We’ve all had the phone calls and emails from someone in Nigeria who wanted help getting money out of the country. The scam sounded like easy money, which I knew never happened. But Jim Upright was desperate for money, especially easy money, in 1995 when the scam first appeared. A Florida good old boy in his fifties, fast-talking, smiling, successful, he also had the gift of being a serial liar. I don’t think he knew the difference between lies and truth. Like many con men, he just said whatever advanced his cause at the time. While the names have been changed to protect the innocent and guilty, this is Jim’s true story.
Jim, a boat builder in Port Canaveral, walked from his office to the front desk and asked his secretary, Mary, “Have you heard anything about Nigerian money before?”
“No. Should I?”
“I received a most interesting fax from a man in Nigeria. Look at this.” He handed Mary a single page of fax paper.
“PRIVATE BUSINESS PROPOSAL.
Dr. Idris Musa
No. 16 Kingsway Road
30th March, 1995.
First I must solicit your confidence in this transaction.This is by virtue of its nature as being utterly confidential and top secret. We are top officials of the Federal Government Contract Review Panel who are interested in importation of goods into our country with funds which are presently trapped in Nigeria. To commence this business we solicit your assistance to enable us RECEIVE the said trapped funds ABROAD.
"Boss, this looks like a scam to me," Mary said.
The source of this fund is as follows: During the regime of our late head of state, Gen. Sani Abacha, the government officials set up companies and awarded themselves contracts which were grossly over-invoiced in various Ministries. The NEW CIVILIAN Government set up a Contract Review Panel (C.R.P) and we have identified a lot of inflated contract funds which are presently floating in the Central Bank of Nigeria (C.B.N).
However, due to our position as civil servants and members of this panel, we cannot acquire this money in our names. I have, therefore been delegated as a matter of trust by my colleagues of the panel to look for an Overseas partner INTO whose ACCOUNT the sum of US$31,000,000.00 (Thirty-one Million United States Dollars) WILL BE PAID BY TELEGRAPHIC TRANSFER. Hence we are writing you this letter. We have agreed to share the money thus:
70% for us (the officials)
20% for the FOREIGN PARTNER (you)
10% to be used in settling taxation and all local and foreign expenses.
It is from this 70% that we wish to commence the importation business.
Mary rolled her eyes.
Please note that this transaction is 100% safe and we hope THAT THE FUNDS CAN ARRIVE YOUR ACCOUNT in latest ten (10) banking days from the date of receipt of the following information by TEL/FAX: 234-1-7747907: A SUITABLE NAME AND BANK ACCOUNT INTO WHICH THE FUNDS CAN BE PAID. PLEASE ENDEAVOUR TO RESPOND BY TELEPHONE OR FAX.
Please acknowledge receipt of this letter using the above Tel/Fax number. I will bring you into the complete picture of this pending project when I have heard from you.
DR. IDRIS MUSA
“What do you think of that?” Jim asked.
“Are you serious?”
“Why not? Look at that. $31,000,000 at 20% is uh.”
“$6,200,000,” Mary said.
“Right. Just think. If this pans out, I can get out of my jam with refinancing these buildings. I think the bank is going to call the loan.”
"Yes, that would help your bank problems. Do you think its for real?”
“Maybe. Find out how to fax back to Nigeria.”
Jim faxed Dr. Musa indicating a willingness to assist with his problem. The next day another fax came in. Dr. Musa was pleased to hear from Jim and asked for a show of his sincerity. Would he be so kind as to send five pairs of Nike tennis shoes?
Jim went straight to Walmart and bought Nikes. Mary mailed them to Africa, shaking her head. Jim waited anxiously two weeks before Dr. Musa faxed another letter thanking him for the gift. Preparations for the deal were proceeding but moving the money was dangerous. Would Jim be so kind as to send another gift to prove his willingness to help move this large transaction? Maybe a Rolex watch? No problem for Jim. He had a friend at the Port who sold him a knock off for $50. Off to Africa went the watch.
Jim became antsy waiting for the deal. Mary saw the desperation grow on his face every day. A week later another fax arrived. Final preparations for the transaction were almost complete, but Dr. Musa was still nervous about trusting a stranger. Please send one more item. A large screen TV. Hmmm. Okay. Back down to Walmart to buy a TV and then to the Port to make arrangements with a shipping company to send hopefully the last item to Dr. Musa, along with a bank account number in the Cayman Islands.
Mary watched in awe of Jim’s greed. No way this could be real.
After another week of anticipation, Jim received the next fax. Dr. Musa appreciated the account information, but there was an unexpected delay in Nigeria. Unfortunately, it seemed that new government regulations made it impossible for Nigerians to export large sums of funds to overseas accounts. However, legitimate foreign businessmen, in this case Jim as a partner, could make such transactions if he presented appropriate credentials in person to the Central Bank of Nigeria in the capital of Abuja. Therefore, the obvious solution would be for Jim to fly to Abuja and join Dr. Musa at the bank to close the transaction and exchange of bank account information for the fund transfer. He could taste the money like honey. This deal was almost over.
“Mary, I need a round plane ticket to Abuja, Nigeria. Sometime this week. Get busy.”
“Are you sure you want to go to Nigeria?”
“This deal is almost done. I can taste it.”
Four days later and after several phone calls to Dr. Musa, Jim began a brutal 22-hour flight from Orlando to Dulles to Istanbul, Turkey to Abuja. He was too nervous to sleep. $31,000,000; he'd never had that much money in his account. He wondered how long he could keep it before transferring 80% to his partner’s account. How much interest could he make each day on $31,000,000? How would he get $6,200,000 back into the States without paying income taxes? He couldn’t make numerous flights back and forth to Grand Cayman taking $9000 at a time. But he did frequently ship boats to the Caribbean. Jim would take one of his fishing boats to Grand Cayman, hide the money in a secret compartment, and motor back. Maybe five days for the whole trip. Then he would pay off the bank loan on his building and be in hog heaven.
Conditions in Istanbul’s airport were difficult. He walked at least a mile for plane transfers. He didn’t even know what he ate in the restaurants and it was old and hard. He anticipated conditions were worse in Nigeria, but he would put up with anything for $31,000,000.
Finally, the plane landed in Abuja and pulled up to the terminal. When the door opened, two policemen entered the plane and checked the passenger's passports. Sweat rolled off Jim’s face. His heart pounded. He hoped Dr. Musa had made arrangements to clear him through customs. However, when they looked at Jim’s passport, they frowned and told him, in Nigerian, to stay seated. Though he didn’t understand their language, he understood their rifles and gestures. Stay seated. When the rest of the passengers and crew deboarded, the police left and closed the airplane door.
The electricity and air conditioning shut down, which became a problem. Extreme African heat outside the plane created oven-like temperatures inside the plane. Panic crept up on Jim. What would they do to him? Visions of a vile third-world prison crept into his head. When would they let him off the plane? Would Dr. Musa come to his rescue? Surely this was a misunderstanding that would be cleared up. He paced up and down the aisle, picking through the galley for warm water and unknown snacks. Six hours later, he realized that the deal had gone south. He would not see Dr. Musa, much less any easy money. The temperature rose inside the plane, creating a horrible stench from the unventilated restrooms. Sweat poured off his body. Jim’s adrenaline level receded, and exhaustion set in. On a chair, he drifted in and out of consciousness, too worried for real sleep. What would they do to him? Who could he call for help? Would they let him call the American Embassy? He only had a few hundred dollars, not enough for a decent bribe. Waiting for the unknown was tortuous. Would they let him return home? More pacing. Jim’s misery level grew. Eighteen hours after landing, workers refueled the plane and made flight preparations on the ground. Good. He wanted to leave this God-forsaken place.
After twenty-two hours the electricity came on and the doors opened. The two policemen returned and leered at him while they stood by the door to make sure he stayed aboard. Passengers filed aboard and stewardesses made flight preparations. With all the travelers seated, the police left and closed the door. When the wheels left the ground, Jim’s exuberation to be returning home outweighed the loss of money. But his tribulations were not over. Rearranging his flights in Istanbul without speaking the language proved most difficult and expensive. Thank goodness for credit cards. Two days later, he landed in Orlando, frumpled, exhausted, and heartbroken. He wasn’t used to being on the receiving end of a scam. He was usually the coner, not the conee. Hopefully he could find a better deal next time.