Nigerian crime wave sweeps through Britain

Jason Bennetto
Monday 02 February 1998 00:02 GMT

The intelligence agencies MI6 and MI5 are being used to clamp down on fraud and drug-dealing by West African gangs. Jason Bennetto, Crime Correspondent, investigates a trend costing Britain billions of pounds a year.

The criminals, mainly Nigerians, have been discovered working inside government departments, the police and tax offices. The level of crime is so serious that the National Criminal Intelligence Service will tomorrow announce an expansion of its work against the gangs.

Agents and eavesdropping equipment from MI5, MI6 and the listening base at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham are being used to investigate Nigerian crime. The cost of the fraud alone is pounds 3.5bn a year, says the NCIS.

The fraudsters concentrate on con-tricks and benefit fraud, drug-trafficking, mainly cocaine, and illegal immigration. The intelligence agencies are assisting NCIS and British forces in some of the most serious cases. The secret services can provide expertise in infiltrating the gangs, bugging, covert surveillance and identifying targets.

The gangs, which have strongholds in the US and most European countries, form networks to siphon money and have proved difficult to break into. Activities by West African criminals that have been detected include:

At the Treasury Solicitor's office, the Government's lawyers, a worker was using the fax to work a scam involving advance fees. She was admonished and sacked.

An employee at the Department of Social Security was creating false National Insurance numbers and identifications which were being used to claim benefits such as education grants and child allowance. One individual was found with 100 separate identities.

A worker at one of the Inland Revenue's accounts offices was caught photocopying incoming company tax returns, cheques, and headed notepaper. These were sold to a contact who wrote to the banks and set up standing orders for small amounts to be paid into their accounts every month.

The Metropolitan Police had a problem with cleaners found looking for data and addresses in a West End police station.

An estimated 500,000 "advance-fee fraud" or "419" letters attempting to con people by promising risk-free cash are sent by West Africans, mainly from Lagos, around the world every year. The "419" scam is named after the section of the Nigerian penal code dealing with fraud. Thousands of individuals and companies in Britain are randomly written to and asked if they will help transfer millions of pounds of government money out of Nigeria in return for a cut of the cash.

All they supposedly have to do is provide bank details. But once hooked they are asked for an "advance" or have money removed from their accounts. Millions are stolen this way every year. Needless to say, the government money never existed.

Law enforcers have found it particularly difficult to crack Nigerian crime rings because they have a complicated language which hard to translate and infiltrate. The Nigerian criminals are good networkers and operate in loose-knit organisations. There are big Nigerian crime rings in Poland, Russia and Bangkok.

An NCIS spokesman confirmed that Nigerian fraudsters had been found working "from the Government to the private sector. They are not just trying to get money, they also want letterheads which can be used for further frauds."

A police source said that you can always tell if a law enforcer is dealing with organised Nigerian crime because "they have a broken marriage, a drink problem, and the largest card index in the office." A small number of the criminals also come from Ghana.

The NCIS, backed by law enforcers from the G8 group of countries, are to launch new anti-crime initiatives aimed at organised West African offenders. Detective Superintendent Bryan Drew, head of the NCIS's Strategic and Specialist Intelligence Branch, said: "West African organised crime is now in the big league - we recognise they now pose a significant threat." Commenting on contributions by the secret services, he said: "The UK intelligence agencies provide support and information that we could not get from anywhere else. They each have specialist skills which can be extremely useful in our investigations."

Another intelligence officer said: "It's by far the most insidious crime problem the UK has got."

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