The Secret Service says it is the latest incarnation of a fraud scheme that targets hundreds of people each day.
The e-mail starts simply — a request to respond to the e-mail to get a phone number — but authorities say it is the first step of a long con that takes in victims looking for easy cash. Other versions of the con involve wiring funds overseas or even traveling to an African nation to claim the nonexistent money.
"The one common link remains with all these letters — they are always a fraud attempt to steal your money," Secret Service Special Agent Brian Deck said Wednesday.
The scam is best known as the "Nigerian e-mail scam" or "419 scam," a reference to Nigerian penal code against fraud. Authorities now call it "advance fee fraud."
According to an FBI report, about 2,600 Americans said they were victims of the scams in 2001. Sixteen reported losses totaling $345,000; two individuals lost over $70,000 each.
The original scam takes the form of a plea from a government official or some other person overseas who wants help moving money - anything from an inheritance to overpayment on a government contract. The victim is promised a cut of the total, which is in the millions of dollars.
Soon, the perpetrators claim there are problems that require the victim to pay lawyers' fees, shipping costs, taxes or bribes.
"Then they'll probably tell you to wait for this package, and then it's never going to show," Deck said.
The Afghanistan e-mail, claiming to be from special forces soldier "Bradon Curtis," says he found $36 million in drug money during a patrol. The e-mail asks the recipient for help moving the cash, kept in a suitcase, out of Afghanistan.
"We will thus send you the shipment waybill, so that you can help claim this luggage on behalf of me and my colleagues," the e-mail reads. "Needless to say the trust (placed) in you at this junction is enormous. We are willing to offer you an agreeable percentage of (these) funds."
Deck said the newest e-mail is the first his office has seen that claims to be from a soldier in Afghanistan, but the scam evolves with technology and current events.
"The letters used to be mailed. Then faxing became the choice of the scammers. Now we are increasingly seeing e-mail being used," Deck said.
More recent scam letters refer to deaths from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, including unclaimed cash found in the rubble of the World Trade Center or the inheritance of a fallen serviceman at the Pentagon.
The Secret Service gets about 13,000 advance fee scam letters forwarded to its office every month and about a hundred calls from victims or potential victims daily. Authorities estimate that the scammers collect millions of dollars each year.