A couple of days go, I received the following email from a college friend of mine who lives in Sri Lanka. It read:
I Hope you get this on time ?
Am sorry I didn’t inform you about my trip to Spain for a Program, I’m presently in Spain and I’m having some difficulties here because i was robbed on my way to the hotel and the thieves made away with all my cash, cell, passport and other document, presently i have limited access to internet, I will like you to assist me with a loan of ($4,100) to sort-out my hotel bills and to get myself back home,or any amount you can lend so i can make arrangements and return back. I have spoken to the embassy here but they are not responding to the matter effectively, I will appreciate whatever you can afford to assist me with, I’ll Refund the money back to you as soon as I return, let me know if you can be of any help. I don’t have a phone where I can be reached. Please let me know immediately.
(Signed with my friend’s name)
I knew at once that this was a scam because I had read an article by James Fallows in the November 2011 issue of The Atlantic describing his own experience with it.
These scammers are quite clever. The sender’s name and email address exactly matched my friend’s information and I wondered how this scam would work since it seemed like the only way to contact him to send any money was by email and it would go to him. But I looked more closely and found that the “Reply to” address was almost exactly the same except for a single letter that would be easy to overlook in a quick reading. So if I hit the reply button, it would go to the scammer who would then presumably email back asking me to wire the money via Western Union, which seems to be their preferred carrier.
I also noticed that this occurred just one day after the reporting of the hacking of Yahoo email accounts and passwords and my friend uses that service, so I suspect that was the source of the problem.
A mutual friend of ours who got the same appeal tracked down the IP trail of the email and found that it originated in Nigeria, which explains the poor grammar of the message. This is a common feature of the people who run the Nigerian 409 scams. You would think that after all these years they would have hired someone to write correct emails. It is true that readers might make allowances for mistakes thinking that their friend is upset at having been mugged and stranded in a foreign country. But these errors are of a different kind and would have immediately raised suspicions in my mind even if I had not known about the scam.