Janella Spears, a registered nurse from Sweet Home, Oregon, said she started sending money to the scammers in 2005 after she received an email promising her several million dollars from a long-lost relative. In what is commonly known as a 419 scam – named after a section of the Nigerian criminal code – the fraudsters randomly contacted Spears over the internet, claiming they would offer her a substantial cut of $20.5m fortune in return for the cash injection which would help move it out of the country.
For Spears, it started, as it almost always does, with an e-mail. It promised $20 million and in this case, the money was supposedly left behind by her grandfather (J.B. Spears), with whom the family had lost contact over the years.
“So that’s what got me to believe it,” she said.
Spears didn’t know how the sender knew J.B. Spears’ name and her relation to him, but her curiosity was peaked.
It turned out to be a lot of money up front, but it started with just $100.The scammers ran Spears through the whole program. They said President Bush and FBI Director “Robert Muller” (their spelling) were in on the deal and needed her help. They sent official-looking documents and certificates from the Bank of Nigeria and even from the United Nations. Her payment was “guaranteed.” Then the amount she would get jumped up to $26.6 million – if she would just send $8,300.
Spears sent the money.
More promises and teases of multi-millions followed, with each one dependent on her sending yet more money. Most of the missives were rife with misspellings. When Spears began to doubt the scam, she got letters from the President of Nigeria, FBI Director Mueller, and President Bush. Terrorists could get the money if she did not help, Bush’s letter said. Spears continued to send funds. All the letters were fake, of course, and she continued to wipe out her husband’s retirement account, mortgaged the house and took a lien out on the family car. Both were already paid for.
For more than two years, Spears sent tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Everyone she knew, including law enforcement officials, her family and bank officials, told her to stop, that it was all a scam. She persisted.
An undercover investigator who worked on the case said greed helped blind Spears to the reality of the situation, which he called the worst example of the scam he’s ever seen.
He also said he has seen people become obsessed with the scam before. They are so desperate to recoup their losses with the big payout, they descend into a vicious cycle of sending money in hopes the false promises will turn out to be real.
Spears said it would take her at least three to four years to dig out of the debt she ran up in pursuit of the non-existent pot of Nigerian gold.