Amsterdam is the centre of Nigerian spam network

By Dick Wittenberg

South-east Amsterdam is the centre of a worldwide network of Nigerian con artists. They promise you money, lots of it, via email. Those who take the bait, could end up in a fake branch of the ABN Amro bank.

The Netherlands is the centre of Nigerian scam operations and Amsterdam is its headquarters. Nigerian fraudsters regard the Netherlands as a safe haven. The police are seen as soft and, moreover, south-east Amsterdam is home to a close-knit African community making it easy to go to ground. It is also conveniently near to Schiphol airport.

At a seminar organised by the Centre of Information and Research on Organised Crime in Amsterdam this week, Yvette Schoenmakers, a police academy criminologist, presented the preliminary results of research on Nigerian criminal networks in the Netherlands. This was carried out in conjunction with the research firm Beke which advises on criminal policy.

The research is based on 34 in-depth interviews with experts, police officers and informants from the Nigerian community in the Netherlands as well as information from the Dutch police intelligence data bank.

Huge fortunes promised

“Congratulations, you have won first prize in the Spanish lottery,” reads a typical email sent out by the thousand to computers worldwide. Or “I am the widow of Nigeria’s ex-president Sani Abacha. Could you help me withdraw 6.6 million dollars from a Swiss bank account?” Another version reads: “I am a Lebanese businessman suffering from cancer. I have assets of 2.3 billion dollars but I am a dying man and I want to give it all to charities. But I am no longer able to do this by myself”.

All these messages promise their recipients huge fortunes. But before they receive anything, they must put up a deposit variously described as “administrative costs”, “transfer fees” or “an investment”. Police have dubbed it the activities the “419 scam”, after the article in Nigerian law that deals with fraud.

According to Schoenmakers, the first Nigerian swindlers started using the Netherlands as a base back in 1990. The police were unaware of what was going on because the scam was not directed at Dutch citizens. Most of the victims were foreigners, often American, some of whom lost thousands or even hundreds of thousands of euros.

Social network

But when the number of fraud cases started soaring in 2000 and foreign police forces started complaining, the Dutch police had to act.

It is not known how many Nigerians in the Netherlands are involved in the fraud. Over the last years, the police have arrested 121 people on suspicion of fraud, nearly all Nigerian men and nearly all illegal.

The Nigerians involved in the scams don’t work in organised groups, says Schoenmakers. They have a large social network and they only involve Dutch people occasionally.

False sense of security

Typically, the so-called 419 fraud starts with an email. A respondent is then lured into a false sense of security by means of false documents such as bank statements or a letter from the central bank. The next stage sees the victim either transferring a sum of money or handing it over personally.

He is then invited to Amsterdam for the weekend with all expenses paid by the swindlers. Once here, he is led to what he believes is a branch of the ABN Amro bank where he is welcomed by a trustworthy-looking Dutch receptionist. It is not until it is too late that the victim catches on to what has happened.

How much money is involved in the Dutch-based scam is unknown, says Schoenmakers, although police figures from 2005 suggest that foreign victims may have lost a combined 22 million euros. But the real damage could be at least ten times that, she says.

The victims of the fraud come from all over the world but the biggest group (22 percent) lives in the US with Britain coming second with 6 percent. But peoples from Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran have also been duped. “This is an international problem which needs an international solution,” says Schoenmakers.

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