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Published by ZDNet UK on May 21, 2002 by Graeme Wearden

South African police have made a breakthrough against organised criminals who spam Internet users in an attempt to defraud them of thousands of pounds
Six people were arrested in South Africa last weekend on suspicion of being involved in the infamous Nigerian email and letter fraud.

Four of those detained were Nigerian, one was Cameroonian, and the sixth was South African. South African police believe that the six people are part of an international fraud and drug-dealing cartel, and have been sending out many thousands of email and letters in an attempt to defraud.

Police seized a large amount of drugs, as well as computer equipment and false identification papers. According to a statement from the South Africa police, officers from the UK's Scotland Yard are involved in the operation. A Metropolitan police spokesman was unable to confirm this, however.

The arrests could mark an important breakthrough in the battle against the international scam, which is thought to have defrauded hundreds of millions of pounds from victims. The fraud is also known as the "West African advanced fee fraud" or the "419 fraud" -- 419 being the relevant section of the Nigerian criminal code.

"The success [of the operation] is no doubt a huge blow to the 4-1-9 industry and evidential of the fact that law enforcement agencies around the globe are determined to deal harshly with the operators of this fraud scam," said the South African police in a statement issued on Sunday 19 May.

Potential victims receive a letter -- or more recently an email -- telling them that the sender is trying to move a very large sum of money and offering them a substantial percentage of the cash in return for letting it be deposited into their bank account.

Often the fraudsters claim that the Nigerian government is paying out this money in return for a completed contract, while other versions claim to involve insurance payouts after aeroplane crashes.

Anyone who expresses an interest is then told that they must first hand over some money to cover expenses such as banking fees and administrative costs. These "advanced fees" often run to thousands of pounds, and there are cases where American victims have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Nigerian government has set up a unit in London to fight the fraud, but many people are still being taken in.

One problem is that many victims don't report that they have been defrauded, either through embarrassment or because they aren't sure who to contact.

Roland Perry, vice chairman of the Internet Crime Forum, said last month that it simply isn't clear which law enforcement body people should contact with cybercrime complaints.

"Where do you go if you get a Nigerian email?" asked Perry. "Do you report it to the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the Metropolitan Police, the Fraud Squad, the National High-Tech Crime Unit or your local police? If you take one of these emails to your local police, what is the chap behind the desk supposed to do with it?"

The Metropolitan Police, in conjunction with the Specialist Crime Operational Command Unit, has set up a Web page containing advice about the West African advanced fee fraud.

If you have fallen victim to the fraud, you are encouraged to contact the Specialist Crime OCU Fraud Squad by email at