This may well be the mother of all Internet scam cases.
Janella Spears, a reverend and a registered nurse from Sweet Home, Oregon, ended up sending Nigerian fraudsters more than $400,000 when she was promised a multi-million dollar pay out from a lost relative.
When she began to doubt she was sent letters from the FBI Director, the US President and the President of Nigeria. She still thought it was genuine and ignored the pleas of her family and law enforcement officials in the US.
She spoke out to warn others of the scams and told KATU TV that she "doesn't think she's a sucker or an easy mark". The blogs have been ripping her to shreds.
Besides her work as a registered nurse, Spears also teaches CPR and is a reverend who has married many couples. She also communicates with lightning-fast sign language with her hearing-impaired husband.
So how did this otherwise lucid, intelligent woman end up sending nearly half a million dollars to a bunch of con artists running what has to be one of the best-known Internet scams in the world?
Spears fell victim to the "Nigerian scam," which is familiar to almost anyone who has ever had an e-mail account.
The e-mail pitch is familiar to most people by now: a long-lost relative or desperate government official in a war-torn country needs to shuffle some funds around, say $10 million or $20 million, and if you could just help them out for a bit, you get to keep 10 (or 20 or 30) percent for your trouble.
All you need to do is send X-amount of dollars to pay some fees and all that cash will suddenly land in your checking account, putting you on Easy Street. By the way, please send the funds though an untraceable wire service.
By this time, not many people will fall for such an outrageous pitch, and the scam is very well-known. But it persists, and for a reason: every now and then, it works.
Spears received just such an e-mail, promising her that she'd get $20.5 million if she would only help out a long-lost relative — identified in the e-mail as J.B. Spears — with a little money up front. "That's what got me to believe it," Spears said.
It turned out to be a lot of money up front, but it started with just $100.
The scammers ran Spears through the whole program. They said President Bush and FBI Director "Robert Muller" (their spelling) were in on the deal and needed her help.
They sent official-looking documents and certificates from the Bank of Nigeria and even from the United Nations. Her payment was "guaranteed."
Then the amount she would get jumped up to $26.6 million — if she would just send $8,300. Spears sent the money.
More promises and teases of multi-millions followed, with each one dependent on her sending yet more money. Most of the missives were rife with misspellings.
When Spears began to doubt the scam, she got letters from the President of Nigeria, FBI Director Mueller, and President Bush. Terrorists could get the money if she did not help, Bush's letter said. Spears continued to send funds. All the letters were fake, of course.
She wiped out her husband's retirement account, mortgaged the house and took a lien out on the family car. Both were already paid for.
For more than two years, Spears sent tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Everyone she knew, including law enforcement officials, her family and bank officials, told her to stop, that it was all a scam. She persisted.
Spears said she kept sending money because the scammers kept telling her that the next payment would be the last one, that the big money was inbound. Spears said she became obsessed with getting paid.
An undercover investigator who worked on the case said greed helped blind Spears to the reality of the situation, which he called the worst example of the scam he's ever seen.
He also said he has seen people become obsessed with the scam before. They are so desperate to recoup their losses with the big payout, they descend into a vicious cycle of sending money in hopes the false promises will turn out to be real.
Now, Spears has gone public with her story as a warning to others not to fall victim.
She hopes her story will warn others to listen to reason and avoid going down the dark tunnel of obsession that ended up costing her so much.
Spears said it would take her at least three to four years to dig out of the debt she ran up in pursuit of the non-existent pot of Nigerian gold.