CYA

You all know what CYA stands for. Of course, Cover Your Assets.

And everyone does it. You have protection against losing your car in an accident. You have protection against being sued from that car accident. You have locks on the doors to your home to protect against theft and personal injury. Question. Do you have a lock to protect from loss in your retirement portfolio?

Bet you didn’t even know there is one. You sure aren’t going to hear about it from your stock broker or financial planner. If there is such a thing why hasn’t he told me? Maybe it is because it is too expensive.

No, there is no charge for this type of protection and your brokerage company will do it. It is free. Then why don’t brokers and financial planners provide this as part of their service? The simple answer is it is too much work. If you decide to use the service they will then have to watch your account.

Oh, did he say he was going to watch your account? Unless your account in seven figures or close to it you do not appear on his radar screen. The average broker has 300 accounts. Could you watch what is going on in each one if you had his job? It is not possible so there must be a way to protect your money. Yes, and it is automatic. When your stocks are going up and you are making money you don’t want to give back those profits, do you? Of course not. There is a simple method known to every broker and financial planner, but you must insist it is done – or you will transfer your account to someone who will. Money talks and he will understand that.

First you must determine what your risk level is. Are you willing to give back 5, 10, 15% of the price of your stock when it starts down? If you say 10% then each week tell your broker you want an Open Stop Loss Order placed on the closing price of each Friday (or Monday , Tuesday, whatever) as it moves higher and not to reduce that price.

This way he does not have to watch all the different stocks you have in your portfolio and you are protected against any big losses. He may not even want to do this and ask you to place those orders which you can easily do on the Internet.

Instead of trying to figure out where or when to sell your equity you let the price action of your stock tell you when it is getting weak. There are many ways of placing Stop Loss Orders and you may wish to use another method. Many can be found by using a search on Google by typing in the words “stop loss orders”. Your library should have books on the subject.

For a person who is working or cannot take the time to follow the market this is the best way to protect your investments. Consider it a lock on your profits. Go back and see how this would have worked if you had done it for the past 5 years. You would be money ahead.

CYA – cover your assets.

Copy Cat or How to Use a Successful Trading System

How many books have you read about successful traders? How they did this or that and made a fortune and are still doing it. You say to yourself, “I’m going to follow his method and get rich”.

So you subscribe to his newsletter (they all have one, $250) and buy his course on CD Rom ($495)and next time he is anywhere near you attend his seminar with a $500 discount for only $2495. You do understand you must do exactly as he does and you try your best to follow the directions, but for some reason you still are not making money. At least you are not losing as much as you did before (I hope).

Go look in the mirror. You are not Richard Russell, Richard Wyckoff, Bill O’Neil or any one of the great gurus of the market place. Each one of them has devoted every minute of his life to understanding the market. Each one is very successful and each one has a completely different way of approaching trading. Can you copy any one of them? It is very doubtful.

These great teachers can help you, but you have to develop your own method and style of investment. Whether it is long term or short term it must be something with which you resonate. When I was a floor trader there were a thousand guys trading and I know there were a thousand different guide lines. No one had the same buy or sell signal. If they all followed a pat program they would all be buying and selling at the same time so it could not work.

I have stood in the pit and watched the same person offer to buy and when there was no seller he would then offer to sell usually at the same price. Yes, he was scalping for one or 2 ticks, but he knew what he was doing even if it looked strange. A friend of mine could arbitrage by standing in the middle of the gold pit and hit buys and sells that were off by one or two ticks because they could not hear each other due to the noise of other traders who were shouting their offers.

You can look at the basic trading style of one of the “greats”, but you must adapt it to your method. I have not seen anyone able to successfully copy a trading program exactly. You will improvise and find a slightly new approach that becomes “yours”. It then becomes part of your cellular being. It works for you and probably won’t work for anyone else.

If the programs the hype masters are selling work so well why aren’t there more rich traders? And if the programs are so darn good why are they telling you?

To be a successful trader you can’t copy cat an existing program, but you can take a basic trading vehicle and modify it your own plan. Turn that cat into your own tiger.

Coca-Cola – A Value Stock?

There has been much talk lately about Coca-Cola and its potential as a value stock – as it now spots a dividend yield of 2.6% (which is the highest dividend yield since the late 1980s) and a P/E or less than 21 – right at the bottom of its five-year low. Moreover, the current price of approximately $43 a share is also near the bottom of its nine-year range – (nine years ago, the last former great CEO of Coke, Roberto Goizueta, was still at the helm of the company). Sure, Coke has had its own set of problems, but it is a great company, they would argue – and heck, Warren Buffett is also an owner of Coke shares.

Don’t get me wrong. I really like Coke as a company. Its brand is as American as can be, and yet over 70% of all its sales are derived from outside of North America. The country with the highest consumption per capita of Coca-Cola is Mexico. According to Interbrand.com, the brand name of Coca-Cola is worth approximately $67 billion and is the world’s number one brand name. Who could forget the famous declaration of Coke’s patriarch, Robert Woodruff? When the United States made the decision to enter World War II, he placed his hand on his heart and famously declared that he would “see that every man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca-Cola for five cents wherever he is and whatever it costs.” Of course, it didn’t hurt that Woodruff’s friend, General Dwight Eisenhower, was a great promoter of Coke as well. By the time the war ended, hundreds of thousands of fighting men and women became a fan of Coca-Cola for the rest of their lives.

Under the leadership of Goizueta, Don Keough, and Doug Ivester, Coca-Cola emerged as a growth and must-own stock during the late 1980s and up to the mid to late 1990s. Keough was the great motivational speaker, while Goizueta was unmatched in his ability to “manage” the stock price and the Wall Street analysts who covered the non-alcoholic beverage industry and Coca-Cola. Goizueta had a habit of watching the stock price of Coca-Cola on an intraday basis on a computer in Coke’s headquarters. When Warren Buffett was buying shares of Coca-Cola back in 1988, he and Keough figured it out by watching the action of the trading and tracing those purchases to a broker based in Omaha. Ivester, a former accountant, could have been regarded as a great financial alchemist. Under the financial leadership of Ivester, Coca-Cola bought out many of its bottlers and named the entity as Coca-Cola Enterprises. The bottler went public in November 1986.

When Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE) went public, Coca-Cola (the company) owned 49% of its outstanding shares. Because of this, Coca-Cola had the ability to raise syrup prices at will (the former agreement mandated that Coca-Cola only adjusted its price to match inflation for its syrup in the North American market) – thus squeezing the profit margins of the bottler but increasing its own revenues and profits. The stroke of genius was this: Because of the fact that Coca-Cola only owned 49% of CCE, it did not have to consolidate any of its financial statements with CCE. At the time, not one single analyst totally understood this relationship. Year-after-year, the company delivered. Goizueta carefully (personally) managed all the information that came out of Coca-Cola. He would personally call Wall Street analysts. Any analyst that dared to question him openly or disagree with Coca-Cola’s earnings projections would be rebuffed. One such analyst was Allan Kaplan from Merrill Lynch, who at one point wrote a note to his clients observing that Coca-Cola may be depending on Japan for too much of its profits. When Goizueta found out about the note, he responded angrily with letters to both Kaplan and his bosses at Merrill Lynch. Kaplan was banned from attending analyst meetings at Coca-Cola for more than a year. From that point on, analysts knew not to mess with Goizueta and Coca-Cola.

Keough officially retired in 1993 while Goizueta passed away in October 1997 – succumbing to lung cancer. Ivester succeeded as CEO but behind the scenes, the company was in disarrays. People loyal to Keough and to Ivester clashed – with the former group bearing the brunt of the hardship. The current CEO, Neville Isdell (who was loyal to Keough and the only true competitor for the top job back then) was sent into “exile” to Great Britain to head up a bottler. According to a recent Fortune article, “The biggest problem [with Ivester], though, was his tin ear. Ivester was high in IQ but terribly short on EQ. A self-made, stubborn, very shy son of North Georgia millworkers, he had gotten where he was through brains and hard work. He resented Keough’s grandstanding, say people who knew him well, and never fully appreciated the importance of Goizueta’s almost daily chats with directors. (Ivester declined to comment.) Before long, head-down and full tilt in a turbulent market, Ivester had alienated European regulators, executives at big customers like Wal-Mart and Disney, and some big bottlers, including Coca-Cola Enterprises (on whose board sat Warren Buffett’s son Howard). As he raced to put out fires, he became increasingly isolated from his own board of directors. One person was keeping in touch with them, though, even in his retirement—Don Keough.”

By December 1999, Ivester was out as CEO, after board members Warren Buffett and Herbert Allen told him that they have lost confidence in his leadership. If anything, the next CEO Doug Daft fared even worse than Ivester. Daft, an Australian and who ran Coke’s Japanese operations, did not have a clue about the culture in Atlanta. In a sort of retaliation for Ivester’s handling of Keough’s loyalists, he also made many of Ivester’s favorite executives leave the company. He also looked for quick fixes – for example, by trying to boost Coca-Cola’s profitability by simply reducing headcount. By May of last year, Daft was out as CEO, and Neville Isdell – a former darling of Keough – came out of retirement to run Coca-Cola.

Described as “charismatic,” Isdell may be the best man for the job, but it is still too early to see what he can do at this stage to revitalize the brand. Under the leadership of the trio of Goizueta, Keough, and Ivester in the 1980s and much of the 1990s, the shares of Coca-Cola were a must-have and Coca-Cola was regarded as a growth stock. Please also keep in mind, however, that the run of KO during that time also occurred in the midst of the greatest bull market in U.S. stock market history.

Again, readers should recall that I have always contended that we are still in a secular bear market – a bear market not unsimilar to the 1966 to 1974 secular bear market. While indices such as the Dow Industrials, Transports, the S&P 400 and S&P 600 have recovered nicely since the cyclical bear market bottom in October 2002, large caps such as Coca-Cola, Microsoft, or even GE have never really covered, and it is my belief that large caps will continue to underperform once the bear reasserts itself sometime this year. The dividend yield of 2.6% may or may not help, but who would want to hold a “value stock” once the Fed Funds rate is greater than its dividend yield (as of right now, the Fed Funds rate is 2.5%)? I really do not see deep value here. While a P/E of 20 is at the low end of its five-year range, it is interesting to note that Warren Buffett started buying his shares of Coca-Cola in 1988 when the P/E was only 13 (with a market cap of less than $15 billion) – and analysts at the time were proclaiming the stock to be expensive! S&P currently projects a fair value of Coca-Cola at $46, so there is really not a great margin of safety here.

While I believe Coca-Cola is a very strong brand and should be a part of every investor’s long-term core holdings, I do not believe it is a good time to buy at this point. The growth in the stock price of KO was neither due to luck nor coincidence – it was due to Goizueta’s shrewd management of the stock price, Keough’s salesmanship of the company, and Ivester’s financial genius – along with a roaring bull market more than anything else. Despite the lack of leadership in Coca-Cola during the last seven years, part of the old dream of KO being a growth stock has still hung on – for far too long. For KO to be an attractive stock once again, this author will need to see a more compelling valuation, such as a stock price of $25 to $30 a share. At some point, however, I believe KO may be a glamour stock once again (as it still has a lot of potential in China and India where only a total of about 850 million cases of Coke finished products were shipped in 2004, compared to 20 billion cases for the entire world), but not until some of the weak hands have been shaken out from the stock.

Buy: Hold: Sell: Jump

I’m sitting here at my computer desk with a cup of coffee at my elbow. The coffee rest in a mug, the mug garnished with the words Buy, Hold, Sell, Jump, vertically along its sides. Emblazoned across the top of the cup are the words, Wall Street, which encircles the upper portions of the mug. The handle of the mug is quite ornate, rounded at the bottom, with a cradle in the handle’s top. In the cradle is a die, with a small metal pin through the die, which enables my thumb too spin the die. Instead of numbers, as in a pair of dice, the die’s choices are Yes, No, and ? And, lo and behold, an article is born.

When do you buy, sell, hold or jump? (A better question still, what do you buy, when do you sell, how long should you hold, and why would you jump?)

This article will tackle the word Jump (to find the answer to those other questions, they’ve been answered in some of my other articles). Would Jump mean off a building? Or Jump to another stock market security? The word Jump reminded me of one of my other articles where I stated ‘just because thousands of people on wall street make their living doing ‘technical analysis’ doesn’t mean you have to jump off a building, too’.

Just today, reported by CNBC, a hedge fund has gone bankrupt. Seems the manager of the fund has skipped the country, along with all of the money. It’s been reported tens of millions of investor’s dollars are gone (as well as the manager).

The Wall Street Journal just had a report stating that retirement plans are facing a new threat: Theft.

Excerpts from the Wall Street Journal (March 2, 2005): New York

Retirement Plans are facing a growing threat: Theft

“Susana Longo, the compliance officer at Applied Financial Group, an investment-advisory firm in Atlanta, was indicted in January on federal charges of stealing $5.4 million in retirement savings from 220 workers at a car dealer, two medical practices and an audio-visual specialist. She acknowledged spending the money on two beach houses, a diamond ring, a 1,600-bottle wine collection and a Porsche 911, according to a lawsuit filed by the advisory firm.” (The article also stated this went on for four years.)

The article also goes on to state there are important lessons to be learned through this Atlanta case and they were stated in these excerpts from the same article in the Wall Street Journal:

* Roll your money into an individual retirement account when you retire (my comments on this later). Eight retirees who left their assets in one of the four affected plans were receiving monthly checks from their accounts until the plan was frozen last spring amid the investigation, said William Whitmire, the company’s director and the Plan’s trustee. “Some of them are really desperate, but there’s nothing that can be done until the insurers come to agreement,’ he said.

* Make sure you are getting all your statements, and force yourself to reconcile them. The amount deducted from your paycheck should match the amount deposited into your 401(k) account.

* The trustees of the four Atlanta-area plans were supposed to get regular statements from both the retirement-plan administrator and the custodian of the plans’ assets. The trustees of the two hardest-hit plans didn’t get their custodial statements regularly, because they were sent to other addresses. When trustees did get custodial statements, they didn’t review them.

*Don’t assume that you will receive a heads-up from your employer or plan custodian. As the alleged fraud in Atlanta began to unravel, federal agents showed up at Whitmore’s office with a stack of about 75 forged checks made out to people ‘he never heard of,” he said. He claims that the plan’s custodian didn’t call to make sure the checks were authentic.

As I was reading this article I couldn’t help thinking about the old adage ‘No one cares as much about your money as you do.’

And here’s the crux of this whole article:

You do not have to wait until you retire before moving monies from your 401(k) Plan into an individual IRA. There was and is a law which was passed in 2002 which allows you to transfer any after-taxed dollars and company-matched dollars out of your 401(k) plan into an IRA (with no fees or penalties, and no matter what your age). I have been doing this while still employed with my company. I have built my own mutual fund, using monies that have been transferred from my 401(k) into an individual IRA.

If you get nothing else out of this article, let it be that you will contact the firm your 401(k) monies are with, and find out your available options.

Building The Foundation For Wealth

You wouldn’t build your home on anything less than a solid foundation. Similarly, you can’t build wealth and financial independence without first having sound foundational principles to build upon.

I have found that many people are working on wealth building strategies such as maximizing their 401K returns, aggressive stock trading, and real estate investing without such a foundation.

Most of my clients are coming from a “one step forward, two steps back” cycle of wealth building that gets them nowhere in the long run.

There are steps you can take to make sure that you are maximizing and protecting your gains at the same time. Without these steps, you are destined to experience the gain-loss cycle which, in the end, is like spinning your wheels in the mud.

Discover how your employment circumstances affect your wealth building strategy and have more of the things you want by identifying your biggest expense and managing it without having to make more money.

Most people take gains in their cash flow to mean they can spend more on things they don’t need. It is human to want to surround yourself with the things you want to match how you feel about your new income from investments or a raise at work.

But what happens here is that you lose future earning power and you rip out pieces of your wealth building foundation because you are not putting new income to work by investing in your debt.

People talk a lot about returns on investments. Think of the return on a 13% credit debt that you pay off in 5 months aggressive debt investment. It’s NOT just 13% you are saving by investing in your debt!

Once that debt is paid off you can turn the payments you were making toward a larger debt, sometimes doubling the rate at which you are able to pay off that bigger debt. Combined, the return on your investment here is massive compared to regular stock investing!

Wealth building, in the beginning, is actually started with debt reduction and strict management. A change in attitude about your debt, from “liability” to investment, is the first step in true wealth building.

Today you should sit down and find the monthly expenses that truly don’t mean as much to you as building wealth does. See how you can eliminate some of your spending to invest in your debt in order to maximize your cash flow faster, giving yourself a raise!

Take most of what you now have available per month and turn it toward the next debt – raising the regular monthly payment by as much as you can while rewarding yourself with a little thing to note your accomplishment.

Before you take on another investment, think about the wealth you can build with the money that currently goes to debt. Once you have mastered your debt, all that money can go toward investments, savings, and living expenses that far outstretch what you are able to experience now.

The only aggressive investment strategy that has absolutely zero risk is debt investment. You cannot lose and the gains are always tremendous compared to any other form of investing.

Live your retirement years free of financial stress, relaxed and enjoying life due to automatic income streams you create through the powerful investments you can afford AFTER investing in your debt.

Brain Snappers and Other Wall Street Nonsense

The last time you spoke with your broker did he use any of the following words? Diversification, Price-to-earnings ratios, discretionary trading, lifting a leg (he’s talking to you not your dog), leverage, divergence, fee-based compensation, escalator clause, tactical asset allocation and other mesmerizing words to place you in stupefying shock.

Brokers do that to let you know that you don’t know anything about the market and you must allow them to make decisions for you. You don’t know the language. You are just too dumb. Another mushroom.

Wadda ya’ mean mushroom? Didn’t you know? Most customers are considered mushrooms. A mushroom is grown in the dark and fed horse manure. Now you understand why they treat you that way.

Then try to get him to explain commission structures of mutual funds. Oh, you’re not allowed to ask that. You might want to read page 35 in the January 31, 2005 issue of Newsweek magazine for an excellent breakdown of this Wall Street scam. Maybe you better not. You will get mad at your broker.

Another one of those big words they don’t want to discuss is redemption fees. This is an extra charge of as much as 2% of the amount that is deducted from your check if you sell within a certain period of time. Brokerage companies tell you it is to discourage frequent short-term trading which adds to their cost of doing business and increases the expenses that are charged to you every year. Having owned a brokerage company I can tell you this is more of that brown stuff they feed to the mushrooms.

The reason for redemption fees is to discourage you from selling. You might take money out of your account and that must be restricted in every way possible.

Some of the biggest words are associated with those special limited partnerships. These are definitely brain twisters. You can get these in real estate, hospital construction, oil and gas pipe lines and the most confusing one of all is technology. And they are all guaranteed. That word I understand, but be sure you read the fine print to see what is guaranteed. You remember the old one that they give it to you in the big print and take it away in the fine print.

How about placing a limit bid on a secondary distribution of a special claim on residual equity certificates? You didn’t understand that? Believe me you don’t want to.

When you are solicited by your broker, financial planner or anyone to buy any equity you must clearly understand what you are buying.

If you don’t understand it don’t buy it.

Beta Factors: How They Can Be Used In The Current Situation

Ever since the turn of the century, world stock markets have been very volatile. In other words there have been significant movements (up or down) in share prices. This phenomenon has been evidenced by the collapse in recent years of the share prices of the dot com companies (e.g. Yahoo, Amazon etc.) and the sharp falls in the share prices of telecommunication stocks (e.g. British Telecom, Marconi etc.). Yet despite these events there is very little emphasis placed on measuring the volatility of stocks.

The aim of this article is to explain one method of measuring the volatility namely beta factors and how investors can interpret this information. The article aims to state how investors can use beta factor analysis to their advantage when there are political uncertainties affecting markets. Though some stockbroker firms calculate the beta factors of certain stocks quoted in their respective stock exchanges, investors have little access to these figures. In more developed markets many stockbroker firms do have access to beta factors but it is only in recent years that investors have access to this information.

BETA FACTORS:

The beta of an investment is a relative measure of the systematic risk of an investment. In other words it measures the specific risk of the company’s shares relative to the market as a whole. In general, the sign of the beta (+/-) indicates whether, on average, the investment’s returns move with the market or in the opposite direction to the market. The scale or value of the beta indicates the relative volatility of the particular stock.

A beta of +0.25 for instance, would indicate that on average, the investment’s returns move one quarter as much as the markets do in the same direction. If the market rose by 10%, the investment would be expected to rise by 2.5% but on the other hand if the market fell by 10% the investment would be expected to fall by only 2.5%. A beta of -0.1 would indicate that on average, the investment’s returns move one tenth as much as the market’s do, but in the opposite direction. If the market rose by 10%, the investment would be expected to fall by 1%. Hence we can summarise a number of situations:

If Beta > 1 this means that the investment’s returns will move, on average, in the same direction as the market’s returns, but to a greater extent.

If Beta = 1 this means that the investment’s returns will move, on average, in the same direction as the market’s returns, and to the same extent.

If 0 -1, to the same extent if Beta = -1, and to a greater extent if Beta < -1. In practice it is rare to find negative beta stocks since they go against the trend of the market. One possible sector that could consist of negative beta stocks is the gold industry that tends to go against the trend shown by equity markets.

INVESTMENT STRATEGIES:

In world markets, beta factors can have a major influence on the investment strategies of investors. If the analysis is to be believed then in times of a bull market (rising markets) investors should hold stocks with a high positive beta factor since they should outperform the market. A practical example of this was in the late 1990’s concerning the dot com stocks. At this time the bull market has reached its peak and those investors who held dot com companies (that had high positive beta factors) made excess returns and did far better than the relative index performances.

However in times of bear markets (falling markets) then investors should target low beta stocks since they should outperform the market. An example of this can be found in the UK where two low beta FTSE stocks (Tesco and Centrica) outperformed the market in a falling market.

USING BETA FACTORS IN THE PRESENT SITUATION:

The current world political situation is probably the worst it is for many years. World markets are falling at a rapid pace. What does beta factor analysis teach us about an investment strategy in this situation? Firstly, however good a company is it likely that in such circumstances most will encounter falls in their share prices.

However during this time a number of alternative investments that have negative beta factors have appreciated in value. The prime example of this is gold. Over the past twenty years when there was a strong equity bull market, the price of gold has fallen significantly. In addition to this shares in the gold sector have performed badly when compared to equities. However in the past few years it is noticeable that in the political uncertainty that has arisen in the world that the price of gold has shown material gains at a time when equity markets have recorded sharp falls.

Another commodity that has done well is oil that has seen a significant increase in its price per barrel over the past few months. In line with gold, the oil price has suffered over most of the past twenty years (at a time when equity prices were on an increase) and it is only in recent years that the oil price has shown a recovery.

CONCLUSION:

Beta factor analysis is a useful technique that has enabled many international investors to achieve satisfactory returns in the past. If one looks at the trends in world markets then one can see that in a bull market those investors that have followed a selective aggressive portfolio (i.e. including shares with beta factors of over 1 times) have generally outperformed the market.

However the wheel has changed. We are now in the stage of a bear market. The current political uncertainty has made things extremely difficult for investors. Should they get out of world markets since a conflict will almost certainly mean falling equity prices. Or should investors move to alternative investments with negative beta factors such as gold and oil? After all in case of a conflict these commodities will almost certainly rise and will probably go against the trend of equity prices. The answer will very much depend on how the current political situation develops. However investors will do well if they include gold in their investment portfolios.

Disclaimer: No responsibility for loss can be accepted to any person acting or refraining from acting as a result of material in this article.

Begging Your Trust in Africa

The syntax is tortured, the grammar mutilated, but the message – sent by snail mail, telex, fax, or e-mail – is coherent: an African bigwig or his heirs wish to transfer funds amassed in years of graft and venality to a safe bank account in the West. They seek the recipient’s permission to make use of his or her inconspicuous services for a percentage of the loot – usually many millions of dollars. A fee is required to expedite the proceedings, or to pay taxes, or to bribe officials – they plausibly explain.

It is a scam two decades old – and it still works. Only last month, a bookkeeper for a Berkley, Michigan law firm embezzled $2.1 million and wired it to various bank accounts in South Africa and Taiwan. Other victims were kidnapped for ransom as they traveled abroad to collect their “share”. Some never made it back. Every year, there are 5 such murders as well as 8-10 snatchings of American citizens alone. The usual ransom demanded is half a million to a million dollars.

The scam is so widespread that the Nigerians saw fit to explicitly ban it in article 419 of their penal code. The Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo castigated the fraudsters for inflicting “incalculable damage to Nigerian businesses” and for “placing the entire country under suspicion”.

“Wired” quotes statistics presented at the International Conference on Advance Fee (419) Frauds in New York on Sept. 17:

“Roughly 1 percent of the millions of people who receive 419 e-mails and faxes are successfully scammed. Annual losses to the scam in the United States total more than $100 million, and law enforcement officials believe global losses may total over $1.5 billion.”

According to the “IFCC 2001 Internet Fraud Report”, published by the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, Nigerian letter fraud cases amount to 15.5 percent of all grievances. The Internet Fraud Complaint Center refers such rip-offs to the US Secret Service. While the median loss in all manner of Internet fraud was $435 – in the Nigerian scam it was a staggering $5575. But only one in ten successful crimes is reported, says the FBI’s report.

The IFCC provides this advisory to potential targets:

Be skeptical of individuals representing themselves as Nigerian or other foreign government officials asking for your help in placing large sums of money in overseas bank accounts.

Do not believe the promise of large sums of money for your cooperation.

Do not give out any personal information regarding your savings, checking, credit, or other financial accounts.

If you are solicited, do not respond and quickly notify the appropriate authorities.

The “419 Coalition” is more succinct and a lot more pessimistic:

“NEVER pay anything up front for ANY reason.

NEVER extend credit for ANY reason.

NEVER do ANYTHING until their check clears.

NEVER expect ANY help from the Nigerian Government.

NEVER rely on YOUR Government to bail you out.”

The State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs published a brochure titled “Nigerian Advance Fee Fraud”. It describes the history of this particular type of swindle:

“AFF criminals include university-educated professionals who are the best in the world for nonviolent spectacular crimes. AFF letters first surfaced in the mid-1980s around the time of the collapse of world oil prices, which is Nigeria’s main foreign exchange earner. Some Nigerians turned to crime in order to survive. Fraudulent schemes such as AFF succeeded in Nigeria, because Nigerian criminals took advantage of the fact that Nigerians speak English, the international language of business, and the country’s vast oil wealth and natural gas reserves – ranked 13th in the world – offer lucrative business opportunities that attract many foreign companies and individuals.”

According to London’s Metropolitan Police Company Fraud Department, potential targets in the UK and the USA alone receive c. 1500 solicitations a week. The US Secret Service Financial Crime Division takes in 100 calls a day from Americans approach by the con-men. It now acknowledges that “Nigerian organized crime rings running fraud schemes through the mail and phone lines are now so large, they represent a serious financial threat to the country”.

Sometimes even the stamps affixed to such letters are forged. Nigerian postal workers are known to be in cahoots with the fraudsters. Names and addresses are obtained from “trade journals, business directories, magazine and newspaper advertisements, chambers of commerce, and the Internet”.

Victims are either too intimidated to complain or else reluctant to admit their collusion in money laundering and fraud. Others try in vain to recoup their losses by ploughing more money into the scheme.

Contrary to popular image, the scammers are often violent and involved in other criminal pursuits, such as drug trafficking, According to Nigeria’s Drug Law Enforcement Agency. The blight has spread to other countries. Letters from Sierra Leone, Ghana, Congo, Liberia, Togo, Ivory Coast, Benin, Burkina Faso, South Africa, Taiwan, or even Canada, the United Kingdom, Oman, and Vietnam are not uncommon.

The dodges fall into a few categories.

Over-invoiced contract scams involve the ostensible transfer of amounts obtained through inflated invoices to the bank account of an unrelated foreign firm. Contract fraud or “trade default” is simply a bogus order accompanied by a fraudulent bank draft for the products of an export company accompanied by demand for “samples” and various transaction “fees and charges”.

Some of the rackets are plain outlandish. In the “wash-wash” confidence trick people have been known to pay up to $200,000 for a special solution to remove stains from millions in defaced dollar notes. Others “bought” heavily “discounted” crude oil stored in “secret” locations – or real estate in rezoned locales. “Clearing houses” or “venture capital organizations” claiming to act on behalf of the Central Bank of Nigeria launder the proceeds of the scams.

In another twist, charities, academic institutions, nonprofit organizations, and religious groups are asked to pay the inheritances tax on a “donation”. Some “dignitaries” and their relatives may seek to flee the country and ask the victims to advance the bribe money in return for a generous cut of the wealth they have stashed abroad.

“Bankers” may find inactive accounts with millions of dollars – often in lottery winnings – waiting to be transferred to a safe off-shore haven. Bogus jobs with inflated wages are another ostensible way to defraud state-owned companies – as is the sale of the target’s used vehicle to them for an extravagant price. There seems to be no end to criminal ingenuity.

Lately, the correspondence purports to be coming from – often white – disinterested professional third parties. Accountants, lawyers, directors, trustees, security personnel, or bankers pretend to be acting as fiduciaries for the real dignitary in need of help. Less gullible victims are subjected to plain old extortion with verbal intimidation and stalking.

The more heightened public awareness grows with over-exposure and the tighter the net of international cooperation against the scam, the wilder the stories it spawns. Letters have surfaced recently signed by dying refugees, survivors of the September 11 attacks, and serendipitous US commandos on mission in Afghanistan.

Governments throughout the world have geared up to protect their businessmen. The US Department of Commerce, for instance, publishes the “World Traders data Report”, compiled by US embassy in Nigeria. It “provides the following types of information: types of organizations, year established, principal owners, size, product line, and financial and trade references”.

Unilateral US activity, inefficacious collaboration with the Nigerian government some of whose officials are rumored to be in on the deals, multilateral efforts in the framework of the OECD and the Interpol, education and information campaigns – nothing seems to be working.

The treatment of 419 fraudsters in Nigeria is so lenient that, according to the “Nigeria Tribune”, the United States threatened the country with sanctions if it does not considerably improve its record on financial crime by November 2002. Both the US Treasury’s Financial Crime Enforcement Network (FINCEN) and the OECD’s Financial Action Task Force (FATF) had characterized the country as “one of the worst perpetrators of financial crimes in the world”. The Nigerian central bank promises to get to grips with this debilitating problem.

Nigerian themselves – though often victims of the scams – take the phenomenon in stride. The Nigerian “Daily Champion”, proffered this insightful apologia on behalf of the ruthless and merciless 419 gangs. It is worth quoting at length:

“To eradicate the 419 scourge, leaders at all levels should work assiduously to create employment opportunities and people perception of the leaders as role models. The country’s very high unemployment figure has made nonsense of the so-called democracy dividends. Great majority of Nigerian youthful school leaver’s including University graduates, are without visible means of livelihood… The fact remains that most of these teeming youths cannot just watch our so-called leaders siphon their God-given wealthy. So, they resorted to alternative fraudulent means of livelihood called 419, at least to be seen as have arrived… Some of these 419ers are in the National Assembly and the State Houses of Assembly while some surround the President and governors across the country.”

Some swindlers seek to glorify their criminal activities with a political and historical context. The Web site of the “419 Coalition” contains letters casting the scam as a form of forced reparation for slavery, akin to the compensation paid by Germany to survivors of the holocaust. The confidence tricksters boast of defrauding the “white civilization” and unmasking the falsity of its claims for superiority. But a few delusional individuals aside, this is nothing but a smokescreen.

Greed outweighs fear and avarice enmeshes people in clearly criminal enterprises. The “victims” of advance fee scams are rarely incognizant of their alleged role. They knowingly and intentionally collude with self-professed criminals to fleece governments and institutions. This is one of the rare crimes where prey and perpetrator may well deserve each other.

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