If you’re trying to extort money from people, there are probably better choices for a victim than William H. Webster. Back in 2014, Webster was called by a Jamaican man, 29-year-old Keniel Aeon Thomas, who was attempting to perpetrate the all too common advance-fee fraud scam (often known as the 419 scam, after the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code that addresses fraud).
Over a number of weeks, Thomas, calling himself David Morgan, made a series of calls to the Websters, and they soon turned threatening: he described their house, and he said that if they didn’t hand over $6,000, he’d shoot them in the head or burn their house down, boasting that the FBI and CIA would never find him.
But unknown to Thomas, William H. Webster is a man with a considerable past. He was director of the FBI under Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan (1978-1987), and then director of the CIA under Reagan and George H.W. Bush (1987-1991), making him the only person to have led both intelligence agencies. Now aged 94, he still works in government and has been chair of the Homeland Security Advisory Council since 2005. As such, he’s a little better connected than most victims of these phone scams, and both he and his wife Lynda swiftly took advantage of these connections. They reached out to contacts at the FBI, calling an agent while talking to Thomas so that the agent could listen in.
Though a criminal complaint was filed, no effort was made to extradite Thomas to bring him to justice. However, Thomas went on to enter the US of his own free will: he left Jamaica to visit a friend in New York in late 2017, at which point he was arrested and charged with extortion. He pleaded guilty and admitted that he threatened to kill the Websters. Last Friday, he received a sentence of almost six years, after which he’ll be deported to Jamaica. The court heard that he’d successfully scammed more than 30 victims. According to prosecutors, one 82-year-old Californian paid more than $600,000; another $87,000.
These 419 scams have been extremely common since the 1970s, with scammers using faxes, emails, and phone calls to reach their victims as technology evolved. All throughout, such scams have often specifically targeted the elderly. Even recently, business appears to be booming: the FBI claimed that American victims lost some $275 million in 2015, growing to $675 million in 2017. Globally, billions of dollars are defrauded each year. Perhaps the best known version of the scam is that an African prince has inherited some vast fortune from a dead relative but needs a few thousand dollars to grease some palms or pay some taxes so that the funds can be released; the prince is reaching out to you personally because your reputation makes you trustworthy and honorable, and in return for your assistance you’ll receive some fraction of the fortune. Winning a lottery that you never actually entered is a common variation, but in this case Thomas’ luck seems to have been the exact opposite.