With 80 percent of Americans online, the internet has become the cityscape of the twenty-first century, and with it the good, the bad, and the unsavory. Criminals, in increasing numbers, are flocking to the online world as a new source of opportunity crime, the modern version of the pickpocket, praying on those less tech savvy. With the majority of Americans still somewhat befuddled by computer security, internet crime is a lucrative business.
However, in the world of con-artists and the conned, few stories stand out like that of Janella Spears.
Virtually all internet users have at one time or another received a desperate, if somewhat grammatically flawed plea from the "President of Nigeria" or possibly a banker in Bosnia. The story varies slightly -- a long lost relative or government official in a war torn country needs your help, but the ends are always the same -- they need your account information to wire money into it, or they need you to wire money to them before they supposedly send you a bigger payday.
While most delete these malicious missives, Mrs. Spears fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Mrs. Spears insists, though that she's no easy mark -- she's an active registered nurse, CPR trainer, and reverend who has married many couples. She's even fluent in sign-language, which she uses to communicate with her husband.
Mrs. Spears, though, lost nearly $400,000 USD to the "Nigeria scam" . When she received the first email, she read that she could receive $20M USD that had belonged to her grandfather. She insists she would not have believed it, if not for the fact that she had lost track with her grandfather over the years. She states, "So that's what got me to believe it."
The party asked her to send $100 and she complied. Then they said there were problems, and they needed more money, but she might get more. They worked up elaborate stories about how President Bush and FBI Director "Robert Muller" were in on the plans. They sent her "official" documents and certificates from the Bank of Nigeria and even from the United Nations.
The scammers instructed Mrs. Spears to send $8,300 more, telling her that her reward would rise to $26.6M USD. She complied. Many letters followed, each promising more money than the last -- if she would only send a bit more money. And every time she complied. Many of the letters were rife with typos, and yet she continued to send in the money, in a case of obsession fueled by greed.
Over the course of the scam she received letters from the President of Nigeria, FBI Director Mueller, and President Bush. They gave her dire warnings -- if she didn't continue sending the money, it could fall into terrorist hands. Of course, all the letters were entirely fake.
In the end, Mrs. Spears wiped her husband's bank account dry, mortgaged the house they owned, and took out a lien on their car to finance the payments. Despite pleas from law enforcement officials, her family and bank officials who told her it was a scam, she sent tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments over the course of two years. In the end she had lost $400,000 USD, virtually everything she had.
She says it was the perpetual promise that the next payment would lead to the final payoff that kept her going. It became an obsession.
A seasoned undercover investigator who worked on the case says that Mrs. Spears was blinded by greed. He says the scam was the worst he's ever seen. However, he says he's seen others, driven by greed, fall victim to the scam, hoping against common sense for a big payoff.
As for Mrs. Spears, she went public with her story, as she says it serves as a warning to others. However, in the end, like most outrageous crime stories, it could have been easily prevented if people exercise a bit more common sense.