Wednesday, 22. May 2024

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Internet Fraud: Death of an unknown „Relative“

Time and again my clients – and sometimes even I myself – receive an email from someone who pretends to be an attorney, bank employee or official from a foreign government, stating that a close relative with your name died and left millions of dollars (or whatever the currency may be) in an abandoned bank account. The money is yours for the asking, you just have to come and collect it. With the help of the person writing to you, of course.

As a general rule, this is an (attempted) internet fraud.

1. How the scheme works

The scheme usually works as follows: As soon as you indicate that you´re interested in collecting your „inheritance“, you are quickly confronted with some claims and requests: In order to get a hold of the inherited money, you are told that you have to present certain certificates, for instance an Inheritance Certificate, an Affidavit of Claim, a Change of Ownership Certificate, a Fund Release Form, an Anti Money Laundering Certificate or even an Anti Terrorism something. Your contact person is happy to provide you with all those documents – you just have to pay a couple of thousand euros or dollars in advance.

Needless to say that you will never see that money again, nor your multi million dollar inheritance. …

2. How do you protect yourself against or how do you recognize such a fraud scheme?

As a rule, once you take a closer look you will find a number of signs that will indicate that you are about to fall victim to an internet fraud. Let me single out some of them:

a) The email address of the attorney or bank employee that contacted you looks suspicious. There may be an attorney‘s office with the same name at the given location. You can also find their website on the internet, and that website even looks decent. However, that law firm´s correct email address is different from the email address from which you have been contacted. It is highly unusual that a law firm with a proper website will contact you via Outlook or Gmail.

b) The email address of the bank with which you communicate and/or to which you are asked to send your payments, is also suspicious. Again, this bank may exist and may even have a branch at the given address, but the correct address of that bank office is not or something like that. Therefore, it is fair to assume that the emails you received were in fact not from that bank.

c) Another strong indicator of fraud is that you are asked to transfer money to a private person‘s account. Bank accounts of foreign banks or government agencies are not in the name of an individual employee. It‘s the same as in Germany. If you‘re supposed to pay money to a court or the German tax office, then the account is in the name of the institution and not an individual person. So if you‘re supposed to transfer money to the account of an individual person, it is fair to assume that this person is the scammer or the scammer‘s dummy.

d) The letters purported to be from the US Department of the Treasury for instance, contain a number of linguistic or grammatical errors and mistakes. To be true, there may be typos in government letters sometimes, but not that many and usually no grammatical mistakes. So if you receive such a writing, even if it displays impressive seals and stamps, you should assume that it is not from a government agency but rather the product of a criminal.

e) The whole deal does not sound legitimate. If you were really entitled to an inheritance, then why should your contact person receive a share of, say 45 % of it? No decent attorney would do that. And if you absolutely can´t remember ever having had a rich relative in the United States, then you probably don‘t have one from whom you could inherit a couple of million dollars, sorry.

f) It makes no sense that you are required to present all those documents listed above. Of course, there are laws against money laundering; and if you deposit a large amount of money, banks do want to know if the money comes from a legitimate source. But as for the source of the money that you have allegedly inherited, how are you supposed to prove its origin? Therefore, it makes no sense that you are asked to submit such (fictitious) documents. And apart from that, the fees that you are required to pay our horrendously excessive.

g) Another unusual circumstance is if the fees are presented to you one at a time, in increasing amounts. The reason for this is that the scammer wants to see if you are ready to pay. And if yes, they will then increase their demands step-by-step. …

3. And what can you do if you fell into the trap?

a) If you have not paid yet, then just don‘t do it and walk away from it. Or at least consult and attorney first. That should not cost too much.

b) And if you have paid already: Usually you don‘t know where the money is right now. Maybe it is still in the account to which you have made the payment. Most likely, however, the scammer has already withdrawn or transferred it to another account.  The bank will not give you any information.

c) In order to get further information, you must contact law enforcement. The police or the public prosecutor‘s office in Germany can cooperate for instance with law enforcement in the United States, where they can try and identify the scammer through his or her email address or bank account. So your best option is to contact an attorney and to file a criminal complaint.

d) At the end of the criminal investigation, your attorney will get access to the records of that investigation in Germany. Then you can see what the police and the prosecutor‘s office have found out.

e) Depending on the results of the criminal investigation, you may have a chance to recover your money. If the perpetrator is domiciled in Germany, you may consider suing them in civil court. If the perpetrator is domiciled in the United States, things are more difficult but not completely hopeless. On the other hand, if the scammer is somewhere in Africa, Asia or another remote place on earth, I‘m sorry to tell you that your chances of recovering the money are slim or nonexistent.

Dr. Wolfgang Gottwald
Rechtsanwalt/Attorney at Law

Attorney at Law

Leopoldstraße 51
80802 München

Tel.: 089/383 293-10
Fax: 089/383 293-13