Is there anyone by now who has not heard of the ‘Nigerian 419’ scam or been approached by the people behind it? Hardly a week goes by that I do not receive several of these things in my email (sometimes several in one day). Word must have spread in the confidence trickster world that I look like a real sucker because I used to get these solicitations long before they became well-known as a fraud. Even before the internet I used to regularly get actual letters. But despite their notoriety, even now it appears that there are still people falling for it. In the US alone, it is estimated that about $200 million is conned per year.
The fraud starts with the arrival of a letter or email from someone in another country saying that a vast some of money, running to many millions of dollars, has come into their hands and they are seeking ways to get it out of the country. They have heard that you are a trustworthy, responsible, and discreet person and if you are willing to have your bank account used as a conduit, then you get to keep a third or so of the total.
The letter preys on the greed or desperation of people. It usually is purported to come from an official in a bank or government who has stumbled upon a dormant bank account of a diseased rich person with no heirs, or it is the secret stash of a dead or deposed ruler of a country. Sometimes it comes from a lawyer (these letter writers are seem to think that British lawyers have credibility) who says that he is acting on behalf of a client. Sometimes it comes from the widow or other relative of a former ruler who is now being persecuted by the current regime and is in hiding or in a refugee camp but knows where the money is secretly hidden. Sometimes you are told that you are the winner of a lottery. Sometimes it is from a dying wealthy, religious person, who wants their money to be spent in the service of the poor after they are dead and they have heard that you are a religious person who does good works and they want to support your work.
These letters are an art form in themselves. Douglas Cruickshank writes of the:
almost poetic sweetness (swaddled in lavishly stilted prose excavated from an 18th century protocol handbook) in how the letters begin. “It is with a heart full of hope …” reads one. “Compliments of the season. Grace and peace and love from this part of the Atlantic to you” is how another starts. “Goodday to you, I would here crave your distinguished indulgence” begins a third.” And still another opens, “It is with my profound dignity that I write you.”
My favorite is perhaps this one (the phrasing is less lyrical than the others, but its deep sense of purpose and utmost sincerity can’t be matched):
It is with deep sense of purpose and utmost sincerity that I write this letter to you knowing full well how you will feel as regards to receiving a mail from somebody you have not met or seen before. There is no need to fear, I got your address from a business directory which lends credence to my humble belief. I also assure you of my honesty and trustworthiness.
You’ve no sooner started to read one of these slyly poignant pleas before you’re bathing in the warmth of the author’s lofty intentions, a soothing hot tub bubbling over with reassurance, honesty and trustworthiness.
Whatever the story, you are asked to furnish information, including your bank account number so that the money can be transferred to you. What happens next varies. In the simplest case, they find some way to empty the sucker’s account of whatever money it has. They are the lucky ones.
In other cases, when they hook a sucker, they then say that a minor glitch has occurred and that they need some small amount of money to pay some fees or bribe an official. Once you send the money, you are hooked and you get requests for a little more money to solve another minor problem, etc. all of which are hard to resist, since you have already invested some money. It has sometimes got so bad that people have even traveled to the country to help facilitate the release of the money they’ve been promised and only then discovered that they’ve been had.
There have been people who have had fun reversing the scam. Here is one hilarious story of one such counterscam, though it is better not to have anything to do with the scammers because they are criminals, and just ignore the emails altogether.
Perhaps because the original forms of the scam are now so well known, I recently received a more sophisticated meta-version that exploits the very fact that the original appeals are largely known to be frauds. Here is the email I got last week:
I am Susan Walter, I am a US citizen, 39years. But I reside and work here in the States, and my home town in the States is Texas. My residential address is as follows. [Street address provided].
I am one of those that executed a contract in Nigeria years ago and they refused to pay me, I had paid over $70,000 trying to get my payment all to no avail. So I decided to travel down to Nigeria with all my contract documents.
And I was directed to meet with Barr Mat Oto, who is the member of CONTRACT AWARD COMMITTEE, and I contacted him and he explained everything to me. He said that those contacting us through emails are fake. Then he took me to the paying bank, which is Oceanic Bank Int., and I am the happiest woman on this earth because I have received my contract funds of 4.2Million USD.
Moreover, Barr Mat Oto showed me the full information of those that have not received their payment; and I saw your contact. This is what you have to do now. You have to contact him direct on this information below;
Name: Barr Mat Oto [Email, phone, and street addresses provided]
You really have to stop your dealing with those contacting you, because they will dry you up until you have nothing to eat. The only money I paid was just $1,200 for IRS, which you know. So you have to take note of that.
Mrs. Susan Walter.
It is really sweet of the now-very-rich Susan Walter to take the trouble to track me down and let me know that I too am the genuine recipient of millions of dollars and to warn me away from all the swindlers out there and point me to the one genuine individual. Unfortunately, what with one thing and another, I am a little busy now and don’t know that I can spare the time to contact Mr. Oto myself.
So here’s my offer. I am willing to share my good fortune with someone who is willing to do all the work to get me my money. I have heard that the readers of this blog are trustworthy, responsible, and discreet persons. If any of you are interested, please tell Mr. Oto that you are my authorized agent and once I get my millions of dollars, I will wire you one third of it. Just give me your bank account number, ok?
This reminds me of an amusing song by MC Frontalot called “Message No. 419”
I actually fell for one similar scam back when I was in High school. The people had actually deposited $9000 into a bank account that I opened for the purpose. I remember they told me to withdraw it and send it to three places via western union. I still have a picture of when I laid out the thousands of dollars across my table. I got to keep $600 and a week later they tried to withdraw the same amount of cash, and the bank being suspicious of the large sums of money closed the account for investigation. That was pretty much what happened. I was quite lucky unlike others and I got $600!
You are very lucky that the story ended there. These people are quite dangerous and it is best to simply ignore them.
The words of the song Jared refers to can be read here.
Omar’s experience sounds like a variation of the 419 scam.
In that scam a check it sent/deposited into the target person’s bank. The check is a phony. However, banks usually approve the deposit before the check actually clears.
The person withdraws the cash and forwards it to the designated people.
Later, the bank finds out the check is fake and demands repayment from the depositor. By that time all the people who received monies have disappeared.
Pandora Battery says
I can’t believe people actually fall for these bogus scams!
Mano, don’t worry, the US Treasury can help you out: http://www.hulu.com/watch/61235/saturday-night-live-geithner-cold-open
iPhone clone says
Thank you for the link Vincenzo. At least the U.S. is trying to help people who have fallen for these schemes.
robert jim says
A scam is a scam, and highlights the degree of greed and fear in an individual or a community. When greed overtakes the fear, that is a dangerous situation and all the scams happen here.
People should not fall to the schemes which appear too good to be true.
To be honest, with the current economic situation I see more and more scams everyday. What is even more bad, is that people fall for them, no matter how stupid and shady the scams are
SEO Sheffield says
I’m getting these emails everyday, does anyone actually fall for these scams?
Apparently so. With the cheapness of the internet, it only requires a very small success rate to be worthwhile. And the article said that last year it was estimated that $200 million was lost due to this.
Business Blog says
nice information about this scam article. i hope it’ll not happen again
As a network admin, I can say that I’ve seen, even today, a good few smart people fall for these scams. Afterwards, they’ve all said “How did I fall for such an obvious scam?”. I periodically have to send out security updates and educate our staff to new scams/security threats/etc.
As shown with this particular one, these are constantly evolving and trying new tactics to get people to part with their money.
The most common one (and potentially the most dangerous) I’ve seen people fall for is the Ebay/Bank/Paypal scam emails. Where a link provided on the email (which even the sender address looks legit) directs the user to a site that looks identical to the real site. The user then enters his/her username and password and nothing happens. Meanwhile the scammers now have those users credentials to access their accounts.
When in doubt… Always ask your local neighbourhood IT admin!
westrn union says
I am also getting these types of emails on regular basis, about 3-4 years when i just started to use internet and when i got first time this type of email, i responded them but at the end, those Nigerians guys demanded US$ 1000 for further proceeding and for legal clearance of $20+ million US$.
Anyhow, after discussing with lots of people and also searching online, i came to know, its the fradulant activity, so, i stop to reply those people.
Even, those guys are keep in contact with me, through a UK based mobile number.
business school says
thanks for this scam information
I am amazed that anybody falls for any email scam…even the phishing ones where a redirect sends you to ebay or paypal etc.
Having said that, my wife is very smart (I mean really clever!) but I was watching over her shoulder as she was reading one of these emails and watched her 1/ click the link then 2/ was just about to ‘sign in’ !!
Folks, it is dead easy to spot these, just hover the mouse over the link and check out the link in the bottom corner. And if you are really smart, you can display your email header and do a reverse ip search on the email sending address. I guarantee it won’t be ebay or paypal et al….!!
This is a great article and made me laugh. Thankfully I don’t know anybody who has fallen for this (or probably anyone who would care to admit it!).
Re the USA varient, surely ( I mean REALLY surely)….the opening words ‘Dearest ONE’ would ring the most deafening of bells?? Come on folks, who opens up an email with that line?
Doble Sim Movil says
In deed, I was also used to receive these letters from some completlly unknown people who prented that they have heard from you and that they want you to help them get huge sum of money aoout of their country…
Now they use a sligthly but more affective technique, they pirate you email if you ever happen to answer them even if it is to ask them stop contacting you.
Once getting into the list of your contacts, they contact then as well and use your references to build their credibility.
The best thing to do if you ever happen to receive these mails, is to delete them or alert them as spams.
Hot Tubs says
That counterstory is a classic, great to take a swipe at the scammers!
Cant believe that people can be so thick
Pandora Battery says
I’ve received a few of these -- I can’t believe that anyone would fall for it though!
guitar for beginners says
Unfortunately, my father fell for this scam a number of years ago. He sent them several thousand dollars before we finally convinced him it was just a scam and he would never see anything from them.