The Web of lies

"Urgent and Confidential: Dean Cameron's Nigerian Spam Scam Scam" turns the tables on a well-known internet scam.

By Rob Kendt
Special to The Times

Dec 8 2004

One day Dean Cameron would like to meet the unwitting co-author of his play "Urgent and Confidential: Dean Cameron's Nigerian Spam Scam Scam."

Though the mystery man with whom Cameron exchanged e-mail for nearly a year is clearly a remorseless con artist who would "kill your mother for 50 bucks," as Cameron puts it, this elusive figure did prove himself a worthy match for the elaborate fictions Cameron spun to keep their exchange going past the initial form-letter plea for help.

While the actor-writer corresponded in the voice of an imaginary "Dean Cameron" — a cheerfully eccentric Florida millionaire with a spastic colon, two playful felines and a mischievous Asian houseboy — his Nigerian foe deftly alternated between the voices of both Maryam Abacha and her son Ibrahim, purportedly the heirs to a vast fortune left by the late Gen. Sanni Abacha, a real-life Nigerian leader who died in 1998. All they needed from Cameron, they explained, was $1,800 to help "unlock" this "frozen" inheritance of $30 million, of which Cameron would receive a generous portion.

This Abacha-manqué offered Cameron more than just a tantalizing peek behind the official-seeming boilerplate used to perpetrate these common "419" scams — so called for the Nigerian law enacted to crack down on Internet fraud. The elusive spam-scammer also had a natural scenarist's flair.

"He writes the Maryam role as well or better as I write the Dean Cameron role," Cameron effuses of his unknown opposite number. "You really get a sense of the mother as this reserved woman who's grieving for her husband, and who finally falls for Dean, this American man."

Indeed, though the budding pen-pal romance between Maryam and Dean is just one of the unlikely story arcs of "Urgent and Confidential," it explains why the play, performed reader's-theater style by Cameron and costar Victor Isaac, evokes a sort of absurdist, house-of-mirrors "Love Letters."

The theatrical possibilities of the exchange emerged when Cameron began to gather a virtual audience, first via forwarded e-mail, then via a popular website. It was presumably for the benefit of these in-on-the-joke readers that when the fictional Dean sought legal counsel, his lawyer was none other than Perry Mason.

Still, most of his character's idiosyncrasies — misspellings and malapropisms, a desire to share a guacamole recipe and pictures of his cats, oblique references to a wide and unconventional sexual appetite — were designed solely to get a rise out of his implacable pen pal.

"Once, in the letters, I talk about how my houseboy Kwan has ruined my Turkish bath towels," Cameron says. "And [the scammer] wrote me back and said, 'I think you should get rid of Kwan.' "

Cameron's proudest moment, though, came when his correspondent acknowledged his fictional cats by name: "The first letter where he said, 'Say hello to Mr. Snickers and Jojo the Dancing Clown,' I stood up and screamed."

Later, perhaps out of exhaustion at Cameron's constant digressions and delays, the scammer confuses one cat's name with the title of a TV show, "Mister Sterling," that "Dean" has repeatedly plugged in e-mail as his "new favorite." Cameron clearly relishes such signs, however small, of humanity in his unseen adversary.

"The tenacity is admirable," he says, "because I'm not the only one he was dealing with, and I'm sure that's why he got the names confused."

Of course, if the anonymous con artist had actually caught an episode of NBC's short-lived "Mister Sterling," he might have noticed that a bespectacled 40-year-old actor named Dean Cameron was among the show's stars. To this day, Cameron can't be sure to what extent the Nigerian con man was on to him as surely as vice versa. There's reason to believe many scammers are wise to such reversals.

For all the fun Cameron had, it's often the Internet fraudsters who get the last laugh. The U.S. Secret Service reportedly receives 100 calls a day from Americans who have been solicited or defrauded in such schemes.

Don Masters, an agent at the Los Angeles office of the Secret Service, recalls the sobering case of a Beverly Hills retiree whose conscience was pricked, and his checkbook opened, by a scammer's tales of torture at the hands of the Nigerian government.

"He started off with a $2,500 hit and ended putting his home up on a second mortgage and lost everything," Masters recalls, putting the total loss in the range of $600,000. "Those are the real sad ones."

Last summer, Cameron caught some flak when he took the show, currently at the Sacred Fools Theatre, to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where he plans to take it again next year, as well as to venues across the country and to corporate functions.

"When we went to Scotland, my director, Paul Provenza, warned that if we think we're politically correct here, over in Europe they're really PC. And one or two guys after the show there gave me a hard time, like, 'Don't you feel bad making fun of Nigerians?' "

He said he's spoken to people who know firsthand the desperate situation in Nigeria, where "this is one of the only opportunities for smart people" to make a living. Still, he points out, "There are a lot of people who live in poverty who don't turn to crime."


'Urgent & Confidential'

Where: Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Ends: Dec. 18

Price: $10

Contact: (310) 281-8337