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Five People Charged in Nigeria Scam Trial

The trial of five people accused of conning a Brazilian bank out of more than $240 million has opened in Nigeria's capital, Abuja. The defendants are charged with duping an official at Brazil's Banco Noroeste into making huge payments in exchange for a false promise of a commission on a non-existent airport construction project. The bank collapsed as a result of the scam.

Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission says the trial in Abuja shows the government is serious about fighting this type of fraud, for which Nigerians have become notorious.

Advance-fee scams are known in Nigeria as 419 operations, named after the section of the criminal code that prohibits fraud.

Tens of millions of businesses and individuals around the world receive faxes, e-mails or even phone calls from Nigerians offering a part of non-existent funds or lucrative contracts in exchange for advance fees.

The Africa spokesman of the anti-corruption group Transparency International, Tunde Olugboji, says Nigeria is trying to rid itself of the reputation of being a center for criminal schemers.

"To be very honest, I think it is becoming a bit of an embarrassment to government," he said. "The Nigerian government does not really want to be seen as presiding over a very corrupt nation. This case is a very significant case, because this is actually the first time they will be trying those who are trying to aid those who are committing fraud. In the past, what they have been doing is to be going after principal suspects. I think this is like a new dimension, and this is something that needs to be encouraged."

The accused include a former Nigerian bank director and several wealthy businessmen.

Further investigations in the case are taking place in Brazil, Switzerland, the United States, and Britain.

Nigerian government officials say most of the money stolen from the Brazilian bank has been recovered and is now impounded in the Central Bank of Nigeria.