THE TALL Nigerian with the charming manners and well-cut suits was a familiar figure in the bars and restaurants of Knightsbridge and Mayfair. As far as the staff of his favourite haunts including the Dorchester and Intercontinental were concerned, Chubuwunga Ndukuba was a businessman of international repute with a legion of powerful contacts and pretty women in tow. The powder blue, soft-top Rolls Royce that he required the hotel staff to park only added to his appeal.
Unfortunately, the truth was different. For Ndukuba, or Davidson or Anderson as he also liked to be known, was a brilliant fraudster, a genius con artist, one of the arch exponents of the Nigerian ‘advanced fee’ fraud or 419 scam (419 is the section in the Nigerian penal code banning such fleecing operations).
Ndukuba and his colleagues are brilliant at extracting cash from unsuspecting people and businesses around the globe. They claim to have access to a vast, untapped source of wealth somewhere, often in West Africa. All they need is some bank details or, even better, money up-front (the ‘advance fee’) to persuade the holder of the much larger pot to prise open their vaults.
Often, they will claim, the money was found, languishing in a bank deposit belonging to a Nigerian State body and the up-front cash will be used to bribe an official to authorise its release.
Of course, there is no hidden treasure trove, they take the advance fee, or use the bank details to drain the account, then disappear. Sadly, despite repeated warnings from the Department of Trade and Industry and other agencies, there is no shortage of people willing to put greed before sense.
Recently, however, 419-ers have scaled more ambitious heights – and again found a naive punter – copying the internet pages of the Reserve Bank of South Africa to defraud a Southampton businessman of £150,000. But even by their standards, 35-year-old Ndukuba was something else: he was the master.
Today, as he languishes in jail, serving a four-year term and close to breakdown, according to police sources, Ndukuba can reflect on an amazing career. He came unstuck only through a stroke of bad luck. Despite a lengthy investigation, police admit they did not uncover the full extent of his cons. They could forget any co-operation from Ndukuba: throughout their inquiries he spoke only once, wishing one officer, with characteristic charm, ‘good morning’.
His schemes began to unravel when he tried to snare Korean multi-millionaire Paul Chang. As far as Chang was concerned his new London contact was a gentle, urbane and educated man with a top-floor flat in Beaufort House, near Harrods. When Chang came to London, the Rolls met him at Heathrow and took him to Beaufort House, where he was kept waiting by a well-drilled assistant.
Chang had been hooked with the ‘black money’ trick, a 419 variation that involves the fleecer telling the victim he has come into possession of a huge amount of currency that has been dyed black or white so that it can be moved around internationally without contravening currency regulations.
Chemicals are used to apparently demonstrate how the notes can be changed back to their original colour, cash changes hands and the victim is left holding a suitcase of worthless black or white paper.
Chang was not to know that the Knightsbridge apartment was not Ndukuba’s but had been rented for three days. Neither, as he was introduced to a banker contact of Ndukuba’s who would advise him on how to manage his supposed new fortune, did he realise the suited man on the second floor of Barclays International in Knightsbridge was not an employee of Barclays at all.
IN reality, the ‘banker’ was a white South African car thief who had come to London and worked for Ndukuba. Their plan was simple: Chang would go to the Barclays branch in Knightsbridge, the stooge would be waiting for him. They would sit and chat in the public lobby, Chang would hand over his bank details. Business done, Chang and ‘banker’ would then head for lunch. Subsequently, when police visited the bank they were able to watch a closed-circuit video of the encounter.
Chang was lucky – police rumbled the plan when they stopped the car thief at the wheel of a stolen Mercedes. On the seat next to him was a red folder containing Chang’s details. Ndukuba was caught before Chang’s name was added to his list of victims.
Not so fortunate was Heinrich Reents, a 70-year-old German industrialist and university professor (he is credited with one of the earliest methods of avoiding possible cot deaths). Reent’s business nous and intelligence were not enough to stop him being hoodwinked by Ndukuba. ‘He was very proud of his car, I once met him in a restaurant and he told me that he had had to spend over an hour trying to find a parking place for it,’ said Reents of the man who relieved him of £1m.
He believed Ndukuba could help him gain access to greater wealth, and paid him for his trouble. Even today, as Ndukuba languishes in prison, Reents is planning another trip to Nigeria to pick up what he says is a $250m (£159m) cheque with his name on it drawn on an account held in trust for the family of a former president of Nigeria.
Unmarried and without family, Reents is, according to police, a typical 419 target. Every day, Reents receives about 30 faxes, numerous phone calls and hundreds of e-mails from the gang whose behaviour can only be described as like a hunting pack, determined to dupe him.
At his home in Germany, Reents has 8,000 documents and 1,000 phone numbers of 419 gang members and their associates, including Ndukuba. The list includes senior Government officials and the relations of former presidents. It would be foolish to dismiss Ndukuba and his fellow fleecers as relatively benign. Last August, Reents was abducted by Nigerian con artists in Johannesburg. He was taken to a villa on the outskirts of the city where his abductors told him that he had 20 minutes left to live. They told him that was only because they were waiting for someone to positively identify him as a prosecution witness against Ndukuba.
Reents’s life was saved by a mobile phone call from a friend. Believing no one could get to him in time, his would-be executioners fished the ringing phone out of the waste basket they had dumped it in and gave it to him. Reents told his friend what had happened and within minutes police had traced the phone and freed him – although only after a fierce gun battle.
Reents met Ndukuba, whom he knew as Davidson, at the Dorchester. Ndukuba claimed to be a trustee of funds belonging to the late Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha. Reents noticed his easy way, his familiarity with staff, the Rolls, and later the account at Citibank, where he took Reents several times.
He paid money to Davidson in the expectation of getting access to a far larger amount. It never came. All he was left holding, in the end, was a receipt for the meal at the Dorchester.
Appeared in the Evening Standard as a Special Report