Lured by the promise of payoffs of more than dollars 18m ( pounds 11.8m), dozens of businesses are thought to have provided the crooks with details of their bank accounts and sensitive company documents, and paid fees and 'taxes' of up to six- figure sums.
Fraud squad officers have been compiling details of the Nigerian 'advanced fee fraud' for four years, but they are worried about a sharp increase in activity over the past month. In the past two weeks, a huge mailshot from Lagos has been targeted at businesses across Britain.
The letters usually say a mutual friend has recommended the businessman. One standard letter fraudulently purports to be from 'the chief accountant in the audit department of the federal accounts office'. Another claims to be from 'the head of the stock management of Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation'. A third is from 'members of the Technical Committee for Privatisation and Commercialisation (TCPC)'.
The stories they tell differ slightly but have one thing in common: each admits to creaming off money from the state and says the thieves are in desperate need of a foreign bank account in which to deposit the cash.
One, from a Dr F O Rufai of the TCPC, says he and his colleagues were given the task of selling off all government- held shares in loss-making companies. It continues: 'During this exercise, a substantial amount of money was realised, part of which we did not remit into the government's purse for the obvious reason of transferring it overseas into a foreign bank account for onward disbursement amongst ourselves.'
The problem, the letter says, is that government officials are not allowed to open foreign bank accounts. 'We are now . . . soliciting your assistance for the use of your bank account facility into which we can transfer this money, for which we are offering you an unconditional 20 per cent of the total sum.'
Det Insp David Crinnion of the Metropolitan and City Police company fraud department, has collected hundreds of the letters and is liaising with officers in Nigeria.
'It seems inconceivable that anyone would believe they could seriously be given millions of dollars for doing nothing, but some people are falling for it,' Det Insp Crinnion said.
'At first there seems no risk because the Nigerians don't ask for money, but they do ask for a signed blank company letterhead, a signed blank company invoice and full details of your bank account. Once they have these, they can perpetrate a number of crimes.'
The signed letters have been used to ask banks to transfer funds into the thieves' bank accounts, and the blank invoices are reproduced and submitted to companies as bills for goods or services. Some simply pay up.
'Dr Rufai of the TCPC', architect of a dollars 42.6m 'theft', could not be contacted by the Independent on Sunday; but an assistant, calling himself Abdul Karrif, spoke freely when I posed as a recipient of one of his letters.
He repeated the story that he and his colleagues had taken the money 'for a rainy day' and claimed that he had sent only one letter - to me - after using a government dossier to establish that I was a trustworthy person. As predicted by Det Insp Crinnion, he asked for company documents and bank details. He said he would prefer to use an existing account rather than one opened specially for the purpose.
He explained: 'We were involved in a committee set up by the federal government . . . and mandated to sell off government shares. But we were not making enough returns and so we realised a lot of money, part of which we set aside for what you could call a rainy day.
'We intended asking you to set up a foreign bank account and for this you get 20 per cent of dollars 42.6m.'
Asked whether his scheme amounted to theft from the Nigerian people - in the unlikely event that the funds existed - Mr Karrif replied: 'It was to have been invested for Nigerian people. And I'm Nigerian.'
Noone at the Nigerian embassy in London was available for comment.Reuse content