Reagan psychologist 'lost up to $3m in internet scam'

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Louis Gottschalk, a prominent American psychologist and neuroscientist who earned world renown after studying the mental degeneration of the former president Ronald Reagan, has lost millions of dollars to a Nigerian internet scam, according to court papers filed in California by his son.

Dr Gottschalk was first hooked by the fraud more than 10 years ago, the suit said, and even travelled to Nigeria and Amsterdam for meetings with the shadowy figures involved, including one called "The General". Over a 10-year period, it alleged, he may have given away as much as $3m (about £1.7m).

"While it seems unlikely, even ludicrous, that a highly educated doctor like him would fall prey to such an obvious con, that is exactly what happened," a lawyer for the son wrote in court papers. Guy Gottschalk is asking the court to remove his father as the administrator of the family's $8m estate.

The scams, named 419s after the Nigerian statute that outlaws fraud, are familiar to most internet users. Usually they begin with an e-mail sent to millions of would-be victims from Nigeria, pleading for help in getting huge fortunes out of the country and in to a foreign bank account. The recipients are offered a slice of the cash if they help, but first they must wire money to cover alleged fees. They never see the money again.

Experts in internet crime say only a tiny percentage of people are duped by these phony appeals. But those who are always end up losing whatever they give away. Today, common variants include e-mails suggesting recipients have won some obscure foreign lottery and others declaring that they are beneficiaries of a grant trust set up under the name of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

Dr Gottschalk is 89 years old and still works at the University of California, Irvine, in a medical plaza that bears his and his wife's names. He shot to fame in 1987 when he revealed results of his own studies suggesting, for the first time, that President Reagan had begun losing his mental faculties as early as 1980.

It was about a year after he first got sucked into the scheme and had already made his foreign trips that Dr Gottschalk first told his family he had lost about $300,000. The FBI concluded he had been the victim of fraud. In his own statements to the court, Dr Gottschalk now says he may have lost $900,000 through "bad investments". He adds: "I realise that I was taken advantage of."

Family members assert that Dr Gottschalk promised several years ago never to make the same mistake again but that he nonetheless continued his contacts with the Nigerians, wiring them additional sums even up until last autumn. Guy told the court that his only motive in filing the suit is "to prevent Louis Gottschalk from continuing to be victimised by these devious Nigerian scams".

Dr Gottschalk has not commented on his son's legal action. But he and his lawyer accuse Guy in court papers of carrying on a "vendetta" against his father. A hearing has been set for 14 March for the new suit, filed with the Superior Court in Orange County, California.