419: A Scam Email Confession

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At the time I considered myself a pretty generous guy. I’d flip a coin to the occasional homeless man who had the good fortune to extend his hand in my direction; When asked at a cash register if I wanted to donate one dollar to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, I usually said yes (unless, of course, I’d already donated at that Ralphs). I even, from time to time, took a carload of my broken/obsolete/both electronics to the Goodwill, which I’m sure made some poor family very happy. I imagined they’d make a fort out of my hollowed out TV, or they’d let their kids use my defunct microwave as a pretend Easy Bake Oven. These thoughts made my heart smile. I had a soft spot for the needy, and I made it my mission to help out whenever it was convenient.

There is one encounter, however, that stands out in my mind above all. Something I’ve been needing to get off my chest. This shall serve as my confession.

I’d arrived home from the grocery store in a foul mood. Not only did I wait in a much-longer-than-necessary line, but the checker gave me a dirty look when I said I would not like to donate one dollar to the Make-A-Wish Foundation (I tried to explain to her that I had already donated at that particular Ralphs location, but then I realized she probably didn’t go to college and it might be insensitive of me to think she was capable of processing that information). To make matters worse, the Salvation Army Santa Claus diligently ringing his bell near the entrance gave me a splitting headache. That kind of “in your face” solicitation really gets to me. It had not, thus far, been a good day.

As I prepared myself a cocktail of bottled water (it just tastes better) and ibuprofen, I thumbed through my mail. As I skimmed past the standard assortment of bills and credit card offers, I came across some delightful address labels that had been prepared and personalized just for me. If I liked the address labels, I was free to keep them, but in return they requested a small donation be made to the American Cancer Society. I’d heard of these kinds of scams before, and there was really no way to guarantee the money would ever make its way to any Americans with cancer. You’d have to get up pretty early in the morning to fool me. I decided, however, that it would be a shame to waste the truly charming address labels, so I kept them and considered it a victory for victims of scam artists everywhere.

Next, I fired up my laptop, cruised over to freerice.com, a website where you can play basic word games and for each right answer, the organization in question will donate 10 grains of rice to a village in need. As I’ve stated before, I’m very generous. By the end of my session, I’d donated 60 grains of rice. Some of the questions were harder than you’d expect. When I got bored of increasing my vocabulary, I loaded up my Hotmail, eager to peruse my various social networking notifications and check the status of the Energy Star rebate I’d sent in like three months ago (sometimes it’s like, “That’s what I get for trying to help the environment!”). Sandwiched between the series of emails inviting me to join a sustainable food initiative (what, so you can send me more emails?) and the emails reminding me that my Peace Corps application from two years ago was still 25% complete, I saw this:

Dear Mr. Sir,

It is with good fortunes that my message reaches you. My name is President Yusef Saraki of Nigeria. The Nigerian government has been overturned. I am presently under house arrest and my assets have been frozen by the new regime. I fear they will soon kill me, and I cannot bear the thought of my childrens’ future being taken by these wicked dogs. I need to transfer a total sum of US $60M to an offshore non-resident bank account.

In order for me to do so, I need you to sign a document as “next to kin” and pay $200 a day to ensure my safety until the funds can be wire-transferred to your account. To avoid any interruption, dear Sir, I must require a small advancement fee (approximately 30 days worth) until the wire transfer is completed.

Upon completion of the wire transfer to you, I will find a way to escape Nigeria and move to Korea with my family, at which time you will be entitled to 10%, or $6 million, for your troubles. As this is a life or death matter the entire transaction must be completed within two weeks. You must never tell anyone of this transaction, as it is a matter of national security. I have attached a copy of the Bilateral Agreement between myself and the Securities Investor Protection Corporation in Johannesburg, South Africa.

It is with great distress that I ask for your salvation! May God guide us in our transaction.

Your faithful friend,
Yusef Saraki
President of Nigeria

My heart sank. How and why was I being drawn into an international crisis, and why was I responsible for the life of a man far important than I, whom I’ve never met? Was Yusef Saraki really the President of Nigeria? How would I even begin to verify that? His word would have to be good enough for me. That said, I did initially approach the email with skepticism, but once I was sure that the attachment was definitely not a computer virus (that was the LAST thing I needed), I looked over his document. It checked out. And by checked out, I mean he said it was a Bilateral Agreement, and there at the top of the document, plain as day, were the words “Bilateral Agreement”. Who was I to doubt the legitimacy of international protocol!

My mind began to race. He’d promised me six million dollars! I imagined myself six million dollars richer, attending fancy parties and never again needing to reuse the plastic bottles that housed my Crystal Light. But at what cost?! For weeks I would be responsible for the life of a man whom I might never meet, and my only contribution to his survival would be in monetary form. Was I ready for that kind of responsibility?

I thought about a lot of things, but mostly I just thought about the six million dollars. That was a lot of money. With that kind of money, I wouldn’t have a reason to say no to the Make-A-Wish Foundation (though I could imagine burning through my dollars pretty quickly, so maybe it was best to stick to the original plan; one donation per Ralphs location). I thought of the Nigerian president, furiously typing a message on his iPhone 6S (maybe a 6S+?), beaming it out into cyberspace and hoping desperately that someone found his proverbial message in a bottle. Why me? I had so many questions. The six million dollars would be in one lump sum, right? Would it be taxed? To distract myself, I began looking at 4K TVs on BestBuy.com (oh man, I’d probably even be able to pop for the extended warranty) and imagined how my apartment would look with a wall-sized fish tank in the area that once divided the kitchen and living room.

As my mind danced around the various scenarios for spending my six million dollars, I thought about the process that would lead to my eventual windfall. Honestly, it all sounded like a lot of work. Assuming Saraki was still alive (the email was a couple days old), would he be able to get to a bank and deposit the check into my account without a hitch? And he was asking for a good deal of money up front. $200 a day. Steep! Would he also reimburse that $200 a day in addition to the six million dollars? Was I supposed to write him a thank you note? Also, was I getting a good deal? I mean a 90/10 split didn’t exactly seem like a fair trade when I could technically keep all of it (once it was in my account, it was MY money). I wouldn’t do that, because I’m a pretty generous guy (I crushed it on freerice.com), but something along the lines of 60/40 would definitely sweeten the deal. Would I have to make any international phone calls? Those can get pretty expensive. Once I had the six million dollars (or twenty-four million, depending on whether or not Saraki was a cheapskate) I guess it really wouldn’t matter, but my head began to swirl when I thought about how inconvenient several steps in this process would probably be.

I began to resent Saraki for his imposition. Wasn’t the UN supposed to handle things like this? Though I’d always heard they were pretty corrupt, I figured there were professionals who were far more equipped to deal with international crises than I. But then they’d get their greedy paws on my six million dollars, and that didn’t sit well with me at all. Besides, I’d already added the flat screen (with that sweet extended warranty) to my cart, so it was as good as a done deal. Or did I want TWO flat screens? I couldn’t wait to talk about those at all my fancy parties.

But was it worth the trouble? If Saraki decided to low-ball me and stick with the six million dollar figure, and if that six million dollars were to be taxed, we’d probably be talking more like five million dollars. I couldn’t imagine myself feeling financially secure with only five million dollars. Saraki and his ungrateful kids would be living it up in Korea  while I’d be sitting at home watching my ONE flat screen TV (without the extended warranty, thanks to the deposed miser). In a sense he’d also be doing a disservice to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, because I certainly wouldn’t be willing to part with too many dollar bills with only five million dollars to my name. What made him pick Korea anyway? If I had 54 million buckaroos I’d go to Hawaii or something. Space, maybe.

I decided to sleep on it.

The next morning I awoke and my decision was made. I deleted the President of Nigeria’s email. “God speed, Yusef Saraki,” I thought to myself. Still wanting to feel as though I’d done something worthwhile, I headed back to freerice.com (I even have it bookmarked) and played until I got bored.

For the next several days, I checked my email often, hoping to receive word from Yusef that he’d found a suitable intermediary with which to secure his escape, and I wondered if maybe he’d attach some pictures of his trip to Korea. I’d never been to Asia, but I assumed it would be nice.

That email never came.

I can only assume that Saraki and his entire family were killed by the rebels, and that the new government of Nigeria had sixty million dollars with which to re-establish the rule of law in the war torn country. I thought about looking him up to see if there was some word regarding his status, or if he had gotten out, a forwarding address. Maybe I’d send him a letter. After all, I did have a bunch of fancy new address labels! I never found one, and never sent him anything. I often thought of him with regret and a little twinge of sadness, however anytime those thoughts crept into my brain, I loaded up freerice.com and immediately felt better. Those villages must just be lousy with rice.

I still think of the Sarakis from time to time. If they’d made it Korea, I hoped they’d found a new life there. I also wondered whether or not Korean BBQ was better in Korea than it was here, but I knew that was a ridiculous question. Of course it was. Mostly, as I stared at the blank, flat-screen-less walls and my nonexistent giant fish tank, I thought about how much I would have liked to have had six million dollars. I’ll always regret passing that up.

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