SWEET HOME, Ore. – Janella Spears doesn’t think she’s a sucker or an easy mark.
Besides her work as a registered nurse, Spears – no relation to the well-known pop star – also teaches CPR and is a reverend who has married many couples. She also communicates with lightning-fast sign language with her hearing-impaired husband.
So how did this otherwise lucid, intelligent woman end up sending nearly half a million dollars to a bunch of con artists running what has to be one of the best-known Internet scams in the world?
Spears fell victim to the "Nigerian scam," which is familiar to almost anyone who has ever had an e-mail account.
The e-mail pitch is familiar to most people by now: a long-lost relative or desperate government official in a war-torn country needs to shuffle some funds around, say $10 million or $20 million, and if you could just help them out for a bit, you get to keep 10 (or 20 or 30) percent for your trouble.
All you need to do is send X-amount of dollars to pay some fees and all that cash will suddenly land in your checking account, putting you on Easy Street. By the way, please send the funds though an untraceable wire service.
By this time, not many people will fall for such an outrageous pitch, and the scam is very well-known. But it persists, and for a reason: every now and then, it works.
For Spears, it started, as it almost always does, with an e-mail. It promised $20 million and in this case, the money was supposedly left behind by her grandfather (J.B. Spears), with whom the family had lost contact over the years.
"So that's what got me to believe it," she said.
Spears didn't know how the sender knew J.B. Spears' name and her relation to him, but her curiosity was piqued.
It turned out to be a lot of money up front, but it started with just $100.
The scammers ran Spears through the whole program. They said President Bush and FBI Director "Robert Muller" (their spelling) were in on the deal and needed her help.
They sent official-looking documents and certificates from the Bank of Nigeria and even from the United Nations. Her payment was "guaranteed."
Then the amount she would get jumped up to $26.6 million – if she would just send $8,300. Spears sent the money.
More promises and teases of multi-millions followed, with each one dependent on her sending yet more money. Most of the missives were rife with misspellings.
When Spears began to doubt the scam, she got letters from the President of Nigeria, FBI Director Mueller, and President Bush. Terrorists could get the money if she did not help, Bush’s letter said. Spears continued to send funds. All the letters were fake, of course.
She wiped out her husband’s retirement account, mortgaged the house and took a lien out on the family car. Both were already paid for.
For more than two years, Spears sent tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Everyone she knew, including law enforcement officials, her family and bank officials, told her to stop, that it was all a scam. She persisted.
Spears said she kept sending money because the scammers kept telling her that the next payment would be the last one, that the big money was inbound. Spears said she became obsessed with getting paid.
An undercover investigator who worked on the case said greed helped blind Spears to the reality of the situation, which he called the worst example of the scam he’s ever seen.
He also said he has seen people become obsessed with the scam before. They are so desperate to recoup their losses with the big payout, they descend into a vicious cycle of sending money in hopes the false promises will turn out to be real.
Now, Spears has gone public with her story as a warning to others not to fall victim.
She hopes her story will warn others to listen to reason and avoid going down the dark tunnel of obsession that ended up costing her so much.
Spears said it would take her at least three to four years to dig out of the debt she ran up in pursuit of the non-existent pot of Nigerian gold.
We came across this story while attending a conference on financial crimes in Eugene. State attorneys for the Oregon Department of Justice were using this case as a teaching tool, with the name of the victim redacted. I was astonished, as many of you are, that someone could lose $400,000 in a Nigerian scam. These are the type of emails we all routinely get in our inbox, if our spam filter doesn’t catch them first. I inquired with the state attorneys about whether this victim would be interested in talking with me. To my surprise, she agreed.
I went to Sweet Home with a high level of skepticism. What I found was a normal, middle-class home near an elementary school, a deaf husband trying to fix his phone so that it would vibrate instead of ring, and his wife, Janella Spears, trying to get their grandkids to calm down so we could do a television interview.
Investigators with the Oregon Department of Justice initially discovered Spears when they were investigating a different money laundering case. While looking at Western Union money transfers, they noticed someone had wired $144,000 to Nigeria over the course of three short weeks. It got their attention. They honed in on Spears, and did a full “money bust” at her home. After scouring her house, looking at all her financials, talking with local bank representatives and otherwise doing a complete investigation, the detectives concluded she was a true victim. Remember, investigators also had hundreds of emails to go through, revealing her correspondence with the Nigerian scammers and their creative stories aimed at bleeding money from her. Spears was never charged, and I have to go on the investigators’ judgment for that. For good measure, they’ve warned Spears that if she sends any more money to Nigeria, they will charge her with a crime. She admits it may be the only real deterrent for her, as fixing this became somewhat of an obsession.
Whether or not you believe her, Spears claims she wanted the money so she could help others in need.
The Nigerian scammers look for people like Janella Spears. Most of us have the sense to hit delete. But what about that older relative who has email, but is gullible or easily confused? Obviously, the scam works. That’s why it continues.
Thanks to all of you who have commented.