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Email scam targets holocaust victims' bank accounts
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in the Observer, 2005
International fraudsters are resorting to an astonishingly sick ploy in their attempt to woo the gullible. Emails circulating in Britain in recent weeks (early 2005) claim to come from Swiss bank officials inviting recipients to strike private deals with them to access money held in holocaust victims' dormant bank accounts.
The emails, which are arriving at the same time as the world remembers the anniversary of Auschwitz's liberation, combine both a new depth in extreme bad taste with an increased level of sophistication by those attempting the notorious ‘Nigeria 419' fraud. This scam, named after the section of the Nigerian criminal code which it contravenes, works by suggesting that millions of pounds in funds are ready to be transferred secretly into a convenient western bank account. Victims who respond, however, are asked to pay increasingly large sums in advance to ‘facilitate' the arrangement. In one recent case from the US , a book-keeper paid across almost £1.5m which she had stolen from her employer in expectation of receiving a bank deposit of over £10m which, of course, never arrived. Scam emails, faxes and letters have also originated from other African countries, including Sierra Leone and South Africa .
The linking of the 419 fraud with holocaust victims' bank accounts is more subtle than many of these earlier ploys. The emails purportedly come from a member of the Independent Committee of Eminent Persons (ICEP), a genuine organisation which was set up to identify dormant bank accounts in Switzerland which are thought to have belonged to victims of Nazi persecution. The emails correctly describe the background to the deal which has seen up to $800m made available by Swiss banks for reimbursement to victims' families. They also give the addresses of genuine websites where those seeking to make claims can obtain details.
However, the emails go on to suggest that one of the dormant bank accounts identified, belonging to a holocaust victim named as Adele Ordner, has a credit balance of $50m which the email recipient can share. The email continues, “Being a member of ICEP, I have all secret details and necessary contacts for claim of the funds without any hitch. The funds will be banked in any country of your choice outside Switzerland … where we can safely share the funds…”
Michael Newman, director of the advisory service the Central Office for Holocaust Claims, describes the email as ‘vile'. One concern, Mr Newman says, is that holocaust survivors may themselves receive the email and believe it is genuine. “The confidence-tricksters are preying on a particularly vulnerable community of people,” he points out.
The email fraud is unfortunately assisted by the fact that the procedures which holocaust victims' families have to follow to make legitimate claims are complex and have become highly controversial. A first list of 5,700 dormant Swiss bank accounts was published in 1997 and was followed in 2001 by a supposedly comprehensive list of a further 21,000 accounts believed to have belonged to victims of Nazi oppression. Typically, these bank accounts date back to the immediate pre-war period, when better-off Jewish people living in Austria , Germany and central Europe turned to Switzerland in the hope that, in an uncertain time, it would prove a safe haven for their assets. The publication of the 2001 list brought in about 32,000 formal claims, including about 50-100 from people now living in Britain . However, since then the actual claims process has progressed very slowly. So far, compensation payments have been made on only about 2,800 bank accounts; about ten of these are believed to have been made to people in Britain . With compensation payments currently totalling only $245m of the $800m allocated by Swiss banks to the claims fund, an unseemly row is brewing as to which organisations should benefit from any residue left at the end of the process.
The publication of a yet another list with a further 2,700 bank account details, on January 13 th this year (available at http://www.crt-ii.org ), has hardly helped to silence the critics. Michael Newman describes the appearance of this new list as “just amazing”, pointing out that the authorities in Switzerland have now had almost ten years to identify the relevant bank accounts. Like its predecessors, the new database, with a long list of names running from Josef Abramowicz to Willy Zucker, evokes a poignant reminder of central European life seventy years ago.
The fraudsters behind the recent emails have therefore homed in on a fund of money which, helpfully for them, is both genuinely large and also subject to complex procedures. To benefit from ‘a great opportunity for a lifetime of success', all the lucky email recipient has to do (apart from forgetting their scruples) is to get back in touch with their bank details, remembering to ‘include your direct telephone when responding, for further explanation'. The imaginary $50m from Adele Ordner will then be ready for liberating.
The Nigeria 419 scam has been the subject of warnings from both the Office of Fair Trading and the Metropolitan Police, with the police noting that many victims have ended up borrowing large sums of money and actually apologising to the fraudsters for the time they are taking to raise the cash. The Office of Fair Trading is choosing to launch a consumer education Scams Awareness Month campaign next month (Feb 2005).