There are countless cyber crimes reported to law enforcement and other government agencies. They include work-at-home, check cashing, lottery and too many others to mention.
A computer is described as a device, electronic or otherwise, that performs high-speed mathematical or logical operations or that assembles, stores, correlates, or otherwise processes information.
The earliest form of computers actually date back to 3500 BC in India, Japan and China. The first recorded "computer crime" occurred in 1820 when Joseph-Marie Jacquard, a French textile manufacturer, invented a device that allowed the repetition of a series of steps in the fabric weaving process. His employees, fearing that their jobs were in jeopardy, sabotaged the new technology.
Computers have come a long way. Unfortunately, cyberspace is now the home to hundreds of Internet crimes that are designed to part innocent people from their money. Most illicit acts are described in the Information Technology Act of 2000 that covers everything from e-mail spoofing to illegal financial scams, pornography, online gambling, forgery, defamation and even cyberstalking.
One of the more popular illicit flim-flams involves romantic letters that eventually become pleas for money.
For this story, I answered one of those letters sent to my company e-mail address. It was one of many transmitted daily by swindlers from all over the world.
This particular one came from "Miss Grace," a self-described "single girl looking for honest and nice person, somebody who care and fear God whom I can partner with."
Her English was terrible, but we played her game for nearly three weeks.
Miss Grace, who also billed herself as "Grace John," claimed to be a 26-year-old West African. She sent a photograph of an attractive young woman with a winning smile.
In the initial Jan. 20 letter she wrote, "I would like to know you more, most especially what you like and what you dislike.
"I am sending you this beautiful mail, with a wish for much happiness," Grace wrote.
My reply was a faux background. "I too am looking for someone. My last wife just died. I've had four of them."
That probably set off the bell at Grace's scam central. A lonely old man. A target!
Grace's Jan. 27 letter was long and personal. In it she relates the story of her father, Dr. Benson John, the "director of project department of gold and diamond," and a successful importer and exporter of cocoa.
"I lost my parent during the war when rebels attacked my house one early morning killing my mother and my father," Grace wrote. "I am 5 feet 7 inches height, fair in complexion with average weight. I am very good at cooking. I love music and I like dancing too."
In another letter Grace called me an "angel" that brightens her day. She wanted my photograph. I declined, and elaborated on my alleged wealth that I said included airplanes and racing cars.
The hook was set.
On Jan. 28 Grace dropped the bomb. Her father, she wrote, left $5.9 million and Grace wants to share it with me. She wants to transfer all that money into my account and all I have to do is send her money for airfare and expenses. She further warns that I must keep the arrangement secret, but first I must contact her bank.
"I hope you will never let me down," Grace says.
She describes her life in a "deportation camp." In later letters Grace says she lives with a "pastor." She won't say how she can use a computer from the camp.
"The bank told me to look for a foreign reliable and honest partner who will assist me in the (money) transfer," Grace writes. "I am glad that God has brought you to see me out of this situation and I promise to be kind and will equally need you in every area of my life."
The bank, she writes, is the Bank of Africa-Senegal. I'm to contact a Mr. Paul Sidibe. She signs the letter, "Always and forever yours, Grace."
On Jan. 30 she pushes me, the faux old and lonely rich man, to provide my personal information to her "bank." I tell her I have more than $5 million in my checking account. That must have caused her and her cronies to salivate.
"You are always on my mind," Grace wrote. She signs her letter, "From my deepest heart, yours forever, Grace."
I told Grace on Feb. 2 that I would not provide the information she requested. On Feb. 3 she asked for money to scan copies of her father's account records. On Feb. 4 she was informed that I was a journalist doing a story on Internet fraud. I asked her a series of questions that received no reply. It was a short lived romance.
Her e-mail is one of many similar ones sent under various names. Consumer Fraud Reporting, a free online site (http://www.consumerfraudreporting.org) that warns of specific types of financial and other cyber crimes, shows an example of a letter from a "Miss Nafisatu John Apollo." It is very similar to Grace's. Maybe they're related? They each have "John" in their name.
Government agencies warn people who receive these kinds of letters to ignore them. They yank at the heartstrings of the old and lonely. Another Web site, www.ic3.gov, is used by law enforcement agencies to track cyber fraud. It is a joint effort between the FBI, the National White Collar Crime Center and the Bureau of Justice Assistance. (IC3 currently has a 6-7 year backlog of cases to investigate - do not expect a speedy answer.)
"If something sounds too good to be true," said Officer Donna Saxer of the Pinellas Park police crime prevention unit, "then it probably is."
ANDREW TAMMAR & MARLON WORTHAM
ED HICKS/ CHARLES HICKS/ CHARLES GREENE
JAMES BRIAN ELLINGTON