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Nigeria e-mail fraud trial is unprecedented

ABUJA, Nigeria -- "Greetings: In order to transfer out $36 million from our bank, I have the courage to ask you to look for a reliable and honest person who will be capable for this important business believing that you will never let me down either now or in the future. "

Flattered? Interested in doing business? The author of this e-mail hopes so.

For more than two decades, Nigerian scam artists have circulated letters, faxes, and e-mails like this one in hopes of swindling gullible and greedy foreigners.

Often posing as legitimate businesspeople, such as the bank official in this e-mail, the con artists request help transferring millions of dollars out of Nigeria in return for a hefty commission.

The recipient is asked to provide money for various fees, as well as personal information such as Social Security numbers and bank account details. Once those are received, the victims learn they have been conned out of huge sums of money.

The advance-fee fraud scam is known internationally as "419" fraud after the section of the Nigerian criminal code that outlaws it. Although the US Secret Service estimates that victims worldwide lose hundred of millions of dollars each year, the Nigerian government has done little to stop it.

Until now.

This month, five Nigerians have gone on trial in Nigeria's high court for taking part in what prosecutors say is the world's largest 419 scam. The defendants, including a housewife, a lawyer, and a well-known businessman, are charged with tricking a Brazilian bank employee into paying $242 million of his bank's money to build a fictitious airport in Nigeria by promising him a commission of $13 million.

For Nigeria, more than a group of con artists is on trial. Unofficially, so is the country's reputation.

The widespread 419 scam has helped seal the West African country's image as one of the most corrupt places on earth. President Olusegun Obasanjo, elected in 1999 after 16 years of corrupt military rule, pledged to tackle the international fraud rings and clean up government graft that thrived during the lawless years of military dictatorships.

"We will wage war against those who systematically destroy our economy," Obasanjo told the National Assembly last year. "There will be no hiding place for these criminals who tarnish Nigeria's image."

Obasanjo's main weapon in this fight is an organization called the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, which he launched last year to battle 419 scams, along with money laundering, drug trafficking, credit card fraud, bribery, smuggling, tax evasion, counterfeiting, and intellectual property theft.

In the first year, the commission has arrested about 200 suspected criminals, including dozens of 419 kingpins, frozen their bank accounts, and seized more than $100 million in cars, homes, cash, and other assets. Among those arrested was a member of the National Assembly.

The commission made a point to shackle the suspects in handcuffs and parade them in front of the television cameras.

"It was a massive, huge thing to do," said Nuhu Ribadu, executive director of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. "We don't have a culture of bringing people to justice, especially the rich and powerful."

Since the 419 scam started in the early 1980s, its perpetrators have been worshiped as national heroes. They flaunted their wealth, their mammoth homes, their luxury cars, their European villas, and their apparent immunity from the law.

"We were lost in a jungle," Ribadu said of those years. "You could do whatever you wanted, and nothing would happen."

Despite the high-profile arrests, the commission has yet to win a conviction in a case against 419 kingpins, Ribadu said, which makes the current case quite important.

Tall, lean, and seemingly humorless, Ribadu, a 44-year-old assistant police commissioner, approaches his crime-fighting with a sense of urgency that is rare in his country. On most days his commission appears in the headlines of Nigeria's newspapers, disclosing some new form of corruption. In the past month, he disclosed that 70 percent of the foreign goods entering Nigeria are smuggled in, often with the assistance of customs officers. He also announced he would launch an investigation into whether oil companies were complying with the nation's ill-enforced tax laws.

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