If you're like most people who get letters out of the blue promising wealth in exchange for just a little help, you wonder, "Who falls for this stuff?"
Would you believe: An expert on gullibility. A successful businessman. And everyone else who's gotten duped into contributing to a $41 billion international fraud.
Maybe even you.
A mail scam targeted a Menlo Park woman this holiday season, but she didn't bite. She discovered an odd letter stuffed into her mailbox amidst the usual stream of ads, bills, and holiday cards. Sent via airmail, the letter claimed to be from a British attorney trying to track down the heirs to the $15.1 million estate of a man who, coincidentally, shared the same last name as the Menlo Park woman.
Signed "Barrister Derrick Dobi," the letter asked only for personal information, not money.
"I was waiting for that," said the resident, who opted for calling the Sheriff's Office instead of taking the bait. She asked to remain anonymous in this story.
That letter was the first step of an old-fashioned scam called advance fee fraud. Dangling the hope of gaining a fortune, the scammer coaxes his target into delivering money or valuable data like bank account numbers.
Following the trail
Contacted by the Menlo Park woman, The Almanac decided to investigate Mr. Dobi. An online search turned up three law firm websites that appeared legitimate at first, but used the exact same biographies, accompanied by different photos and names for the lawyers, on all three sites:
Even the typos were identical. Each British "lawyer" had a "wongorable discharge" from the Chinese military, and claimed to be listed in the non-existent directory, "U.K. Super Lawyers."
All three websites are registered to a "Kim Jong Sung" of South Korea. That name was linked to other alleged frauds reported online, including a fake bank website.
Curious as to Mr. Dobi's next step, the Almanac created a Gmail address under a fake name, and wrote to him, claiming to have received a letter about an equally fake relative. Within two days Mr. Dobi replied, spinning a tale about an international oil merchant who died in 2002 alongside his wife and children.
"This is a deal I'm offering you and I want you to know that it requires only a matured mind to understand all I am saying and I believe you are matured enough which is the reason I am going further," Mr. Dobi wrote our faux persona.
He suggested splitting the estate — and transaction expenses — fifty-fifty.
"I have these documents to show to you as proof but I cannot release them for your perusal now due to security reasons until I have attained your confidence."
The letter closed with a plea to call as soon as possible. Time was of the essence, of course, since "some members of the company are currently planning to divert his fund for their selfish interest."
However, once asked to provide that proof and to explain the possible expenses, Mr. Dobi stopped being a pen pal.
On Dec. 22, The Almanac called the London phone number given as the law firm's contact. No professional greeting or directory guide answered the call, just a man's voice saying, "Hello?" and then hanging up when we identified ourselves as the press and asked for Derrick Dobi. E-mails went unanswered.
Tracing the phone number led to a call forwarding service. "Give your clients the impression that you are based in Central London," urged an online ad for a business selling these virtual numbers.
All three fake law firm websites were deleted without explanation on Dec. 29.
Two county fraud experts, Inspector Tom Paulin and Deputy District Attorney John Wilson, said they haven't received reports from other local residents, and encouraged anyone who gets a similar letter to report it to the district attorney's office.
But this type of inheritance scam has been around probably since the dawn of man. Oscar Hartzell made a fortune during the 1800s by pretending to represent the estate of Sir Francis Drake, ripping off at least 100,000 people, according to author Richard Rayner in "Drake's Fortune: The Fabulous True Story of the World's Greatest Confidence Man."
Why does it persist? Profit. Ultrascan AGI, an investigative agency in the Netherlands specializing in online fraud, estimated $41 billion have been taken by similar schemes to date.
Even experts fall for a good hustle. Dr. Stephen Greenspan, a developmental psychologist who studies gullibility, lost hundreds of thousands of dollars to Bernie Madoff's multibillion dollar Ponzi scheme.
Regarding scams like advance fee fraud, he warned, "The minute you contact them, you're at risk."
Dr. Greenspan published a book called "The Annals of Gullibility" to explore who falls for deception and why. Ironically, two days after the book came out, the psychologist learned Mr. Madoff had stolen his money via a feeder fund that managed his investment.
"I'd like to think I learned something," he said. "Truly naive, gullible people never learn."
He recently consulted on a case similar to the one in Menlo Park, except this time the victim bit. A successful businessman struggling financially received a letter about a deceased relative in England who left an estate worth $12 million.
"For some reason it's always England, probably because we're impressed by all things British," said Dr. Greenspan. "Once the victim developed a relationship with them, it was $1,000 here, $5,000 there, and eventually he was in for $40,000."
The businessman refused to advance any more funds for an estate now said to be worth $120 million, but relented after being told an investor was willing to lend the $2 million for taxes owed on the inheritance. In the end, he transferred money to a bank account in Asia after the scammers managed to deposit a fake check with his own bank, which didn't verify the check.
"There's gullibility on the part of the victim, and also stupidity on the part of the bank," Dr. Greenspan said. "Obviously greed enters into it, financial need, perhaps people getting excited about the opportunity."
Other factors include naivete and blind trust, but there's no such thing as a person who can't be scammed, according to Dr. Greenspan. "Everybody's vulnerable in certain situations. Everybody."