For the past dozen years or so I've received a steady stream of snarky email from friends and colleagues. Along the lines of, "I see you're moonlighting with another job." Or "I knew you were hard up for money, but I didn't think it was that bad."
They're referring to spam messages from "David Mark" asking them to deposit money in a foreign bank account. Not David Mark, the political journalist, author and public speaker. But David Mark, the Senate president in Nigeria.
A typical money request goes like this:
My name is Senator David Mark, the executive chairman Pension funds committee in the senate of the federal Republic Of Nigeria. I am writing you to earnestly Solicit for your assistance in helping to receive some sum of money. I got your e-mail address on the Internet while searching for a reliable and reputable person to handle this transaction.
We have the sum of US$9,000,000.00 (Nine Million Dollars) that we intend to transfer overseas through the assistance of a foreign partner. This money came as a result of the unclaimed pension funds over the years due to the over invoiced claim put forward by my committee but the pensioners have already been paid for their claim. What is left is the over invoice amount of US$9,000,000.00 which has been deposited in a bank.
I have agreed to transfer the funds overseas for my campaign funding, private use and for investment purposes with your help. I am contacting you therefore, to stand in as the beneficiary to process this fund into your custody. I will provide you with 20% for assisting us and 5% to be set aside for reimbursement for expenses that may arise during the process of concluding the transaction.
The fund shall be transferred to you legally in accordance to all laid down procedures governing transfer of funds. I have perfected all modalities for the successful transfer of this money to you as the beneficiary. Finally, I have to reassure you that this transaction is risk free and should be kept absolutely confidential.
The misspellings, poor English grammar, not to mention common sense, quickly reveal this as a fraud. The Consumer Fraud Reporting Center warns about it this way, noting that the requests sometimes come from the Nigerian president, or a lawyer for one or both of the political figures:
It's a mystery why David Mark and the President of Nigeria named you as a beneficiary, but they say you better reply pretty quickly or risk losing millions from the 'contract/inheritance payment file'. Also notice that the 'lawyer' or official is writing to you from a free email account (Yahoo, Hotmail, etc.); in fact, they typically use more than one free email account.
For years this online presence "David Mark" remained a mystery to me. But in the mid-2000s the Nigerian Senate website began featuring him prominently.
His real-life presence really hit home a couple of years ago as I prepared to head to a nighttime network television interview at a Washington, D.C. studio. As usual, car pick-up was arranged from my suburban Maryland home.
The driver, a friendly and hardworking gentleman, happened to be an immigrant from Nigeria. Guess who he was expecting from the passenger roster listing "David Mark"?
As I stepped into the car that evening the driver could not have worn a more surprised expression on his face. "I thought I was picking up the Nigerian senator," he said with a look of shocked bemusement.
The occasional sarcastic email from friends about the name mix-up is, in reality, a very minor nuisance. But others with easily confusable names have faced considerably worse.
Consider George Zimmermann, a preacher in Volusia County, Fla. With two "nns" at the end, his last name is spelled slightly differently than another Floridian who has gained notoriety of late - George Zimmerman. That individual was, of course, recently acquitted of second degree murder in the shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin.
George Zimmerman is now an internationally-known figure, including by many who disagree with the verdict and despise him - or worse. Huffington Post reports George Zimmermann had to call the Volusia County Sheriff's Office after he received several death threats, apparently meant for George Zimmerman.
"Hey [expletive] you're the one who killed Trayvon Martin, when your [expletive] get out, you're dead," said one caller. "Wherever you go, you're dead. Wherever you're trying to hide, you're dead. Watch your [expletive] move. You think you're free. You're not. You better get ready to dig a 6-foot hole. Cause you know you're fixing to go," the caller added.
"I'm just tired of getting these calls," Zimmermann said. "I don't know what to do about it." Zimmermann has reportedly changed his number in hope of solving the problem.
The Other Tim
Then there's the naval officer who helped bring about the downfall of the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy concerning gay people in the military - Timothy R. McVeigh. After the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which claimed 168 lives, the decorated officer was wrongly routinely confused with the bombing culprit, Tim McVeigh.
In 1998 the Navy discharged Timothy R. McVeigh after alleging he had declared his homosexuality on his publicly available America Online e-mail account. He challenged the move on a number of legal grounds. Eventually a federal court held that the government violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and issued a preliminary injunction preventing the government from discharging McVeigh. The case was later settled, and McVeigh was able to retire at the rank of master chief petty officer with full benefits and the Navy paid for his legal fees. In a separate settlement, AOL agreed to pay damages to McVeigh for having improperly disclosed his identity.
As if that weren't enough, there was him name to deal with. And the fact that he was so often mistaken as the person responsible for the greatest loss of life on American soil in a domestic terrorist attack before Sept. 11, 2001.
Then-New York Times columnist Frank Rich lamented in a January 1998 column that Timothy R. McVeigh, "through bad luck, not genealogy, found himself with the same name as the biggest mass murderer in American history."
He has served his country for 17 years with a spotless record, earning four Good Conduct Medals and the Navy Commendation Medal, among other decorations; his performance reviews cite him as an 'outstanding role model' and a leader in crew training on equal-opportunity issues.
Contrast that record with the other Timothy McVeigh's. In his Army stint before, during and after the Persian Gulf War, the Oklahoma bomber was known for fomenting racial polarization by slurring his black peers and assigning them the dirtiest tasks in the motor pool. He openly trafficked in anti-Semitic and racist literature and participated in the activities of off-base organizations toying with armed resistance to the government. In a published letter to a newspaper editor, he argued that it might be necessary to 'shed blood' to achieve his political aims.
What does it say about American fairness and justice - let alone our priorities in national security - that the military looked the other way at that Timothy McVeigh's ostentatious public psychosis while it torments the second, exemplary Timothy McVeigh for the 'crime' of having a private life that should be nobody's business but his own?
In later years Timothy R. McVeigh at least won a couple measures of redemption. Tim McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was executed for his crimes in 2001. And a decade later the military's "don't ask don't tell" policy was abolished.