Written by Dana Sherne, CBS News Investigates Intern
WARNING: The Department of Homeland Security has custody of your funds. Unless you send $350 for a "clearance certificate," you can be jailed for money laundering, drug trafficking and terrorism.
This ominous warning comes from an e-mail supposedly signed by FBI Director, Robert S. Mueller III.
Don't worry though; it is just the latest in a long line of so-called 419 scams, a fraud named after the Nigerian law they violate.
The e-mail advises recipients that in order to access the funds (although what funds or how much, it doesn't say) you must send your full name, address and phone number to Reverend James Kelly, available at an AOL address. He will then tell you how to send the "official fee" of $350.
The e-mail is complete with the FBI seal and Mueller's (fake) signature to assure the reader of its authenticity. And don't bother trying to ask for advice, the letter warns: "The person you know will not help you in this matter rather abide by this instruction." Another threat states that failure to provide sufficient information within 24 hours could result in detention as soon as the International Court of Justice provides an arrest warrant.
And in case you think this might not apply to you, the letter warns, "Nobody is above the law and the law is not a respecter of anybody."
This is not the first e-mail that uses U.S. government logos, web sites, or officials' names to scam Americans. Over the past few years, similar e-mails have circulated advising the recipient that he or she had received as much as $10.5 million. In order to retrieve the money, the beneficiary is advised to send personal information to another e-mail address.
"Obviously it's a scam," said Bill Carter, FBI spokesperson. "The FBI doesn't operate in that manner."
According to a Federal Trade Commission report released in March, 60,158 people filed complaints in 2010 about imposter scams such as this one. While this number only comprises 4 percent of all consumer complaints, it is the sixth most commonly reported problem.
Law enforcement sources say that 99 percent of people ignore the initial contact, but the 1 percent who do respond eventually send (and lose) money. But many people don't report when they've been scammed because they do not know how to report it, or they're too embarrassed.
Carter says the logos and directors of other government agencies, like the Internal Revenue Service and the Secret Service, are also sometimes appropriated by these fraudsters. In the aftermath of catastrophes like the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in March, scammers even pose as officers of legitimate charities like the American Red Cross or the Salvation Army.
"There are any number of iterations for that scam," said Carter. "It's so prolific that it's very difficult to keep up with."