AT 9AM ON JULY 16, 2009, SCOTT Stuart answered the door of his trailer in Blaine, Washington, wearing just a pair of white cotton briefs. It was as if he’d just been roused from a deep sleep, and under other circumstances that might explain his state of undress. But Stuart had closed-circuit video cameras strategically placed outside his unit, which sat just south of the Canada border. Had he glanced at the monitor inside, he would have known that the pounding that woke him came not from a neighbor looking to borrow a cup of sugar but several armed men wearing tactical vests and windbreakers. And Stuart had more than enough time to take a peek at the black-and-white feed, let alone put on pants; he’d ignored the pounding so long that just as he unbolted the lock those men were preparing to splinter the door with a battering ram.

Maybe it was a sense of resignation that caused Stuart to answer the door in his underwear. The men outside were United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, armed with a federal search warrant. And after Special Agent Robert Baker pushed his way into the trailer he informed Stuart that they were looking for evidence of an investment scam they believed he’d used to bilk more than a hundred people out of millions of dollars. But rather than lead the agents on a clumsy Cops-style chase out the back of the trailer and through the wooded area that surrounded it, Stuart acquiesced to the search and peacefully submitted to being handcuffed. He lowered his bulky six-foot frame onto a couch next to his wife and adult daughter and chain-smoked while the agents rifled through files, booted up PCs, and even searched two rusting, 40-foot freight containers that sat on the property. Six hours later the feds filed out with eight computers and a dozen boxes of documents, including hundreds of receipts for bank deposits. Before Baker left he unshackled Stuart and offered an ominous warning: “I’m telling you right now, you need to stop contacting people and soliciting them for money. Because this will get a lot worse if you don’t.”

A more likely explanation for Stuart’s casual demeanor during the search is that he simply thought he was untouchable. That night, one of his “investors” from the San Francisco area called for an update on when he might get his money. After promising the man that it was just a matter of days before he’d be paid back, Stuart offhandedly recounted his visit from the feds, almost as if describing a trip to the grocery store. Oh, by the way… Then he laughed. They were just shaking him down, he said, trying to steal the cash for themselves. But they wouldn’t find it, Stuart declared confidently. God bless us all in Jesus’s name.

Word of the search began to spread throughout his vast network of contacts within a week, but Stuart placed calls and sent emails to assure them their money was secure. Oh, but could they send a couple thousand dollars more? Some unexpected fees had cropped up.

 

REMEMBER THAT EMAIL YOU ONCE GOT FROM A NIGERIAN BANKER? The one that confided in you—and you alone!—the details of a multimillion-dollar account left by a deceased petroleum magnate? The one that offered you a share of the money as long as you fronted a little cash to pay some fees and grease a few government employee palms? Of course you remember that email. And you knew before you’d finished the first sentence that it was an utter crock. If you didn’t delete it immediately, you probably read it a few times just to laugh at its conspiratorial yet subservient tone; its carefully broken English; its patently absurd assertion that you had to pay money to get money.

It’s called an advance-fee fraud, and despite the warning signs, people fall for some version of it all the time. There’s the foreign lottery scam, in which victims receive a phone call informing them they’ve won a fortune but must pay a fee to have the cash sent stateside. There’s the black money fraud, in which mysterious men claim to have millions coated in a substance that makes the bills undetectable to x-ray devices and thereby easier to pass through customs; if you can pay for a chemical to clean the money, you’re entitled to a cut. No matter what form the scam takes, though, once its perpetrators—who historically have actually been based in West African countries—have someone on the hook, they slowly drain their victim’s savings accounts by fabricating new fees or taxes that must be paid. And most victims are so ashamed of their gullibility or afraid of being prosecuted for participating in something illegal that they refuse to ever report the crime. That’s part of the reason the feds aren’t able to reliably track the amount of American money lost to advance-fee frauds, but Special Agent Baker of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement estimates it could be as high as $4 billion a year.

Despite the seemingly transparent nature of most scams, though, the victims aren’t always necessarily slow-witted. Robert Kierstead, assistant special agent in charge of the Secret Service’s Seattle office, investigated several advance-fee schemes as a field agent in Boston in the 1990s, including one that bankrupted a well-respected scientist—who subsequently morphed into a con artist himself and took the investors in the scam he cooked up for nearly $4 million. “These victims want to believe in something that’s almost too good to be true,” Kierstead says. “You’re talking about people who are gullible or greedy.”

By all accounts Scott Alan Stuart was both. Born in February 1960, Stuart lived most of his life in northern Washington State. He owned a small business in Ferndale, Stuart Scotsman Inc., that sold recreational vehicles and prefab homes, but it had hardly made him rich. He and his family lived in a modest home in the neighboring town of Custer. But then in the late ’90s, Stuart began receiving faxes at his office informing him that a business owned by his father, Holloway Stuart, had been awarded a contract for the construction of an oil pipeline in Nigeria in May 1992. Holloway completed the work but died unexpectedly before the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation could pay him, so Scott was to be the recipient of the contract. Which was worth $45.5 million. That kind of money would change anyone’s life, but it was especially attractive to Stuart. His RV business was not only failing, but he’d also run afoul of the Whatcom County Prosecutor: An audit conducted by the Washington Department of Revenue in 1997 found he had failed that year to report nearly a quarter-million dollars in sales.

To collect his inheritance, Stuart needed only to pay a few taxes and transfer fees. And without much prodding from his new Nigerian associates, he began wiring what little savings he had to overseas banks almost immediately. When he would run short of funds, he’d hit up friends and neighbors for money and promise them a share of the millions he believed he’d one day receive. But by the following year one of those contributors, who’d grown suspicious after failing to see a return on her investment, tipped off the Secret Service. Agents questioned Stuart, but because he had sent all of the money to his contacts in Africa—as opposed to pocketing it—he was considered a victim and the Department of Justice declined to press charges. The agents simply informed him he was being exploited and insisted that he cease raising money immediately.

He didn’t stop. Two years later, in November 2000, Stuart was trading faxes with a man named W.D.A. Williams on an almost daily basis. Williams, purportedly acting on behalf of the petroleum company, had enlisted investors willing to help Stuart finance the release of the inheritance. The following month, on December 14, Stuart and a friend walked into Mobile Exchange, a check-cashing operation frequented by long-haul truckers near the Canadian border in Blaine. The “investors” recruited by Williams had come through, and Stuart had received two checks, one for more than $172,000 and another for nearly $83,000. Despite protests from employees who believed the checks had been altered—badly—Mobile Exchange’s owner approved the transaction, and Stuart and his friend walked out with $254,975.77 in cash.

The next day Blaine police, accompanied by the Secret Service, picked up Stuart for questioning. Just as the skeptical Mobile Exchange employees suspected, the checks had been altered. One was originally written for $2,500, the other for $3,000, and both had been reported stolen. Stuart calmly pleaded ignorance and told the story of his father’s inheritance and his efforts to claim it. His contacts in Nigeria were above reproach, he believed, so he had no reason to doubt the checks’ authenticity. Just as the Secret Service learned in ’98, Stuart wasn’t profiting from the scheme—he’d already wired most of the $250,000 overseas, essentially a pawn in a money-laundering operation—making it hard to charge him with a crime. And just as they had in ’98, the agents informed Stuart he was being scammed, that the inheritance didn’t exist, and that he needed to wash his hands of the whole affair.

Yet despite being presented with evidence that he was throwing good money after bad, Stuart still refused to stop. Was he just that greedy? Or was he nagged by the notion that if he only invested a couple thousand more, he might finally collect his inheritance? Was he so racked with guilt for having thrown away his friends’ savings that he felt duty-bound to get it back? Or was he emboldened by the authorities’ continual failure to stop him? It’s impossible to identify Stuart’s motivation, but one thing is clear: He was persistent to the point of obsession. And in the summer of 2002, he believed he had finally been rewarded for that persistence. On August 30, he sauntered into Pacific Northwest Bank in Ferndale and asked if he could open an account and make a deposit. Then he slid a check across the counter that, if it didn’t cause the teller to think he was the victim of a hidden-camera prank show, should have made him do a double take. Issued by All States Trust Bank in Lagos, Nigeria, and made out to “Stuart A Scots,” the check was for $30 million.

This time, Stuart left empty-handed. The bank’s manager, leery of the Nigeria connection and the obscene dollar amount, confiscated the check and called the authorities. The check was counterfeit, and again Stuart was hauled in for questioning, this time to the Secret Service’s Seattle office. After initially agreeing to a polygraph and then changing his mind, he repeated the story of his father’s work in Nigeria. But this time, he began to show signs of giving up. Before he left—once again without being charged for a crime—he provided agents with a statement that explained why he attempted to cash a check that was so obviously fake. The statement expressed in writing what his slumped shoulders seemed to suggest: “…I was at the point where I needed to recoupe sic all the fund sic that I had paid out and needed to get my money back even knowing in the back of my mind that the [check] may not be good. But at this time I needed to get my family and my business back on track and stop sending my money overseas to Nigeria. There comes a time when enough is enough.”

But that time hadn’t come yet.