Nigerian Victims of Advance Fee Fraud for 2007
The Nigerian scam that cost a family $1.5m
06/07 - (Australia) Steven Baker was nobody's fool. A straight-talking truck driver from Newcastle, he was an honest, hard-working and street smart bloke who would go to great lengths to help a mate.
But as he sat in the Brisbane police headquarters media room yesterday, with hands shaking, voice hoarse and eyes moist, he must have wondered what had gone wrong along the way.
Was it stupidity or greed that saw Mr.. Baker and his family were fleeced of $1.5 million by a startlingly elaborate version of a Nigerian 419 money scam?
It was a question he had probably asked himself many times over since his life started to unravel a year ago.
Over 18 months, Mr.. Baker was progressively lured into a swindle covering three different European countries and sucked into a whirlwind of African political intrigue and fake diplomatic officialdom.
"It was just unreal the way they had it all set up," Mr.. Baker said. "You just didn't know that they were basically playing with you."
Play with him, the swindlers did, and the consequences were devastating.
It began with a simple attempt to help a friend, who was a single mother of five children - one of whom was physically and mentally disabled.
The friend was told about an advertisement in a local newspaper that named her and said her absent father, who had English military ties, needed to get in contact.
A barrage of emails from "solicitors" based in Spain told the woman she stood to inherit more than $4 million that had been smuggled out of the troubled African nation of Liberia.
Mr.. Baker was initially skeptical of the contact's authenticity but, after some research, he and four other family members agreed to help their friend.
In return, they would get half of the "inheritance".
Mr.. Baker accompanied his friend to Europe to collect the money from a "security agency".
The initial upfront sum was $15,000, which he handed over after seeing proof of the cash.
"They took us to a vault, they showed us a very large trunk that had the money in it," he said.
"It was probably one of the scariest moments I think I've ever felt.
"It felt like walking into a morgue - it was cold, it was eerie, and I don't know whether it was meant to be intimidating or not.
"There were a lot of black men, big men in suits, it felt like you were walking into a mafia room."
Mr.. Baker was then asked for a further $45,000 to sort out "transfer and tax problems" with the cash.
During the next 18 months and three separate trips, he met various "government officials" in Spain, Italy and Amsterdam.
The pair visited numerous government offices, complete with armed guards, swipe cards and diplomatic paraphernalia.
A young man even stayed with them for a few days, alleging he was the refugee son of a military general who had fled Liberia during the collapse of the ruling dictatorship, led by Charles Taylor.
The money never came through.
"Every time we'd done what they wanted they came up with something else to the point where there was just nothing left," he said.
At some point, Mr.. Baker said he knew something was wrong, but his pride and a false sense of hope kept him searching.
"By the time we'd paid 100,000 euros, they'd supply certificates and then it was more money to clear records.
"Once we'd gone so far it's hard to turn back. All the money had come from family you know, so it made it very difficult to turn away.
"You had to keep going and they kept pulling your strings the whole time."
When the Baker family's money began to dry up in Italy, the situation turned nasty.
Mr.. Baker started challenging his contacts about when the cash would come through and a number of heated arguments ensued between him and the African "diplomat".
Events took a dramatic turn when Milanese police turned up and ordered the pair into hiding.
In a remarkable twist, Scotland Yard had been tipped off about an apparent kidnapping and death threat against the Australians in Italy.
Soon afterwards, Mr.. Baker gave up and returned to Australia for the last time, bitterly disappointed, ashamed and still reluctant to admit he had been conned.
"It was very hard to come home, to see what had happened," he told reporters, shaking and holding back tears.
"It hurt the whole family and they just had to face what had happened. That was hard."
At least a year went by when Mr.. Baker struggled with the guilt and shame of what he felt he had made his family endure and, ultimately, lose.
He did not think local police would help if international police forces hadn't and a fruitless approach to the government here convinced him justice was out of reach.
It was only when the Novocastrian saw a recent 60 Minutes story on Nigerian scams that he asked one last time for help.
Queensland Police's computer crime investigation squad had a taskforce on 419 scams established for months.
Their investigations with Mr.. Baker eventually resulted in the arrest of a man in Amsterdam who is now serving a jail sentence.
However, Mr.. Baker is unlikely to ever see his money returned and he expects to spend the rest of his life paying off debts to friends, former colleagues and banks.
He moved to Redcliffe recently, seeking a fresh start after a nightmare two years that also saw him divorce his wife.
Asked if greed or pride had played any part in his ordeal, Mr.. Baker was honest.
"Of course, the money was real, we'd seen it, that was the whole thing," he admitted.
"It was helping out a friend and we stood to gain something as well.
"We weren't going to gain millions or anything like that but it would have made things a lot easier."
However, head of QPS's taskforce, Detective Superintendent Brian Hay, was adamant Mr.. Baker was a victim above all else.
"They saw an opportunity, he thought he was helping out a friend and he's suffered the price for it," he said.
"It was through good will and an earnest appreciation of an opportunity." Detective Superintendent Hay said no one was safe from these scammers.
"People take what they see and they read it on face value and if you walk into government buildings, why wouldn't you believe it was legitimate," he said pointedly.
"It's very courageous of Mr. Baker to come forward because most people don't want to tell us their story.
"They're embarrassed, they've lost everything, they're humiliated, they feel foolish and there would be no doubt that people would accuse them of being greedy or stupid.
"These aren't greedy people, they're victims. They fell victim to very astute, elaborate, well-resourced cons."
Mr. Baker's family was waiting for him at the back of the room when the interviews were over.
They had lost a home, a lifetime's savings and two years of life to the con artists.
Yet you were left with the impression that despite his guilt and embarrassment, Mr.. Baker was just glad they still had each other.