claimed to be this or that Nigerian prince. Or some political dissident who was hiding from the authorities. The odds are that you are already familiar with these sorts of emails. They’re inheritance scams. Another term you’ll see is “419 scams,” because they violate section 419 of the Nigerian penal code.

An alternate narrative begins with some sob story about someone, often someone who shares your own last name. He died suddenly in a traffic accident or unexpectedly dropped dead from a heart attack. He has no living relatives. But he (much less so she) left a huge fortune – typically expressed in both numbers and letters and containing capitalization and/or grammatical errors. For example, the text might read “15,000,000.00 (fifteen million) U.S. Dollars.”

Unfortunately, the money cannot be transferred out of Nigeria (or wherever) due to local restrictions. The supposed lawyer handling the estate, therefore, says he’s searching for a cooperative partner abroad. Someone who will agree to deposit the funds in his or her own foreign bank account and then split the proceeds with the attorney. As if this would be legal if it were actually true.

There Are Many Variations on the Theme 

There are endless variations on the theme. One involves a hermit on some isolated coast who finds a strongbox full of money. Unfortunately, he can’t do anything with it because there is no mail delivery where he lives. So he needs to find someone abroad to deposit it in his own bank. (How a hermit is able to communicate his discovery via email to the outside world is left to your imagination.)

Another version informs you about a missionary somewhere in the middle of a civil war. The man of God is holding a large amount of cash he received from his supporters abroad that was meant for refugee relief. The poor man hunkered down alone in a safe house in the middle of a raging battle. He desperately needs to find someone to deposit the funds safely abroad. The list of these outlandish stories goes on and on. Just use your imagination.

What Happens if You Respond to Inheritance Scams?

What if you respond to any one of these seemingly desperate pleas? Very quickly, the purported attorney, or someone else who says he’s working with him on the case, will call.  He’ll most likely tell you that he’ll need you to send him some money to cover administrative costs. After all, he has to make arrangements to set the transfer into motion. And he has no authority to siphon off any cash from the “15,000,000.00 (fifteen million) U.S. Dollars” (or whatever) for that purpose. This is why these sorts of ploys are also known as “advance-fee scams.”

If you send the money, you may never hear from the scammer again. If you do, he’ll just ask for more. He’ll tell you that he underestimated the costs or that the money was stolen. There actually are cases on file in which the scammers forged letters from the president of Nigeria, the president of the U.S. and the director of the FBI, warning that failure to continue to fork over money will result in some global catastrophe.

There have also been cases in which innocent victims of the scam were lured into traveling to Nigeria or some other distant place. They agreed to do so to receive their “15,000,000.00 (fifteen million) U.S. Dollars” (or whatever), or so they thought. Instead, they were kidnapped and held for ransom. The perpetrators of inheritance scams are ruthless, not just a nuisance.

Inheritance Scams Can Also Be Sophisticated

Not all inheritance scams are written in poor English, and not all of them arrive by email. Some are very sophisticated and some succeed. The FBI reported that Americans had lost a total of $92 million on inheritance scams by 2018.

In June 2019 a middle aged senior manager in Singapore received a fax from someone in London who identified himself as a “solicitor” (the term used in England and Wales for an attorney-at-law). The “solicitor” claimed to represent someone who died without next-of-kin and told the Singapore resident that he could inherit the funds if he were to add his name to the deceased’s will. The two spoke on the phone and the Singaporean decided he’d have nothing to lose by taking the solicitor up on the offer. But he did have something to lose. At first the sum was $7,400, which he was told was a tax payment. Then another payment followed by yet another. By the time the victim realized what was going on he had transferred approximately $1 million to the scammer, the largest loss ever reported to police in Singapore as the result of an inheritance scam.

In 2020 a Los Angeles lawyer received a similar fax sent by someone who claimed to be an attorney with a venerable Canadian law firm that traces itself back to 1863. He even used the name of a real attorney at that real law firm, set up a spoofed website of that real law firm and used an email address that was crafted to look almost like the real McCoy. But the Californian suspected it was a scam and contacted the real lawyer at the real firm. The real lawyer was by then already aware that his name was being used in a scam and soon after was able to have the spoofed website taken down.

How to Respond

The FBI recommends that American citizens forward these scammers’ emails to a number of different federal agencies. The first is the U.S. Secret Service. (Apart from protecting the president and other political leaders, the Secret Service is also responsible for investigating counterfeit U.S. currency, bank and financial institution fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, illicit financing, and major conspiracies.) In addition, send a copy to the Federal Trade Commission’s Complaint Assistant or to the closest FBI regional office. In the event the scam arrived by letter and not by email, send a complaint as well to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

Residents of other countries should contact their own local law enforcement agencies.

Reporting Inheritance Scams Can Produce Results

There are cases, in fact, when the operators of inheritance scams actually are caught and sent to prison.

In March 2020, for example, a Nigerian citizen was sentenced by a South African court to 15 years in prison for scamming a South African couple out of an undisclosed amount of money. The scammer had claimed to be a representative of HSBC Bank in London who was responsible for locating missing heirs of a deceased client on behalf of a legitimate genealogy company that actually does locate missing heirs. Using forged documents to convince them that they were indeed related, he convinced the South African couple that they stood to inherit the deceased’s funds. The couple transferred money to him and even sent him their passports.

The scammer, however, made one fatal mistake. He later decided to fly to Dubai via Johannesburg, where he was to have switched planes. He was picked up instead at the Johannesburg airport by South African police, who were able to identify him because he had provided the couple with his company registration documents and his bank account number.

If you think you’ve been the victim of an inheritance scam, contact the fund recovery experts at MyChargeBack.