Advance fee fraud

How the scam works

Advance fee fraud has been around since the beginning of the 1980s. This type of fraud targets victims using e-mails, faxes or personal letters containing promises of extraordinary profits. The senders use fictitious names or false identities, and usually claim the whole affair is highly confidential. Types of advance fee fraud include:

Feigned inheritance
Fraudsters contact potential victims by e-mail pretending to have received an inheritance that they cannot claim because they lack the financial resources to pay the inheritance fees. The sender of the e-mail promises to pay the recipient a large commission ‒ sometimes as much as 30% of the sum of the alleged inheritance ‒ if the latter advances the money to pay the fees. Those who respond to such offers never see their money again, nor do they receive the promised commission.

Fictitious transaction
This type of scam also starts with an e-mail informing the recipient that the sender has knowledge of a large sum of unclaimed money, for example from an heirless estate in Africa, which for various reasons has been blocked. To help retrieve the money, the e-mail recipient is are asked to make their bank account available for a transaction in return for a payout of up to 30% of the sum of money. The e-mail recipient is also asked to assume the handling charges. Once the victim pays the charges, they never hear from the fraudster again and their money is lost.

Call from a representative of a holding company domiciled abroad
In Belgium several cases emerged where subsidiary companies of multinational corporations domiciled in France received a phone call from the supposed manager of the parent company asking discreetly for financial assistance. This type of fraud can happen anywhere.

Fraudsters change their tactics over time. To give their fraudulent practices a semblance of respectability and reliability, fraudsters misuse the names and reputation of Swiss companies and international organisations. They often try to acquire personal information such as bank or account data, and they are especially interested in all types of handwritten documents or signatures. They then use the data and documents to defraud their victim.

Statutory provisions

Under Article 146 of the Swiss Criminal Code, the criminal offence of fraud is committed only if wilful deception by the fraudster is proven. Wilful deception does not apply if the victim could have protected himself or avoided the deception by exercising a minimum amount of reasonable caution. Hence, it is necessary to examine in each case whether the fraudster’s behaviour indeed constitutes a criminal offence.

How to avoid becoming a victim

On no account should you get involved with business ventures that involve payment of an advance fee. Do not reply to such messages, even to decline the offer in question. Delete the e-mails and attachments immediately, and do not dial any telephone numbers mentioned in the message since they are likely to be subject to a charge. If you are already in contact with the fraudster, we advise you to contact the cantonal police.

It is difficult to identify and prosecute advance-fee fraudsters because they usually operate from abroad under false identities. Mutual assistance requests are often complex and protracted affairs with an uncertain outcome. Ultimately, victims nearly always lose their money.

The Federal Office of Police advises the following:

  • Be on your guard if someone you do not know approaches you and offers you a deal that promises unusually high profits. Likewise, steer clear of anyone who tries to give you money supposedly to invest in a good cause or who offers you credit at an interest rate that is not usual for the sector.
  • Never make an advance payment or pay a commission to someone you do not know. Always verify the reliability and reputation of people and institutions before making a payment.
  • Do not reply to messages concerning lottery games1 that you have not participated in, and do not react to messages or reminders concerning goods that you have not ordered.
  • Do not reply to messages from people or institutions that you do not know, and never give out personal details or information concerning your bank account: fraudsters may use this information to defraud you.
  • Do not be tempted by the mention of large sums of money (talk is often of several million US dollars) or allow yourself to be put under pressure by mention of ‛urgent’ or ‛confidential’ business. Nor should you allow yourself to be intimidated or impressed by mention of famous people, high-ranking public figures or people with illustrious titles.
  • Be on your guard if someone claims to have accidentally sent you money and then asks you to forward it via a money transfer institution to an unknown third party.
  • If you suspect fraudulent dealings or money laundering, contact the cantonal police or the Cybercrime Coordination Unit (CYCO) at the Federal Office of Police.

Status: January 2012

1See also the warning on lottery fraud

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