Published June 17. 2012 4:00AM
Every time I get a scam email asking if I want to share in some offshore windfall, usually a cut of some big pot of millions of dollars, I am struck by how gullible some people must be.
After all, I get these emails by the dozens, so there must be an endless torrent of them landing in email inboxes all over the world.
And no monumental effort of that size would be sustained if it wasn't producing some income.
People fall for this stuff.
"By instinct I am convinced you are an honest person and you have the capacity to handle this transaction with me," wrote one of these scammers, who was offering to share with me $3.2 million left to her when her parents were poisoned by "heartless people" during a political crisis in their county. She was a young schoolchild when it happened.
She needs my help, apparently, to get the money out of the country.
A banker in the Ivory Coast actually offered to let me in on a theft he was planning, converting some $6 million in a bank account opened by the son of Muammar Gaddafi.
It seems he would put the account in my name. I would move the money to my U.S. bank and then he could come over here and we would share it.
OK. I confess. I started a file of these letters late last year, and it's grown pretty fat. Some are surprisingly heartfelt and sad and strangely engaging.
Picture, for instance, the 63-year-old gentleman dying of "cancer of the blood," with just months left to live, no longer able to walk, and worried that someone might not be around to ensure that his $10.2 million is distributed to charity.
He just wants me to become the beneficiary on his account and promise that a lot of the money will be used to fund orphanages, churches and widows. I get to keep 20 percent for my trouble.
After poking through my file of scam emails recently, I did some research and discovered these are actually part of a specific genre of scams. They are known as Nigerian scams, named for the country where they began.
They are also known as 419 scams, a nod to the specific code of Nigerian law that they violate.
Evidently, these scams have been big business in Nigeria and other African countries, and scammers spend hours in specially shielded Internet cafés where they craft their clever appeals.
If only all that creative energy could be directed toward developing, say, the next iPhone.
For others like me who are fascinated by the clever fiction of all these scams, there is actually a website, 419eater.com, that gives tips on how to play with the scammers.
Naturally, there is advice about not sending money, not identifying yourself and never meeting.
But short of that, the website suggests a sort of cat-and-mouse game in which you might draw the scammer out, show interest, engage in email correspondence, and maybe even get the scammer to send money your way.
I don't think I'll go that far.
Instead, I can occasionally peruse my file and marvel at all the good storytelling.
Some of these scammers are better at it than Senate hopeful Linda McMahon, who only wants to draw you in with her promise of a middle class tax cut.
At first, I thought the scammers were only after a number for a bank account, which they would proceed to drain. But I gather that instead, they ask for money to be sent to pay fees, bribes, etc. Once you start to send money you are hopelessly hooked.
"I am 59 years old and was diagnosed with cancer about two years ago, immediately after the death of my husband, who has left me everything he worked for," wrote one woman, who said she was going to be operated on within the hour.
Quick, though, before going under the knife, she wanted to will some of her $3 million to me, so that I could do good work after her death.
I would, too, if she sends me the money.
This is the opinion of David Collins.