At this point we should all be pretty accustomed to emails from people in far-away lands begging us for help with some sort of cryptic financial problem. They generally want help transferring vast sums of money from one bank to another and in exchange for your help, they promise to give you a generous cut.

All they need to get started is a bit of your cash.

This is the scam of our times, and countless Americans have fallen victim to it.

Recently, a MainStreet editor received one of these solicitations. This one from a potentially generous alleged foreigner we will start by calling Mr. S. J. And while our response would normally be to trash the email and alert the spam filter, we’ve decided that in the interest of financial journalism (and a bit of fun) we would respond to our would-be benefactor. It is our hope that these emails will better inform the public as to how these scams generally proceed, though we advise anyone receiving one of these emails to dump it immediately, and under no circumstances should you engage the sender in any type of communication. Got it? No circumstances.

It all started with The Pitch:

From: S** J******* (***********
Sent: Friday, January 30, 2009 1:40 PM
To: undisclosed-recipients
Subject: My interest to partner with you.
Importance: HighMy interest to partner with you.Reply to: ****@gmail.comI am S.J., I wish to bring to your notice my interest to partner with you on this great business opportunity that involves the transfer of fund from Hong Kong to your country. I shall furnish you with more details about this operation.

Kind Regards,
Mr. S.J.
E-mail: ****

The Pitch Analysis: OK, So it seems that this person is not a native English speaker, though we’re a bit surprised to find that he is supposedly from Hong Kong. We’re used to seeing these emails come from a deposed Nigerian oil minister, or from somewhere else in Africa. Then, however, we noticed that the return email address in the email header was different from the one included in the body of the email. The email was sent from the domain, which evidently belongs to the Secretariat of Economic Development of the Brazilian city of Itajai. So maybe our scammer is Brazilian?

We decided to create a pseudonym and opened a Gmail account for the sole purpose of emailing this person. We responded with the following:

from    MainStreet Mark  <***>
to    S** J******* (****
date    Fri, Jan 30, 2009 at 2:10 PM
subject    Re:My interest to partner with you.Mr. S. J.:I'm not sure how you got my email address, but I doubt I'd be able to help you transfer funds. I don't have much experience with things like that. Thanks very much for your letter, though, and I wish you good luck. It sounds exciting.Best,

MainStreet Mark

We kept the initial response simple and completely unassuming. We wanted to frame ourselves as the perfect mark. It seems to have worked and we got a response.

The Follow Up:

from    J******S** <****>
to    MainStreet Mark  <***>
date    Sat, Jan 31, 2009 at 5:41 AM
subject    how and why i contacted youDearThank you for your response. Communication via the internet it is very hard to trust these days because of activities of some internet miscreants, so you may not know what to believe and what not to. But I would say that your interest to assist me was rather unspecific following the sentence contained in your reply. You seem to doubt the authenticity of my proposal which I do not find strange because of the means by which I have contacted you, please accept my apologies for this.  The easy access to the internet and the safety of it as regards the confidentiality that this project demands are the reasons I have to resort to this medium of communication. Actually I got your contact from Hong Kong commerce and Industry, during my discrete online search through a web based directory while searching for a foreign partner to execute this project together. This is all individual and business contacts are kept. Please do not be offended with the manner I contacted you. It was necessitated by the urgency and nature of this transaction.I have nursed this Idea since we heard of the death of our customer, and the circumstances surrounding his deposit. I will furnish you with details in the second email I will send in a moment.Regards

S. J.

The Follow Up Analysis: The first thing we love about this response is that he reversed his first and last name. Excellent. The second interesting detail is that he created a new email address. This one is from a Yahoo account based in Hong Kong. Perhaps he’s trying to cover his Brazilian roots?

Finally, you’ll notice that the body of his email appears to be a form letter geared towards people who accuse him of being a scammer. Now we need to put his/her mind at ease. We believe you!

Our Reply:

from    MainStreet Mark  <***>
to    ***********
date    Mon, Feb 2, 2009 at 3:21 PM
subject    Re: how and why i contacted you

Mr. S.J.:
It's not that I doubt your authenticity, it's just that I don't really understand very much about financial matters. You seem to be in a difficult situation, though I'm afraid I don't understand exactly what the problem is. I'm sure that if I could help you, I would, but I don't know what I could do. And I'm sorry to hear about the death of your customer. Was he ill? What is your idea?
Good luck,
MainStreet Mark

Continued in Part II ...