Moscow police crack African gang's 'Eddie Murphy' scam

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The Independent Online

Taking their lead from the Eddie Murphy comedy Coming to America, a gang of Africans based in Moscow succeeded in conning several Russian businessmen out of tens of thousands of pounds by posing as flamboyant African government ministers, according to police.

In the 1988 film which inspired the alleged scam, Murphy plays Prince Akeem from the kingdom of Zamunda. His deception is the other way round: Akeem poses as a fast-food worker in New York, so that he can escape an arranged marriage and find a bride who really loves him.

Four Africans have been charged with fraud and face up to six years if convicted. Prosecutors say they painstakingly copied the costumes and flamboyant mannerisms of Prince Akeem and his father, King Jaffe Joffer (played in the movie by James Earl Jones) to trick their Russian victims. The scam was said to be based on a tried and tested method usually employed on the internet. One of the gang would pretend to be the nephew of a wealthy minister, in one case the former deputy prime minister of Guinea-Bissau. He would explain that his uncle wanted to smuggle $22.5m (£12.5m) into Russia in an African diplomatic pouch, and was willing to give a cut to anyone who would help him. There was inevitably a catch; the victim would need to put up $43,000 in cash to bribe an African embassy in Moscow to take delivery of the pouch.

To overcome the scepticism of potential victims, the "nephew" would say that his "uncle" was flying in especially for negotiations. The victim would then be driven out to Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, where one of the gang members would be waiting outside the VIP exit in elaborate traditional African dress, complete with a gold Rolex watch borrowed for the occasion, gold-rimmed glasses, a huge gold medallion and an ostentatious ring. He would not be alone; a large retinue of clucking manservants would surround him. Investigators later discovered that they were African students at Moscow's Patrice Lumumba University, being paid by the hour.

The "uncle" would greet his relative extravagantly, talk loudly in English - even though all the fraudsters spoke good Russian - and communicate with his victim through an interpreter. Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper reported that the "uncle" was a Nigerian citizen, had a family in Belarus and had spent several years scratching a living in Moscow as an unofficial cab driver.

Ruslan Zakayev, a Moscow businessman, was one of those who fell for the act and handed over $43,000. Police say there were many other victims who would not come forward, "because they themselves were planning to break the law", and that the gang was caught only when an undercover detective posed as a potential victim.