The bad reputation of online offers of a fortune seems to have lent a new legitimacy to letters sent by post.

The white envelope was impressive - my mail usually comes in window envelopes. And the letter within was more impressive still.

Under the subject heading "Inheritance Final Claim Notification", it informed me that the writer had me on his records as a "likely next of kin (second cousin)" of one Mr Evans Calder who had perished in "the 2007 disaster in southern China while working as a contractor to the Chinese government" leaving a fortune of six million United States dollars (he added $6,000,000 in brackets just in case I couldn't believe my eyes).

I couldn't, of course, and not only because I know who all my second cousins are. My reasons to disbelieve were all on the page in front of me.

They started with the address line: my correspondent, Mark Ashton, operated from a London address without a postcode, which as anyone who has ever sent a letter to the UK knows is virtually a hanging offence.


His "Vale City Road" doesn't exist on Google Maps, which is no surprise because the English word "vale" bespeaks the countryside, not the city.

But it was the text of the letter, taken as a whole, that was fatal to Mr Ashton's entire enterprise. Every sentence contains an infelicity of syntax that suggests a non-native speaker of English: I was "the likely next of kin to [the] estate and finances" of the late Mr Calder, who, when he died, was "64 years old, single and [my favourite bit] had no issues".

By the time I reached the "Yours Sincerely", with its gratuitous capital letter, I was detecting a distinctly fishy smell and I decided to give Mr Ashton a call. (He had urged me not to reply by post, presumably because of the difficulties that invariably bedevil deliveries to a non-existent address.)

For reasons best known to himself, he did not have a landline with the London 020 prefix; his number was mobile only. But he was most happy to confirm that he was the "Mark Ashton Esq" who had written to me, and asked me to send him an email because the matter was too confidential to be discussed by telephone. I had expected him to ask me to send a cheque.

Intrigued by his conspicuously and unmistakably African accent, which I found hard to reconcile with the name Mark Ashton, I asked him where he was from. He stalled for a bit and then said "France". As a gesture of courtesy and goodwill - we were about to embark on a business venture together, after all - I asked him in his native language what part of France he called home. Perhaps my accent was not to his liking, but he immediately hung up.

"Mr Ashton" - I hope he will forgive the sceptical punctuation - is not alone, of course. Scams that promise a fortune to anyone happy to send the few thousand dollars in lodgement fees or transaction costs that must be paid to unlock it are common. But I had never received an offer by snail mail before. It seemed so quaint.

But Peter Merrigan, an investigator with the electronic messaging compliance unit in the Department of Internal Affairs, tells me the mail scams are not new. Travel prizes and surprise inheritances are the common routines. The unit, as its name suggests, isn't responsible for investigating them, but it does list them on its website: there are 15 for March alone.

Merrigan suggests that the bad rep of online scams has lent a new legitimacy to letters sent by post. "Especially the elderly, who may not have a computer, may take the view that if it comes through the mail, it's respectable."

Sean Lyons, of the internet safety group Netsafe, says scams come in waves - the phone calls offering remote virus-cleaning and the pleading email for assistance in getting millions out of war-torn African countries have their seasons. But he agrees that letters will have a spurious plausibility for older New Zealanders.

In the year to last August, he says, we reported giving $4.4 million to these shysters - which doesn't count those too embarrassed to speak up. That's only a dollar a head, but unfortunately the cost isn't evenly spread. Now Evans Calder has let me down and I've let Mr Ashton down, so someone else will have to pay my share. If it's you, can you tell Mr Ashton to call back? We were just getting to know each other.