My e-mail inbox regularly yields interesting messages. The latest prompted me to write this piece. It relates to an old scam which some of you may have heard of but which is clearly still going. Potential victims receive requests promising huge cash rewards in return for a small up-front investment. The correspondence is carefully addressed and personalised, often to small companies but also to individuals. It most cases it has the appearance of an official missive and may claim to be from a foreign government body or large company. It may look harmless, even friendly, but the reality is an international scam that could be costing Britain up to £150m a year in lost 'investments'. The initial cash and the promised payout never materialise and the contact details for your new "friend" prove useless. The '419' and how it works The scam, which started in Nigeria, is known as the '419 Advanced Fee Fraud' after the section of the Nigerian penal code which covers the crime. A typical letter or e-mail works like this: Your new 'friend' or 'potential business partner' will claim to be in possession of a large amount of over-budgeted money (up to US$50 million has been quoted), that they want to get out of their country. A reason such as tax avoidance is given as the reason for the transfer and you will be offered 20-35% commission for the use of your bank account. If you are interested, you are asked to forward some paperwork which generally includes signed, blank company letterheads, blank invoices, telephone and fax numbers, and bank account details so as to enable the money to be transferred to your account. The money is then obtained from you in a number of ways. This may be through an 'expenses payment' or 'initial fee' to cover tax or show good faith. Alternatively, money can be removed from your account using fake letters made with the documentation you have provided. In extreme cases, you may be invited to meet your new contacts in Nigeria where your passport is held until a 'fee' is paid. Obviously, behaviour of this kind is a criminal offence. So what is being done? The National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) has seized around one and a half million letters relating to the advanced fee fraud. But the better we get at cracking down on this in the UK, the more the fraudsters change their tactics. NCIS has seen letters now being sent via other countries or in bulk to the UK for domestic posting. There is also a move to e-mail which makes the spread of the scams harder to track and control. NCIS is working with shocked victims, many of whom have handed over thousands of pounds. But the real extent of the scam's success is hard to estimate as many victims are too embarrassed to come forward and admit they were duped. You may find it hard to believe that people actually respond to such letters but the problem is so great that police forces across Britain have established special units to deal with the scam. In July 2001, British businessman Josef Raca was freed from a week-long kidnap ordeal that began when he flew to South Africa to meet his 'partners' in what turned out to be a '419 scam'. Mr Raca was held at gunpoint, while his captors threatened to cut off his ears and kneecap him if he failed to give them the Pin numbers for his credit cards. The kidnappers were eventually caught after Mr Raca's family alerted the police. Although the Nigerian Government is working with NCIS, it has little sympathy for victims of the scam. Nigerian High Commissioner Bola Ajibola said the people falling for the scam were as culpable as the fraudsters: "It is unfortunate that we have some of these gullible people who can easily get targeted with the idea of a lot of money somewhere," he said. "I think it is not only stupid for people to do that but they are what we call "criminous (sic)participants", they are also criminals themselves." What to do if you are on the receiving end Duncan McKelvie of NCIS offers the following advice: "If you receive one of these letters or emails, do not reply, as the criminals may use your letterhead for other frauds. Instead, forward them to NCIS, PO Box 8000, London SE11 5EN or forward them to email: email@example.com."