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Nigerian Fraud

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Officer Jack came to my door in street clothes--a tall, friendly, good old Irish cop with a strong handshake. He sat on the couch and took everything down on a yellow pad.

I came home, I said, and there was this female voice on my answenng-machine message tape. It was trying to convey urgency without sacrificing too much of its professional composure:

"Call right away! Call collect if you want to! It's very important."

A number in Ohio. I almost didn't call, not even collect. I thought maybe I'd get hit with a hard sell on a timeshare deal--or worse, Time-Life Books. Then again, she didn't have that phone salesman's ecstatic breathiness. But maybe she was smart enough to play it aloof, to instill just enough doubt to arouse curiosity.

Soon I was talking live with the voice on the tape. She asked me if I'd applied for a credit card recently. I laughed. I haven't applied for a credit card since Jimmy Carter added a credit-card surcharge in a desperate attempt to make it look like he was doing something to fight inflation.

She didn't laugh. She asked me if she had my correct address. She didn't. The numbers were transposed. Well then, was this my correct social security number? Right numbers but wrong order again.

She asked me if I'd ever worked in a bank or if I had a mailing address in Salt Lake City.

What?

Then she asked if I'd been hanging around any Nigerians lately. I scanned my memory to determine which of my friends might be behind this elaborate practical joke.

"The transposed numbers," she said. "That's Nigerian fraud."

Not just fraud! Nigerian fraud! Sounds exotic. Sounds like a case for James Bond. Nice touch, whoever thought this up.

The phone voice turned out to be calling from a bank in Ohio. She said there was a fraud ring operating out of Nigeria; they send people here to befriend Americans, then get their vital statistics--social security numbers and whatnot. They especially like to get to know people who work in banks, she said, who might have access to the social security numbers of people with a lot of money. And then they pass the information up to the ringleader, who takes out credit cards in those names. On my bogus application to her bank, my home address was in Salt Lake City. Probably a drop box, she said.

She told me I should protect myself by calling three credit institutions and notifying them of the fraudulent application. If I wanted, I could notify the Cleveland police, who are investigating Nigerian fraud, and the Chicago police.

Officer Clar of the Cleveland police fraud unit said, "It's a big problem. They get people's information, usually from tax records, and they take out credit cards and run up a big bill and disappear. They purchase VCRs and cameras or take out cash advances. Then they go to another city. They usually come up from the south in the summer. They spend the winter where it's warm."

Come to think of it, I did know one Nigerian. Let's call him Donald. He used to work for me, but had quit three months earlier.

Donald was an enigma. He was stocky and muscular, ebony black. He was early for his interview with me and sat through most of it on the edge of the couch, elbows propped on his knees, rarely lifting his gaze from the floor.

From his accent, I thought maybe he was from Jamaica. But he said he was from Lagos, Nigeria, via England. He said he'd come to New York six months earlier but hadn't liked it much there. He never said what he didn't like about it. If you confronted him with any such demands for emotional specificity, he was the type to shrug impatiently and say, "I just didn't like it." On a map of the United States, he said, New York was the big yellow blotch on the east coast. There were two other big yellow blotches, one on the west coast and one in the middle. The one on the west coast was too far away. So he had set out for the one in the middle.

The job was working in my home, doing housework and personal care I can't do for myself because of a physical disability. My impression was that Donald was pretty humorless, suspicious of his surroundings. I hired him, I guess, because as usual I was desperate. At that time the state paid workers for disabled people a minimum-wage stipend once a month, with no benefits or cost-of-living allowances. I've had such a parade of rejects throughout the years that I've lowered the qualifications: anyone who's breathing and won't punch me or steal my money will do. Donald was an enigma, but he was a breathing enigma, and I didn't think he'd punch me or steal my money.

He never did. Once when I told him stories of all the employees I'd fired for stealing, he shook his head and said, "If I going to steal, I steal from Donald Trump. I don't steal from a man who struggles like me." Another thing that made him better than 80 percent of the others was that he always showed up, eventually. One night during a blizzard, when I was sure I would be stranded, he came trooping through the deep snow. The one time he didn't show up, he called from an el platform at one in the morning and apologized profusely.

His work was thorough, but he seemed to deeply resent working in general. When I got on him for things like showing up an hour late, his standard bitter response was: "I work like a machine for you!" His diatribes were full of an inarticulate general resentment. Usually he expressed it by refusing to move at anything other than his own slow pace. A perpetual slowdown strike.

Sometimes I almost wondered if Donald was a fugitive, because he was so defensive and secretive. He wouldn't give me his home phone number until I practically threatened to fire him if he didn't. He referred to the woman he lived with sometimes as his wife and sometimes as his girlfriend. He told me that if ever I got a phone call for Thomas, that was him. Thomas was his "Christian name." Once a friend of mine stopped by for a few minutes with a Nigerian friend of his. When I told Donald that another Nigerian had been to the house earlier, he looked at me in shock, as if I'd pulled a gun on him. He said he didn't want anything to do with other Nigerians because "they always ask you what you do for a living."

After about a year, Donald left to take a job at one of those rent-a cop security firms.

Officer Jack took it all in quietly and finally said, "You know, you're not the victim. They haven't done a thing to you. The credit-card company is the victim. In a way, it's their own fault. They're so willing to give credit cards away."

I wondered if we could get to the bottom of this by calling Donald's wife. If memory served, she worked in a bank, and on the phone she was always as warm and welcoming as Donald was remote. But Officer Jack didn't think that was a good idea. Why risk yourself for the credit-card companies? he asked. I should be grateful there was no personal loss to me.

He was right. No skin off my nose. Why lose sleep over someone stealing from Donald Trump?

But what was I supposed to do now? I was taught never to judge people on the basis of race, color, creed, nationality, etc. No problem, I always thought, but now what would happen the next time a Nigerian applied for a job with me? Just my luck, he or she would be the personification of virtue, presenting no flaws with which to rationalize a rejection. In my agitated frame of mind I convinced myself that the only way to head off this crisis was to pin the crime on Donald, so I could tell myself I'd been had by one bad guy instead of by an entire nation.

So I gave in to an impulse to call Donald's place--just act like I was calling to say hi, though I'd never done that before. I don't know, maybe I thought that just hearing my voice would make him crack, like a 1940s Hollywood hoodlum when the cops shine the glaring light in his eyes.

Donald's wife/girlfiiend answered. As usual, she greeted me as if I were a longtime friend, though we'd never met in person. Donald wasn't home. He was out of town somewhere, she wasn't sure where. He left a number in New York, but when she calls it they say he's not there, and he never calls back. He should be back soon but she's not sure when. He wouldn't say. He was really funny like that sometimes, really vague.

A baby cried in the background.

"That sounds like a real baby," I said.

"It is a real baby," she answered. "Didn't Donald tell you we have a daughter?"

He never said a word.

In fact, she said, Donald was scheduled to work for me the morning she went into labor. She asked him to please call me and explain and surely I would let him off, but he wouldn't do it. He left her in labor, and she had the baby while he was gone.

I didn't say anything about the Nigerian fraud.

But a few weeks later, for some reason, I remembered that Donald once asked permission to call Nigeria, and said I could take the cost out of his pay. I went back through my old phone bills and found the number he'd called. It pays to be anal!

I dialed. I don't know what I was expecting. Maybe a conversation like:

"Good morning. Nigerian fraud ring. May I help you?"

"Is Donald there?"

"No. I'm sorry. He's in Chicago ripping people off. Can I take a message?"

I dialed a lot of times, but all I ever got was a busy signal.

I'm no James Bond.

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