It is safe to assume that everyone reading this has at some stage received an e-mail from the widow of the late dictator of Benin, Nigeria or some other West African nation, offering a handsome fee if you would just help her get $100m out of the country. There are several variations to this scam — but they follow the same script.

Someone unknown approaches a potential victim (called a mark) with promises of vast wealth. The mark signs up enthusiastically. After a few exchanges of gratitude, their new best friends indicate that the money is ready to be sent to them, but there’s a minor snag.

Some official authority, such as the “antiterrorism and narcotics bereau” (sic), acting in “consonance with act 312, CAX 42a of 1999” (sic) has halted the payment because of the need for an antimoney laundering certificate. All the mark need do is send an amount of money — ranging anywhere from $5,000-$385,000 — to obtain the certificate and release the funds.

The mark complies because of the $38m carrot dangling in front of them. It doesn’t strike them as strange that this official uses a Gmail address. Also, there’s nothing wrong about the money having to be sent via Western Union or MoneyGram, which render the payments untraceable.

Then, a second request for money comes in to overcome yet another unforeseen obstacle, but this also doesn’t bother the mark because the department of finance has issued a “payment attestation clearance certificate” with the word “approved” stamped on it, coupled with an impressive red seal. So that gets paid too.

Then there’s a third request, and the mark starts wondering what’s going on. So they send an e-mail expressing surprise, which is met with an angry response because the bona fides of the law firm handling the funds have never before been doubted in such an insulting manner, so more money is sent. When the fourth request comes in, the mark phones their consulate in the country concerned, which gives them the telephone number of a few lawyers, whose short and succinct advice is unanimous: you’ve been scammed, and the money is gone.

In the past month I have received five queries from Brazilian individuals and companies who were approached in this way by scamsters claiming to be from SA. In the past, I used to get one or two a year. On August 29 alone two companies approached me after having been similarly scammed. After I tell them the hard truth, some ask for a proposal to sue the perpetrators, but never proceed with any instructions because of the embarrassment of admitting they have been scammed.

In one example, two companies were looking for products to import from SA. Somehow, they found apparent would-be suppliers. To the credit of the one company, it approached me to handle on their behalf the negotiations with one Cecilia, who was said to be based in Port Elizabeth. Cecilia had even sent them a legitimate-looking contract, but she never answered my phone calls. I then did a Google Street View search for the address and found it was just an empty stretch of road. I told my clients they were at risk of being scammed and not to continue dealing with her.

Another company had unfortunately already paid for an order for a large quantity of chemicals from a factory supposedly situated in Kuruman. They paid $125,000 for it, even as their bank in Brazil queried the shipping documents. They were told that the merchandise had been shipped but was being held in Walvis Bay because of a random security inspection and, unless the company paid $12,000, the merchandise would be offloaded and destroyed. They paid. A quick Google search also confirmed that the supplier and factory don’t exist; they lost $137,000 in total.

The scamsters went so far as to create a rather convincing website for the shipping company to persuade their marks that the goods were really shipped to Brazil. However, a quick glance at the site quickly revealed that it was bogus. The biographies of the management team contained random text below the pictures of six smiling faces. Though the company claimed to be based in Durban, the telephone number given was 011-0000000. While it is reasonable to accept that a foreigner wouldn’t know that 011 is the area code for Johannesburg, not Durban, the 0000000 number should have raised suspicions.

It is impossible to know if all the fraudsters involved in these scams are really based in SA, but some of the Western Union and MoneyGram receipts I have seen were destined for collection in SA by people with South African-looking names.

In two cases, the money was sent to accounts at First National Bank with bank account numbers that resemble genuine FNB accounts, with the account holders appearing to be companies. That raises the question of how these accounts were opened, bearing in mind the onerous requirements of the Financial Intelligence Centre Act (Fica) when opening bank accounts in SA.

This also meant the perpetrators could be traced. Unfortunately, no-one pursues these matters, probably out of embarrassment. And because they know that is the standard reaction of all marks, the scamsters go ahead with impunity, laughing all the way to the bank while SA’s name is repeatedly dragged through the mud.

We tend to laugh at people who fall for these scams because they are so easy for a trained eye to spot. Indeed, the market for the classic Nigerian scam has diminished because of the publicity it has received.

However, SA is still largely perceived internationally as an honest country, not the place where such blatant scams would originate, and scamsters are now abusing this goodwill — as well as that a potential victim is unlikely to know that Kuruman is not known for its thriving industrial chemicals sector.

• Myburgh, an SA attorney, is a member of the Brazilian Law Society