It was Emma Weibel’s lucky day.

The Lake Oswego, Ore., resident received a letter from someone named Mike Ross informing her that an Aneta Weibel had died and left a $6 million estate. Ross said he wanted to have Emma declared Aneta’s next of kin so she could inherit the bulk of the money, with a modest portion for him for his efforts.

“The whole thing is, of course, a hoax,” Weibel, 79, said. “But I can see this could be taken seriously by some people.” 

I can see that, too. As it happens, my wife received a similar letter recently, and for the past few weeks I’ve been corresponding by e-mail and speaking on the phone with the scammers.

This led me down the rabbit hole of an impressively elaborate fraud involving multiple characters. The FBI calls these advance-fee schemes, in which victims pay upfront for an expected opportunity or financial windfall. Such ploys resulted in almost $58 million in reported losses last year.

“The variety of advance-fee schemes is limited only by the imagination of the con artists who offer them,” the bureau said.

Ours began with a snail-mail letter from Brian Cooks at the Cooperative Bank in London, which is a real bank. He identified himself as the former personal funds manager for Matsu Lazarus, who “died some years back with his wife and only son while holidaying in Burma,” aka Myanmar.

An audit turned up a dormant account containing $25 million, Cooks said, and it appeared my wife was the closest thing Matsu Lazarus had to a next of kin. He was prepared to nominate her as his deceased client’s sole legal heir. Overlooking the fact that Lazarus is my wife’s married name, making it impossible for her to be the next of kin of anyone with the surname, this was very exciting news.

I e-mailed Cooks, who was using a Gmail account, and told him we were thrilled to hear of our good fortune. What did we need to do?

This began a near-daily correspondence in which Cooks kept us updated on his efforts. We received a copy of Matsu Lazarus’ purported death certificate, followed by undoubtedly Photoshopped documents from the London Probate Registry and the High Court of England & Wales declaring my wife the official next of kin of Matsu Lazarus.

It only became more elaborate when phone calls started (with an accent that was not British). The money could not be wired; it would be shipped to the U.S. Many details I was told about the schemers were false. Once the money arrived, they wanted money to get it out of a bonded warehouse — more than $18,000. After negotiations, they were going to accept about $6,000.

I was dazzled by the lengths to which these scammers had gone to convince me everything was on the up and up. I’d spoken with three different people. I had a stack of official-looking documents. I’d invested a serious amount of time into pulling off the deal.

When Smith called back a day later to ask why I hadn’t wired the money, I told him let’s stop playing games. I confessed I’d been yanking his chain for weeks, just as he’d been yanking mine, and I asked how often people fell for this scam.

There was a long pause. Finally Smith asked, “Are we doing this or not doing this?”

Not doing this, I answered. The phone went dead.

 

David Lazarus is a Los Angeles Times columnist