Stories


In case you are wondering, this is a true story and one with a happy ending, at least for me. Perhaps Mr Johnson, his nephew, the “troublesome Frenchman” and the “Assemblyman” may have a different take on the outcome.

Yes, I was fortunate. I had the benefit of some advance knowledge, given to me several years ago by a very good friend when I was approached with another “too good to be true” proposition. My friend told me then the basic way in which this type of scam works and so I was prepared to deal with it and I pre-empted the way in which it was intended to play out.

Had I not spoiled their fun, these gentlemen would have, with great reluctance I am sure, allowed me to profit from their windfall – but there would have been a catch. Remember the syringe and the liquid which was dispensed into the basin of water? And remember that these sheets each contained four bills attached together? Well, in order to able to separate the bills, my Ivorian friend would have explained to all of us that he required some more of the magic potion in the syringe in order to separate the rest of the bills in the trunk. The syringe contained only enough for one sheet, enough to authenticate the contents, and he had been quick to empty the basin of water and “magic” potion as soon as he had the bills separated.

The 8 Million Dollar BMW

In the event that I would have expressed any doubt, the trunk also contained a rather official looking card, laminated, displaying the seal of the American president, and explaining that the contents were a gift from the government of the United States of America to be used to ensure that peace in Africa would prevail. The card further explained the way in which the authenticity of the bills could be determined – i.e. using the contents in the syringe in the way that the Ivorian demonstrated. How could anyone argue with the official stamp of the United States Government, and especially if the “Stars and Stripes” of that powerful country also appeared with it??

And here is where the story would have become more than a story. Only the Ivorian would know where and how to get the potion, and the potion would be expensive. And guess what? The Ivorian would not have the money to buy it. Mr. Johnson and his nephew have already given their money to the Ivorian and so they would also not have any money. However, there would be a solution, one which would enable each of us to get what we wanted. I was anxious to sell my BMW. Mr. Johnson wanted to buy it. My Ivorian friend just wanted to get on with his life. So, if I would help them out with some cash, they would be able to buy the potion, separate the bills and pay me for the car (with separated bills, of course), and everyone would live happily ever after, including the person who supplied the potion who had been paid with my very real money!!

There are other variations on this operation. Sometimes the perpetrators explain that the bills have been marked because they are being sent to be destroyed and all that is needed is to “clean” them with the magic potion. This is the scenario that I had been warned about but as you can see the set-ups can be as varied as imagination permits. The perpetrators look for a likely mark – someone who looks like they are desparate (or greedy) for money. In my case, they could see that I was anxious to sell my car.

The lesson for all of us? If you are presented with a situation that sounds or looks too good to be true, take time to consider it carefully. If you are like me, you try to live your life in such a way as to be open to all possibilities but that does not mean that you throw common sense and good judgement out the window. These kind of scams only work because the victims are willing participants.

By the way, the BMW is still for sale if anyone is interested… Any reasonable offer less than 8 million dollars will be considered.

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My Ivorian friend looked at me with hurt in his eyes. “I thought you were my friend.” The nephew handed him a bowl of water, and without saying anything further, the Ivorian pulled a syringe from the trunk, squirted something into the water and all in the same motion plucked one sheet of bills and placed it in the water.

We all watched as he pushed the sheet into the water, and then began to swirl it around and crumple it as it began to soak up moisture. Slowly, one at a time, each of the four bills that made up the sheet began to separate from the others until there were four separate bills.

The Ivorian requested a dry cloth, which the nephew promptly produced from the next room. He pulled the first crumpled sheet from the water, smoothed it out and dried it off, first one side and then the next, as if this was the most natural thing to be doing with money. He handed the sheet to Mr. Johnson, who took his new treasure and began to admire it, holding it up to the light, looking at first one side and then the other.

Soon a second bill was wiped dry and was handed to the nephew, who followed his uncle’s lead, giving this bill the most serious examination. The third bill was dried and handed to me. I had to admit that it had a look of authenticity about it and I wracked my brain to remember the various tell tale signs used to determine a real from a counterfeit bill.

The 8 Million Dollar BMW

I did not put too much effort into remembering. There were other much more compelling reasons for me to question this apparent windfall. Once again, I reminded the nephew that he should be alerting the authorities. However by this time, he and his uncle seemed  quite satisfied that they each held in their hands true American bills, each worth one hundred US dollars. “These are real”, Mr Johnson enthused with apparent glee, his nephew nodding in fervant agreement.

It was at that moment that I realized that the Ivorian had accomplices. I rose from my seat, “Well, gentlemen, I think I will be leaving now” I injected. I started for the door, wondering if I would be challenged as I passed in front of the nephew.

“But what about our business? What about the car?” the uncle responded.

“Well, the car is still for sale and if you can bring me cash on a day that we can take it to a bank to guarantee that the money is authentic then we can talk business.”

The uncle expressed his surprise, “What are you saying? Are you saying that we would give you false money?”

“That is not what I am saying at all,” I edged closer to the door and the nephew followed.

“Are you accusing us of being thieves?” he shouted.

By this time I was beside my car and I remembered that I was locked in the compound. I  looked over to the watchman, “Wofa, mepa wo kyew, can you open the gate?” As soon as he started towards the gate I was in the car and turning the key. The compound was too small to allow me to turn around. I backed out carefully over the threshold, hoping my car would not get hung up on anything.

Moments later, I was through the gate and on my way out of the back alley, still not willing to look in the mirror because I did not know what I would see. Another hundred yards and I was back onto the paved street and moving away as quickly as the traffic would allow me. The area was unfamiliar to me and I was forced to stop to ask directions, all the while watching the rear view mirror to see if the car with the dealer plates was following. Five minutes and several blocks later, I was breathing easier, relieved to be 8 million dollars the poorer!

Part 3 to follow

“So how much money is in that trunk anyway?”

“Eight million dollars.”

Stated as if that was nothing. No big deal. People commonly walk the streets and travel on tro-tros carrying trunks full of cash, right? Well, that has not been my experience, but here I was, looking at a metal trunk filled with stacks of bills that looked very much like one hundred dollar American bills, and I was not about to dispute amount. It was stated with the utmost of confidence and in a way that made it clear that the speaker was not expecting to be challenged on the matter.

Let me try to set the scene. The day earlier I drove my BMW to Accra. The side windows carried “For Sale” signs, with phone numbers – I was hopeful that someone would spot my car and offer to buy it, and in fact several phone calls came in, some more and some less serious in their offers. One of those calls was from a Mr. Johnson. He was travelling in a car with his nephew and spotted the BMW as I neared the outskirts of Accra.

The 8 Million Dollar BMW

Mr. Johnson wanted to check out the car, and suggested that I bring it to him the next day at Kasoa, the sprawling suburb that I had driven through to get to the capital city. The city traffic is notoriously hectic, and I told him that it would not be possible since my business was in the city. Mr. Johnson suggested an alternative – I should meet him in Achimota.

Reluctantly I agreed, even though it was out of my way, because Mr. Johnson expressed a serious interest in the car. The next morning, I drove to Achimota and waited at the Kingsby Hotel, a well known landmark in the area owned by a very good friend. Mr. Johnson’s nephew, a pleasant young man, met me in a car sporting dealer plates, and led me a considerable distance until we turned off the tarred and well travelled streets onto a side street marked with potholes and without the benefit of any bituman to keep the dust down. We next turned into a small alley and stopped in front of steel gates leading into a house compound. After honking his horn to alert the gatekeeper inside, the nephew parked his car outside and motioned me to drive the BMW through the gates, which were then closed behind me.

The yard was quiet. The nephew led me into the main hall of the house where his uncle was sitting in a well padded armchair. I greeted the uncle, who told me that he was Johnson, and he asked me my name. I responded by telling him my stool name, which prompted much laughter – I asked him why he was laughing, and told him in Twi that I am a chief and suggested that he may wish to be more respectful. With that he was more serious, and asked to see the car.

We went back outside. Mr Johnson walked around the car once, asked that I open the bonnet, and once that was done, he glanced briefly at the engine compartment and motioned that I close the bonnet. He started to lead us back to the house, when something seemed to attract his attention outside the compound wall. “Oh, there is that troublesome Frenchman,” he said. The head of a man who was apparently quite tall was visible above the high walk-in gate, and the nephew went over to talk to him while his uncle and I returned to the hall.

Almost immediately, the “troublesome Frenchman” was in the room with us, a very big black man with tribal marks on his face which showed he was not from the local area. The uncle and nephew asked if I spoke French, and when I indicated no, they began to tell me the story about this new visitor.

They told me that they had met him three days earlier at the town of Elubo, the western border crossing to Cote d’Ivoire. They told me that he was having difficulty clearing a trunk through Customs, and they assisted him by loaning him $3,000 to pay the Ghana Customs officials. He told them that the trunk contained jewelry which he was bringing to sell in Accra. When they arrived in Accra, they kept the trunk while their new Ivorian friend went off to get the money to repay them. He was now before us, begging the uncle and nephew to release the trunk so that he could take it and sell the goods to an interested party, which would then enable him to repay them the money that they had loaned him.

Mr Johnson was quite adamnant – he was not letting the trunk go without the money being repaid. I suggested to the “Frenchman” that he bring his customers to the house so that they could buy the goods there. He said it was not possible, and then he asked me to beg on his behalf to have the trunk released. I reminded him that I did not know him, nor did I know the other two men in the room. He than asked to speak to me outside.

We stepped out onto the small veranda that led off the front door. Once out of the earshot of the other two, he confided in me that the trunk did not contain jewelry as he had told them. He explained that that is the reason that he could not bring his customers to the house. “So, what is in the trunk?” I asked him.

“Money,” was the reply, “not jewelry.”

“So there is no problem. If there is money in the trunk, why don’t you open it now, pay them what you owe them, and be on your way?”

“I don’t know these men and I have no witness. Unless you can be my witness…” he looked at me with mournful eyes, desparate for my assistance in this grave matter.

Of course, I just wanted to get on with my own business – to find out how serious about my BMW Mr. Johnson was, and move ahead with the rest of my day. I agreed, and my Ivorian friend seemed relieved. We went back inside.

I returned to my seat while my friend stood, waiting for me to explain our new proposal. “If you bring out the trunk, my friend will pay you your money”, I said.

The nephew immediately reponded “What does he take us for? Does he think we are fools? We are not going to give him his trunk until he gives us his money.” The uncle nodded in agreement.

The nephew continued to protest but I cut him off. “Abotre [patience], my friend, abotre. Just bring the trunk and let the man open it and he says he will pay you the money.”

The nephew continued to mutter his disagreement but went into an adjoining room and returned, carrying a box covered in brown wrapping paper. It appeared to be quite heavy and he struggled as he set it down in the middle of the room. The Ivorian began to carefully undo the paper  but the nephew impatiently pushed him aside and ripped it off, exposing a grey metal trunk of the type often used by students to store their personal belongings when they are attending boarding school. The Ivorian produced keys and unlocked two padlocks that secured the trunk, and opened the lid.

Mr. Johnson leaned forward and then let out a gasp, “Oh, my God!” he exclaimed. The nephew also leaned forward from the other side with a similar response. The lid of the trunk still obsured my vision, forcing me to also lean forward to peer inside.

Of course I had the advantage of being warned of the contents and so I just smiled at what I was looking at – neatly stacked piles filled the trunk, leaving no space, and each pile consisted of sheets of bills, four crisp one hundred dollar American bills in each sheet. The nephew became quite agitated. “We should call the Assemblyman.” As if to reinforce the idea, he repeated it, “We should call the Assemblyman.”

The Ivorian, with a serious look on his face as if it were quite normal to see a trunk filled with money, asked for a bowl of water to be brought to the room.

As the nephew scurried out to fetch the bowl, I turned to Mr. Johnson. “My friend, you should immediately phone the police. This is a scam, a 419. You must call the police immediately.”

Part 2 to follow