Nigerian online criminals on the run in South Africa

Nigerian criminals who have masterminded a series of fraudulent online schemes in several African countries are on the run in South Africa, according to local news reports.

In a recent development in the ongoing series of Internet-based crimes, the fraudsters made off with millions of dollars swindled from foreign online investors using reputable South African banks.

U.K. and U.S. authorities reportedly are closing in on the alleged criminals, and the South African Crime Elite Forces arrested 22 Nigerians allegedly behind the South African banks scheme. The 22 are reportedly part of a broader group that set up fake Web sites that appeared to be those of reputable financial institutions, luring victims to open accounts and pay fees ranging from US$1,000 to more than $4,100. Authorities have traced telephone numbers used by the alleged criminals to South Africa, Europe and the U.S. and some numbers have been linked to Nigeria.

The sophistication of the fake Web sites suggests it is not likely that all of them were generated in Nigeria, analysts said. Some officials believe the schemes are part of a larger network of organized crime, particularly given the complexity of the crimes and the amount of money bilked from victims.

The ongoing scheme, which often starts with an unsolicited e-mail appeal, has struck victims in the U.S., U.K. and various European nations. Law enforcement officials have estimated that an average of five people fly daily from the U.S. to Europe to meet with people they believe they have forged deals with after the e-mail propositions only to have no one show up to meet them and to discover they have been duped.