Letter made an offer businessman could refuse

January 30, 1998


Staff Writer

Jim Elliott received a letter this week that contained an offer seemingly too good to be true: Allow $25.5 million to be transferred into his bank account and keep 35 percent.

Elliott, who owns Tri-State Energy in Hagerstown, said he received the letter at work on Wednesday. He said he was immediately suspicious because the envelope looked like a brown paper bag. Upon further inspection, he noticed a Nigeria postmark.

The hand-written envelope was addressed to the president/CEO of Tri-State Energy. At first, Elliott said he feared the letter might contain a bomb.


"The first thing I thought about was Judge (John) Corderman," said Elliott, of the then-Washington County Circuit Court judge who was injured by a mail bomb in 1989.

Elliott, 56, who spent 24 years in the military, said he was trained to deal with explosives. After opening the letter, he discovered there was no bomb, but the letter inside was strange.

Claiming to be from members of the Contract Review Committee of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp., it stated that Elliott has been selected to receive money that arose from over-invoicing of supplies and oil drilling works contracts.

All he had to do, according to the letter, was allow the Nigerian firm to deposit $25.5 million from the Central Bank of Nigeria into his account and receive 35 percent of the sum as compensation.

"Obviously, I'm not stupid enough to give them my bank account number," Elliott said Thursday. "The first time I saw it, I knew something was wrong."

FBI Special Agent Barry O'Neill said the scam is a common one run by Nigerians over the last three or four years. He said FBI officials in the past two years have received about 50 such letters - in several variations - from people all over the state who had received them.

The plan is to lure a company or individual into providing an account number for the stated purpose of depositing the funds. In some versions of the letter, Nigerian citizens tell Americans they are seeking a safe haven for cash taken from corrupt government officials, O'Neill said.

The amounts and particulars vary, but the objective is the same: Get a bank account number and then withdraw the money from it.

O'Neill said he has not heard of anyone actually taking the bait.

"It's so obvious that you'd have to be so greedy it's ridiculous," O'Neill said.

The letter states that Elliott was picked after "satisfactory information" about him was gathered from an international business directory.

The letter urges confidentiality and urges the recipient not to go through the international telephone operator or AT&T when calling to make arrangements.

While he was in the military, Elliott said he traveled to 51 countries. Nigeria was not one of them, so he was surprised when he got the letter.

O'Neill said authorities have not detected a pattern. He said companies ranging from "CPAs to small businesses to big businesses" have been targeted.

As for enforcement, O'Neill said the FBI keeps track of the letters but is otherwise powerless.

"We have no authority to go into Nigeria. We have no jurisdiction," he said.

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