What is a Nigerian 419 Scam? Why are they spamming my inbox?

Have You Seen a Nigerian Scam Spam?

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Introduction

A "Nigerian 419" Scam, also known as a "419 Scam", "Nigerian Scam", or "Nigerian Prince Scam" are common names for the "advance fee" scam, where the victim is convinced to make a payment in order to secure a large reward (which does not exist).

Modern "Nigerian Scam" are generally NOT run from Nigeria any more, or perpetrated by Nigerians. Usually they are from Malaysia, Philippines, some former Soviet-Bloc Eastern European nations, and other countries in Africa. Unfortunately, they still bear the modern name, even though the scam is several hundred years old.

The "Nigerian 419 Sam" is a scam that change with the times, and always heavily relies on current events for context.

We will go through the history of the 419 scam, its various iterations and variations, its warning signs, and how to avoid such scams.

But first, a little history lesson.

The Letter From Jerusalem

The first published version of "letter from Jerusalem", predecessor of 419 scam, as appeared in the "Memoir of Vidocq"
The first published version of "letter from Jerusalem", predecessor of 419 scam, as appeared in the "Memoir of Vidocq" | Source
Cover of the original French cover of "Memoirs of Vidocq"
Cover of the original French cover of "Memoirs of Vidocq" | Source

Eugene Francois Vidocq was born in 1775, he started with petty theft, then evolved to elaborate scams and frauds, and was chased by police all over Europe for years. He tried several times to reestablish himself as a reputable merchant using false identities, but was recognized each time, then he was forced to flee. In 1809, he decided to become a police informant in Paris to offer his "expertise" and experience to catch criminals like he was. He went undercover several times, and to avoid discovery, he used variety of disguises. in 1811 he organized an informal plain-clothes unit of the Paris police known as the security brigade, and in 1812 it was formally incorporated into Paris police and he was appointed its leader. However, he did not receive a full pardon for his prior crimes until 1817. He was forced to resign later under jealous superiors and founded what is believed to be the first detective agency in 1833. He died in 1857, having left no heirs. However, his legacy lives on, as he was widely regarded as father of modern criminology.

[ For more information, see Wikipedia ]

The Nigerian scam haven't always gone by that name. The earliest verifiable version was documented in Memoirs of Eugene Francois Vidocq written in 1830. Collectively known as "Letter of Jerusalem", it's always from 'someone rich but in need' and their money can use your help. The earlier versions, usually involving "rich merchants who need to move money", often seem to originate from Jerusalem, thus give scam that particular name.

Vidocq claimed that the letter often have a 20% success rate. The specific version mentioned in Memoir of Vidocq referring to events of the French Revolution (late 1700's), and can be seen above. At the time, the aristocrats are fleeing the country, their assets seized by the new government. It was a chaotic time. The scammers usually work like this:

  • The "mark" receive this letter in the mail, where the author claim to be loyal servant of a particular noble (surname is recognizable, but maybe not the particular person).
  • The noble managed to flee from the chaos, but was unable to retrieve much of the fortune, and simply had it hidden somewhere (in a cave, in a lake, in a false wall in their former mansion...)
  • The author was dispatched by his master to retrieve the fortune now that things have quieted down.
  • The author ran into some misfortune, such as being robbed, then jailed for vagrancy
  • The author know the "mark" from someone, or was referred to by someone, or claim the "mark" was an really old acquaintance of the alleged noble
  • The author needs a little help to complete his mission and will reward the "mark" when the author retrieves the fortune.

This scam soon evolved into a more elaborate version known as the Spanish prisoner.

The Spanish Prisoner, illustration by David Robinson
The Spanish Prisoner, illustration by David Robinson | Source

The Spanish Prisoner

The updated version of "letters from Jerusalem" was set in and after Spanish-American War, but the title itself seem to have came from a short story penned by Arthur Train called "The Spanish Prisoner", published in 1910. It works like this

  • The "mark" (victim) was informed (via letter or in person) that a certain noble (perhaps an unknown relative) is in prison, but was arrested under a false name. (In a variant, it wasn't a noble, but a certain mercenary who had discovered some gold cache, but was captured before he could move it)
  • The perpetrator will explain that nobody knows that the noble's true identity while in prison except him (and now, the "mark"), so the "mark" needs to keep the secret
  • The perpetrator explained that the "noble" has entrusted the perpetrator to help secure his release by raising some funds, and he had came to the "mark" for help.
  • The perpetrator explained that once the rescue is complete, the "mark" will be lavishly rewarded by the noble both for the assistance in rescue and for the discretion.
  • The perpetrator may even hint at a beautiful daughter of the noble that can be introduced to the "mark" as potential marriage material.
  • The perpetrator needs some help from the "mark" to rescue this noble, financial help, with variety of excuses, offered one at a time, such as: "bribe" to the prison guards, discreet transportation, false identity papers, disguise clothing, etc.

In reality, there is no noble, and obviously, no reward, and no beautiful daughter. Just the perpetrator keep squeezing money out of the "mark" until the "mark" realized he's been had, or the perpetrator realized there is no more money and disappears. Or if the victim can be enticed to accompany the perpetrator, he could be robbed in a dark alley.

Different variants could star people who worked under famous people mentioned in the news as being generals or colonels in the war, or nobles forced to flee the Caribbean island after US invasion, and so on and so forth. Scammers at the time crafted elaborate stories based on real places and events but added the element of "hidden Cuban gold" and used them to squeeze unwitting "marks" out of money.

After a hundred years, things didn't really change all that much.

Nigeria, with Nigerian flag as background, by Ohmega1982
Nigeria, with Nigerian flag as background, by Ohmega1982 | Source

A Sample Nigerian 419 Scam Letter

Subject: LOOKING FOR PARTNERSHIP IN BUSINESS

Engr David Koni.
(BOARD OF CONTRACT AWARD COMMITTEE.)
Cotonou Republic Du Benin.

Sir/Madam,

It is my great pleasure to write to you and present my business proposal for your consideration and possible acceptance which you will find mutually beneficial to both parties.

I am Engr. David Koni, the Chairman of the Contract Award Committee,Cotonou Republic Du Benin W.Africa, We need a trust-worthy partner to assist us in the transfer of (US$11,5M) ELEVEN MILLION, FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND UNITED STATES DOLLARS.for further investment in your country,

You will be required to:
(1) Assist us in the transfer of this sum to your bank account in your Country.

(2) Advise on areas for potential future investment in your country

(3) Assist us in carrying out the feasibility study before actual investment. If you decide to render your service to us in this regard,you will be paid 20% of the total funds for assistnce.Reply back this email if you are willing to work with us.

Respectfully,
Engr. David Koni.
Chairman Contract Award Committee {BCAC}


(letter courtesy of http://www.hoax-slayer.com/engr-david-koni.shtml )

The modern "Nigerian 419 Letter"

The 419 is the section in Nigerian law that outlaws all types of cheating. However, it became synonymous with the "Nigerian Letter Scam", the "Nigerian Prince Scam", or just "Nigerian Scam".

The modern variant of this scam seem to have originated in the 1980s, when the Nigerian oil economy went into a sharp decline. Unemployed university students pull this fraud on visiting Western businessmen, on the pretext of introducing them to some secret power broker in the government, then rife with corruption, for plenty of eventual profit, and get them to offer "bribes" to non-existent officials.

In the 1990s, when fax machines and telex machines became more readily accessible, the scam spread out of the country to be perpetrated on recipients in the West. American Dialect Society tracked the term "419 Scam" to roughly 1992, according to Wikipedia entry.

The advent of email, which costs virtually nothing to send, and virtually anonymous, lead to an explosion of this scam.

One example of the Nigerian 419 letter is available to the right. It claims to be some sort of an "award committee" that will give you 20% of millions of dollars simply to pointing them in a certain direction. In reality, you will be asked to pay all sort of fees and such to the scammers accomplices, such as fees paid to "government officials" to "certify" you as a consultant to their organization in order for you to get the money (which, of course, does not exist).

There are many variations on this theme. An old favorite was an African prince fleeing the revolution in his area and trying to escape with his now dead father's fortune, and he'll gladly share it with you if you'll just help him by paying bribes for him as he won't be able to access his money just yet. That's the variant that inspired the alternate name "Nigerian Prince Scam".

Another was some bank official somewhere in the world claimed to have discovered this fund that nobody had claimed (obviously belong to some dead dictator or criminal or someone recently in the news) and if you'll help him claim it he'll split it with you.

When the Iraqi war was going on there were several variations about Iraqi generals or colonels escaping and need to transfer money out, or some US soldier or "contractor" claiming to have discovered Saddam's hidden money cache and needs your help in getting it back to the US.

When Qaddafi in Libya was deposed there were a couple variations, claiming to be relatives or other people related to / working near Qaddafi and needs help moving some of that fortune out of collapsing Libya.

New variations appear all the time based on current news events. It's almost always about some "discovery of previously hidden money from illicit sources", that needs to be moved, and they split it with you if you pay some fees.


Computer Scam
Computer Scam | Source

Four Stages of a Scam

Scam is usually composed with four stages (last stage is optional)

The Tease

Tease is the most important, as it needs to make you interested enough to keep reading. It's a good story, about lost fortune, danger, despair, and hope. And of course, they need YOUR help. That's right, your HELP. The spam email itself is usually the tease.

The Please

This part explains to you how you can benefit, if you "help them out". Usually, how you help them out is NOT spelled out, but left very vague, as the sample letter above shows. However, what you *do* get, i.e. the reward, is spelled out clearly. In the sample letter above, "20% of 11.5 million" is a nice big sum. It's large enough to be surprising, small enough to be "reasonable".

You may receive some documents to "prove" their bona fides (they're fake, of course) if you respond. They'll all look really official and shiny and all that.

Some may even pose in official offices of a government agency, usually by having a co-conspirator snap a picture of them visiting that office, then they can impersonate the real officer (who may even be listed online with names and such, but not IDed).

The Seize

The initial spam usually will not be the seize. That usually comes in the follow-up if you reply to the spammer. You are told the "cost" to get all the benefits that was promised. There will probably a time delay where you are asked to submit some information so they can prepare some documents. Then the scammer will throw in an "obstacle", where a certain percentage "tax" or "fee" or "escrow" or "security" or "bribe" needs to be paid.

Once you responded, then they know they have you, and they will spin increasingly elaborate details on why you can't get the "reward" just yet.

The Squeeze

The squeeze stage is where the victim sends the money. If the victim complies, the victim will likely be squeezed for smaller amounts (a few hundred dollars?) for much longer period of times (several months to a year is not uncommon). The victim will be fed a series of tales such as more bribes, more fees, and so on in order to solicit more and more money, and the victim, snared by "sunk cost fallacy", end up sending "good money after the bad" paying more money to "recover" what he had lost.

Some variants may invite you to go overseas to seal the deal, where you may be kidnapped for ransom, robbed, and sometimes, murdered. Illegal border entry is a serious offence in Nigeria and if the perp paid a bribe to get you in without entry stamp you may be blackmailed as in "I'll report you to the police" if you don't release the funds.

They may often request blank letterheads from you (so they can make a letter for you for local officials, so they claim) and your banking information (so they can put money into your account, so they say). In reality, your letterheads are used to scam their local merchants, and your bank account is drained.

This is your brain being... manipulated
This is your brain being... manipulated | Source

Why Does the Scam Work

The "419 scam" works due to the following factors:

Almost anonymous communications

At the beginning there was just letters, which can never be authenticated. If it was a meeting in person, it's probably false identity. When communications were improved, faxes, telexes, SMS messages, and now emails are all virtually anonymous, and allow scammers to reach a much wider audience.

The anonymous nature of the communication also makes verification of the sender's identity impossible. The "need for secrecy" plea adds to that, as would the element of illicit and illegal conduct such as bribery.

Current Newsworthy Context

The scam relies on the "mark" (intended victim) to know something about the background of the events that allegedly lead to the discovery of the fortune, but not enough to be verified. It merely had to sound "plausible". That's why it was almost always based on "current events".

The Spanish-American War was the first war heavily covered by media, with the Hearst newspaper empire publishing exploits of the US expeditionary forces (such as Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt and the Rough Riders) every day to the masses. People know something about the situation, but never in sufficient detail to prove or disprove the scam.

The modern versions were no different, as the scam was almost always based on current events. When it was Iraq War, it's Iraqi gold or Saddam Hussein's secret stash. When Africa was hot in the news it's some African warlord or dictator's hidden account. When drug war was hot in the news it's some now-dead drug lord's mistress's stash. When Libya had a revolution it was Qadaffi's money... and so on and so forth.

This uses the "domain transfer" cognitive bias of your brain, making you think you know more about current events than you really do. If you saw pictures of some of Saddam Hussein's palaces in the evening news, and you are more likely to believe in claims of Saddam's hidden fortunes, for example, when scammers mention them.

Willingness to Believe (In Good or Evil)

The scam often relies on the tale of relieving a secret bank account or stash of some evil person as some sort of cosmic karma revenge.

In some cases, it relies on the tale of philanthropy, about winner of a lottery giving away some money, or some sort of business investment committee that want to invest in YOUR business. Basically, you're asked to believe there is goodness in the world.

Conspiracy of Illegal Conduct or Secrecy

Variants of this scam usually involve some sort of illegal conduct, such as bribery, embezzlement, and so on. The perpetrator will usually explain this away as "it's the way it is around here", or "it's for a good cause" or "it's bad people's money".

Illegal conduct may not be mentioned right away, but only mentioned in the follow up. In the sample "award committee" letter above, there was no mention of bribery and such. That comes later. The illegal conduct will often serve as deterrent to verification, such as "you can't really call up an official and ask him if he's soliciting a bribe".

This "share a secret" trick is a major compliance tool, as it not only ensures your silence (by making you a co-conspirator) it also makes you too embarrassed to talk about it after you realized you've been tricked.

Foot in Door Technique

Door to door salespeople know that they are far more likely to make the sale if they can get a foot into your door by making you concede that much space. This became known as the foot-in-door technique. The spammer/scammer merely ask you to contact him for details. That is the small concession you gave up, as it shows you are intrigued by the offer. Their "foot" is now in your "door". Now that you have given up something, you are much more likely to give up something bigger and/or more important in the future, than if they simply asked you for the large concession first.

Sunk Cost Fallacy

Many victims fell prey to the sunk cost fallacy, in that they believe they already had so much money and time invested in this "venture" that if they just pay this "one more thing" they can get that gold and the end of the rainbow. Except of course, there is no such gold.

Scammers rely on sunk cost fallacy to squeeze more money out of the victims by coming up with "another excuse" to delay the payoff.


Would You Scambait a 419 Scammer?

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What To Do When You See Such a Scam

What should you do when you encounter such a scam?

The best way is simply consign it to the "spam" bin. Modern email systems have elaborate filters that analyze the spam letters and use the content to update their filters. Merely deleting them from your email doesn't help the spam analysis. Mark them as spam.

A way to scam the scammers is "scambaiting", the act of engaging the scammer in a long discourse, pretend to be interested in his scam, but like him, you introduce some sort of event that prevent you from sending him money, and/or ask him for concessions. The idea is to waste as much of his time and effort as possible, both of which he could have used to scam other people, thus both provide amusement to you (and fellow scambaiters, as their exploits are often posted online for global amusement) and potentially cut down on number of people being scammed. You can learn more about scambaiting in the sidebar.

If you have fallen victim to a scam, and you are in the US, the first thing you should do is report it to IC3, esp. if it's an email scam.

In the UK, contact Action Fraud.

For other jurisdictions, you may wish to contact your local police and see where they point you. Some larger cities have cybercrime divisions.

Conclusion

A "Nigerian 419 Letter" scam is one of the most infamous exports from Nigeria, that unfortunately still bear the name even though few if any had anything to do with Nigeria, and its history dated back several hundred years. It relies on niceness and naivete of the victim to succeed. By knowing how the scam works, you can avoid falling for such scams. If you suspect someone had fallen for such scam, report it to the authorities. Be safe out there.

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