Nigerian con artists are targeting unsuspecting Christians and others using a new wrinkle in the long-running 419 advance fee scam. (419 refers to the Nigerian law banning the schemes.)

Christians are receiving a letter or e-mail supposedly from a retired Nigerian military officer who has converted from Islam to Christianity. The letter writer claims to have diverted $45 million from the Nigerian government. But the officer writes that after converting to Christianity, he has "received instruction from God through divine revelation" and wants to donate the $45 million to God's work, specifically to "your ministry."

The most common form of such scams promises the reader a percentage of a large fortune. The con artist asks for help in getting the cash out of the country (often Nigeria).

Nigerian 419 cons have defrauded Americans for years by inducing them to wire money to an overseas bank account. The National White Collar Crime Center and the FBI established an Internet Fraud Complaint Center last year, and Nigerian 419 fraud was third on its list of the top Internet scams. Auction fraud and nondelivery of goods were the top two.

According to the FBI, the average 419 victim has lost $5,575, making 419 fraud one of the nation's most costly financial scams for individuals. But some people have lost more than $100,000. Federal officials estimate a 900 percent increase in 419 e-mail scams from 2000 to 2001.

In August 2000 one scam artist convinced a physician, Ali-Reza Ghasemi, and his wife, Shahla, a nurse, that they could receive $27 million.

The Ghasemis had fled their native Iran after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. They abandoned their considerable investments, became American citizens, and moved to Tampa, Florida.

The caller ...

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