A ‘Herbert Nicolas’, who describes himself as managing agent for National Westminster Bank in the UK (NatWest), offered me £2 million (R41 million) to help him defraud the estate of one of his former customers.
Nicolas wrote in an email that he helped a client to invest £4 million (R82 million) in a secret account at a secretive private bank, Reliance Private Bank Limited & Security. Unfortunately, the client died in a car accident before he could reclaim the deposit and a worldwide search could not trace any of his family.
“This is the situation,” says Nicolas in his unsolicited email. “This bank has spent great amounts of money trying to track this man’s family; they have investigated for years and have found no family.
“The investigation has come to an end. My proposal is; I am prepared to place you in a position to instruct Reliance Private Bank Limited & Security Company to release the deposit to you as the closest surviving relation.
“Upon receipt of the deposit, I am prepared to share the money with you in half. That is: I will simply nominate you as the next of kin and have them release the deposit to you.
“We share the proceeds 50/50,” Nicolas proposes.
Okay then …
I agreed – in order to see how his dubious plan would work out.
He then explained that the private bank “has no single idea” of the history or nature of the deposit, but is simply awaiting instructions to release the deposit to any party that comes forward.
“However, I have been communicating with Reliance Private Bank Limited & Security Company and have received their support on how to release the aforesaid fund without any hitch to anyone that will be mentioned by me as the next of kin.
“To that effect, a suitable arrangement has already been made with a Special Envoy here in the United Kingdom to airlift the aforesaid fund as an investment fund to any of your nominated addresses in your country,” I was informed.
“And we have concluded the formalities and the date of departure as well as the date of arrival in your country which shall be made known to you,” said Nicolas in one of his several emails, which he addressed to the Moneyweb mail server.
And there it is …
An elaborate story, nearly 30 emails and several telephone calls from Nicolas, and it turns out to be nothing more than the old advance fee scam.
Nicolas sent me instructions to pay R4 980 to a courier company, Maxline Logistics, which would deliver the suitcase full of money to my door.
Nicolas even sent a picture of the suitcase waiting at OR Tambo.
I would of necessity receive the full £4 million, and we would later split it. Nicolas clearly trusted me with his share.
Maxline Logistics meanwhile sent an invoice and the details of a bank account at Absa.
Inquiries to Absa demonstrated how far South African banks go to safeguard their clients’ money and fight fraud.
Within hours, Absa had investigated the Maxline Logistics account that was waiting to receive my R4 980 and confirmed that transactions made through this account looked suspicious.
“The account was opened following standard procedures as prescribed by regulations, but the transactions do not reflect usual business transactions,” says Ulrich Janse van Rensburg from Absa’s fraud department.
The financial crime team at Absa categorised it as a “mule” account, a term the banking industry apparently borrows from drug smugglers.
Mule accounts are used as a medium to exit funds from the financial banking system through withdrawals or point-of-sale purchases.
“Crime syndicates open bank accounts using third party identities or paying vulnerable people money to open a bank account,” says Janse van Rensburg.
This creates problems for these people when they want to open a bank account for themselves in the future, because banks capture consumer details linked to fraudulent activities, such as mule accounts, on a central industry database hosted by the South African Fraud Prevention Services (SAFPS).
The individual must then go through an elaborate process to provide evidence of not being involved in fraudulent activities before gaining access to financial products.
“Mule accounts are an industry challenge which Absa and the industry take very seriously,” says Janse van Rensburg.
“All know-your-customer [KYC] and Financial Intelligence Centre Act [Fica] procedures are followed alongside internal customer authentication controls to identify the entities opening transaction accounts. Subsequent to this, Absa monitors the accounts to identify fraudulent behaviour.
“Where such behaviour is identified, the bank has a duty to close the account and record information linked to the account to the SAFPS.”
Banks also collaborate to follow the funds and recover any amounts remaining in accounts involved in the committing of fraud.
“The bank will also allocate forensic investigators to further our fight against syndicates where sufficient evidence is available,” adds Janse van Rensburg.
Banks try to recover money, but can only do so when it is still in the banking system – and criminals generally spend the money at a point-of-sale terminal as quickly as possible.
Janse van Rensburg says banks make use of various resources to identify the culprits. Closing suspicious bank accounts gets to criminals as they have to go to the trouble of opening new mule accounts.
“However, it is important that consumers remain vigilant,” he says, noting a few things people should be aware of:
- Never rush into urgent action to transfer funds to meet some deadline.
- Always independently confirm the request with a party you trust.
- Beware of requests to change bank account details received via email, even from known parties. Criminals hack email accounts, find unpaid invoices and proceed to issue invoices with their own bank details. They then ask for payments to the new bank account. It is recommended that you confirm, in person, any change to bank account details with the company you are dealing with.
- Be careful of responding to any email from an unknown and very “friendly” person, such as someone: wanting to deliver a package; informing you that you have inherited money from an unknown relative; offering you lottery winnings; or asking for assistance and information as they intend immigrating to South Africa.
- Be careful of deposit scams, for instance, when you receive an email or find a website with a once-in-a-lifetime offer. Always validate the parties independently. If it is too good to be true, it is usually a scam. Always consider the safest payment process.
- Then there are dating scams. Vulnerable and lonely people might be targeted and charmed via phone and email. Criminals will ask for financial support and assure you that they will pay you back. Always seek advice from someone trustworthy before making payments to someone you met online.
Janse van Rensburg says there are many more scams and that people must be careful whenever they receive an unsolicited email or social media message.
Nicolas and his partners lost their mule account.
“The mule account was confirmed by other banks as fraudulent,” says Janse van Rensburg.
“The standard process will be followed, including a forensic investigation, blacklisting and customer exit.”