A look at who’s behind the scams

For the past several weeks I’ve been writing about different scams. Most involve computers (Internet or e-mail), while some involve good old snail mail and/or the telephone. This week, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at who is behind these crimes.

 Most of us should be familiar with the Nigerian brand of scamming by now. The Nigerian scammers generally like to cook up an e-mail about being an attorney for some deceased wealthy client and he needs to get his client’s $10 million dollars to a next of kin. You’ll do because you have the same last name, but first, you need to pay the “International money transfer tax” or some such garbage.

Oh, but wait: While you’re talking to Barrister Mowgli about getting your $40 million inheritance from long lost uncle Mbobofobodufu Smith, you get an e-mail from the widow of the Late Royal Head and Chairman of the OMPADEC, who desperately needs your help getting her deceased husband’s $15 million U.S. dollars in oil money out of Nigeria. She will gladly pay you 20 percent for your assistance!

I find it hard to believe that these scams are still profitable, but apparently they are. I think the people involved in these scams are small groups or individuals, some probably with very minimal education and loosely organized, likely operating out of the local Internet café in downtown Lagos. This doesn’t mean they are harmless, however. One scam letter I saw demands that the potential victim pay $40,000 to cancel their impending assassination: “Your death has been paid for by someone you offended sometime ago and it will be adviceable that you co-operate with us.”

While I seriously doubt that the threat in this e-mail was credible, I have heard a handful of stories (at least one personally related to me by a U.S. Secret Service Agent) of Nigerian scammers convincing people to come to Nigeria, where they are promptly kidnapped for ransom and occasionally murdered.  This doesn’t surprise me, and it’s not at all far-fetched. You can look up plenty of news stories about the hundreds of people kidnapped for ransom in Nigeria in the past few years alone. Many of these victims were children and some were murdered.  Most of the victims have been foreigners and lately the kidnappers’ favorite targets are petroleum company workers, who now have to travel with armed military escorts. The situation is so bad that Shell and Chevron have been forced to significantly cut their production in Nigeria. Nigeria is an extremely corrupt, dangerous country full of desperate people who are trapped in poverty.  

 The lottery scams, which I briefly touched on, predominately originate in Canada. I have heard of a couple of arrests but nothing more than a token few. When I dealt with a local victim who lost $3,000 to one of these scams a few years ago, I called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to find out what the scoop was. I learned that the scams were rampant in Canada and at that time, were generally operated out of short-term rented rooms called “boiler rooms” where scammers set up temporary call centers, moving on before law enforcement could catch up to them.  Now these scammers are apparently operating mainly with stolen or untraceable prepaid cell phones. I can’t find much information about who is running these scams, just a few scattered news releases about one, two or three people at a time getting arrested. The Canadian authorities have a centralized reporting system for lottery scams, but I was told its focus was more of a clearinghouse for statistics, than investigative.

 A big problem here in the United States has to do with identity theft, facilitated by mail thieves.  I have worked cases involving mail theft wherein methamphetamine users (cops call them “Tweakers”) steal mail, usually from rural mailboxes or urban cluster boxes. They look for checks, credit card offers or personal information that can be used to steal your identity — and your money. These tweaking, mail stealing, identity thieves usually seem to operate in small groups. They are usually not very smart and are prone to breaking more laws than you ever knew existed — in the time it takes to grill a cheese sandwich, thereby drawing the attention of law enforcement upon themselves in short order. The result is that their crime sprees are generally short-lived and not excessively profitable.

One gaggle of tweaking crooks we arrested locally, a few years ago, had a carload of stolen mail from the Albuquerque area. They had credit cards, credit card applications, books of checks and fake I.Ds in the making (for cashing the stolen checks). The car was full of merchandise that had been bought at large retail stores using the checks and credit cards. Also, the usual assortment of drugs and paraphernalia was found. Two out of the four had warrants, and, oh yeah, the car was stolen, too. Turns out, it was the second car they had stolen in the past few days. They had planned on getting out of Albuquerque and making their home in our quaint little Pagosa Springs. They lasted about 10 minutes here before getting arrested. There’s something to be said for living in a small town where something that just ain’t right sticks out like a sore thumb!

 On the other end of the spectrum, there are larger groups of well-organized criminals who are seemingly untouchable and who are operating very profitable enterprises. Top among these groups is the “Russian Business Network” or RBN for short. The RBN is a shadowy cybersyndicate that reportedly deals in everything from phishing to identity stealing malware to child porn. RBN offers the infrastructure in which cybercrime needs to operate. Reportedly headquartered in St. Petersburg Russia, the RBN is the mysterious, underground haven for every type of cybercrime. The top criminal mastermind behind the organization is known only as “Flyman,” and rumored to be the nephew of a high-ranking politician in Russia. This may be the reason why authorities in Russia seem to turn a blind eye to the RBN. Other members of this league of super cyber-villains go by handles such as Zoomer, Corpse and Smash. Sounds like characters from a comic book, don’t they?  But these villains are for real and they are definitely a threat to you if you own a computer.

 RBN reportedly facilitates every kind of Internet crime by providing hosting services for phishing Web sites, child pornography and huge scale spamming. Reports vary, but RBN is said to be home to 50-60 percent of phishing scams. RBN offers “bulletproof” hosting — resistant to being shut down by authorities.

Recently, RBN has been tied to several sites on the Internet that offer fake antivirus programs and a “free scan” of your computer. The software actually scans your computer for personal information, account numbers, passwords and transmits this information back to criminals, who either use or sell your information. 

RBN is also responsible for DOS (Denial of Service) attacks on other countries. It has been widely reported that RBN was responsible for DOS attacks on a massive scale against the country of Estonia in 2007 when they planned on taking down a statue of a Soviet Hero. RBN also hacked into government and media computers, in another DOS attack, on the country of Georgia in August 2008. It kind of makes you think twice about the Bruce Willis movie, “Live Free or Die Hard.”

In the movie, cyber-terrorists systematically shut down the United States computer infrastructure. They crash the stock market, communications, transportation and utilities. Doesn’t seem too far-fetched now does it? Hopefully Detective John McClane will be around to save us.

 Next time, we will take a closer look at lottery and work-at-home scams.