A variation on the 419 email scam is being used by fraudsters to take advantage of couples desperate to adopt a child. Once they are carefully lured into a fake adoption process, the victims are then asked for money to cover legal and administrative fees.
While most recent 419 scams rely more on the naivety of victims than any ingenuity on the part of the spammer, some fraudsters are beginning to make more of an effort to directly communicate with the victim to secure their confidence. Their scams are well researched, convincingly presented and may borrow stories from real life to make their stories more authentic and better able to withstand a little scrutiny.
While fake adoption scams have been seen from time to time before, in this instance Symantec observed real life background details and a scammer who goes to great lengths to engage with the victim.
Figure 1. Scam email using adoption story
Rather than using the usual advance-fee fraud scam narratives, such as winning a foreign lottery or a wealthy African leader dying, this fraudster adopts a different approach. Despite this, there were many telltale signs pointing towards a scam. The message was sent to hidden recipients (through a hacked webmail account originating from Hungary, but routed through Italy), and the message required a response to a different webmail provider. These are typical characteristics of an advance-fee fraud, but we decided to investigate further to see how the scammer intended to ask for money.
In an effort to make this adoption narrative appear as legitimate as possible, the fraudster made us go through several hoops before finally getting to the point where we were asked to send money. During our correspondence—which spanned 11 email replies over a two month period—the scammer informed us in great detail about the mother’s story, and the regulations involved with private and independent adoption. They even went as far as providing a fake adoption form along with pictures of the baby!
Figure 2. Babies offered for adoption through this 419 scam campaign
Figure 3. Fake adoption form used to gain victim's confidence
When the fraudster finally decided to ask for money, we were asked to send US$2,500 to cover the "Court Order Preparation and Document Fee." This took the form of one payment of $1,500 and another of $1,000, through a financial services wire transfer. It is likely the scammer requested the payments to be sent this way so the transaction appeared more legitimate and the victim would have more confidence that the scam was actually real.
Figure 4. Scammer requests baby adoption money
When the fraudster provided a name and address to receive the wire transfer payment, we assumed this information was phony. However, looking up this address led us to a startling discovery.
The payee address listed was the office address of a legitimate Adoption and Family Law attorney (who has absolutely no connection to this scam). While most scammers use any old fake name to perpetrate an advance-fee fraud, hijacking a real person's identity can make the fraud appear more convincing. The unsuspecting target may look up the name and confirm the person is a legitimate attorney who is practicing in the United States. It all "adds up," they send the money, and become yet another victim of the scam.
The execution of this adoption scam signals a new approach by 419 scammers, some of whom have now come full circle in their approach. In an interview with The Economist two years ago, I revealed how some advance-fee fraudsters have moved from sending legitimate and official-looking scam messages to far less professional looking missives offering large sums of money in unlikely scenarios. None of these scam narratives are very sophisticated because the scammers look for victims to "self-select."
This example serves as a reminder that not all advance-fee fraud scams are lazy attempts to get the most gullible victims to participate. Some fraudsters use creative tactics, such as this adoption narrative drawn out over months with convincing background details and official-looking forms. There is no doubt that scammer imagination and creativity will continue to evolve in the future.