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UCI Psychiatrist Bilked by Nigerian E-Mails, Suit Says

Dr. Louis A. Gottschalk lost perhaps $3 million over 10 years in the scam, his son alleges in court documents.

March 02, 2006|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

A renowned psychiatrist from UC Irvine was duped into squandering at least $1.3 million of his family's fortune on a Nigeria Internet scam, according to a lawsuit recently filed by his son.

The son, also an Orange County doctor, said his father -- Dr. Louis A. Gottschalk -- gave as much as $3 million over a 10-year period in response to an Internet plea that promised the doctor a generous cut of a huge sum of cash trapped in African bank accounts in exchange for money advances.

The court documents, filed last month in Orange County Superior Court, allege Gottschalk even traveled to Africa to meet a shadowy figure known as "The General."

Gottschalk -- who at 89 still works at the UCI campus medical plaza that bears his name -- said in court papers that the losses were caused by "some bad investments."

Guy Gottschalk is asking a judge to remove his father as administrator of the $8-million family partnership that was set up for tax purposes after the death of his mother in 1993. A hearing is set for March 14.

The suit alleges that Louis Gottschalk destroyed bank records to cover up the amount of his losses.

"While it seems unlikely, even ludicrous, that a highly educated doctor like [Gottschalk] would fall prey to such an obvious con, that is exactly what happened," wrote Guy Gottschalk's attorney in court papers.

Louis Gottschalk and his attorney declined to comment, but they accuse Guy Gottschalk in court documents of carrying out an unspecified "vendetta" against his father. The son lost an earlier court effort to have a conservator oversee the family partnership.

Fred W. Anderson, a Santa Ana lawyer who represents Guy Gottschalk, said neither he nor his client would comment except to say, "This is an unfortunate and sad situation."

In court papers, Guy Gottschalk said his only motive was "to prevent Louis Gottschalk from continuing to be victimized by these devious Nigerian scams."

The Nigerian Internet scam -- known in some circles as 419 after the Nigerian statute that outlaws fraud -- is a long-running con that preys on people with e-mail accounts. Though there are scores of variations, the con begins with an unsolicited message from Nigeria or other African nation -- usually from an alleged government official, banker or businessman who needs to find a way to get millions of dollars out of his country.

If the target of the sting agrees to set up a United States bank account and pay transfer fees and other charges, he's told that he'll get a substantial portion of the money once it is freed up.

Though many of the alleged Nigerian e-mails originate in other countries, Nigerian government officials said more than $700 million relating to 419 crimes had been seized in the last two years. Twelve people have been convicted in connection with the scam during that time, officials said.

While Nigerian solicitation e-mails are ubiquitous in cyberspace, the number of people in the United States who fall for the con is small, according to National White Collar Crime Center figures.

In 2005, 290 cases involving the Nigerian scam made up only 0.3% of the total complaints of Internet fraud lodged with the government. The median reported loss was $5,000.

But John Kane, research manager for the National White Collar Crime Center, said people blinded by greed continue to wire their money overseas.

"Although this scam has been around for years," he said, "you continue to see some people who forget the adage, 'If it's too good to be true, it probably is,' and fall prey to a get-rich-quick mentality."

Anthony Pratkanis, a UC Santa Cruz scholar and author of "Weapons of Fraud," said his studies show that cyberspace scam artists are adept at exploiting a victim's weakness, whether it's diminished mental capacity, greed or compassion.

"Then there's a line that gets crossed when they send in the money and then they're caught in a rationalization trap," Pratkanis said. "One way to convince yourself the scam is for real is to send more money, ironically enough."

In the Gottschalk case, both the amount of the alleged losses and the reputation of the victim set it apart.

Louis Gottschalk, a neuroscientist, is the founding chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at UCI College of Medicine. He gained national prominence by announcing in 1987 that President Reagan had been suffering from diminished mental ability as early as 1980.

He came to this conclusion by using the Gottschalk-Gleser scales, an internationally used diagnostic tool he helped develop for charting impairments in brain function, to measure speech patterns in Reagan's 1980 and 1984 presidential debates.

In 1997, Gottschalk gave $1.5 million to the UCI College of Medicine. In exchange, school officials named the medical plaza after him and his late wife.

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