I remember the first time I came across the Nigerian email scam -- I'd had a particularly unpredictable and eventful year bumming my way around the world and, when an email arrived announcing that a diamond business was looking for a foreign partner, it seemed to be just that extra touch of Providence that I had been waiting for.
Dear honourable Sir,
My name is Alex Dubonse and I am the son of a diamond mining company in Angola. My father is most unfortunately recently deceased due to insurgence in my country and I am in need of a foreign partner to receive $18,000,000 (18 MILLION) held in his name..."
Granted, the grammar and punctuation were a little sketchy but, after all, my new business partner was writing out of the chaos of a civil war. I could cut him some slack.
I sat back in my chair and contemplated my next move -- or, more accurately, I contemplated what I would do with the 35% cut that Mr Dubonse had promised me. It was bizarre, absurdly fortunate and unlikely, but such was my life and I had always known something special like this would happen to me?
I like to think I would have realized it was all a scam without the warning of a friend in whom I looked for advice but I can't be sure. The genius of the Nigerian 419 Scams (named after the corresponding section of the Nigerian criminal code) is that they play upon people's ingenuity and secret hopes of sudden wealth or, more succinctly put, something-for-nothing.
With the advent in recent years of email as the predominant form of communication worldwide, many have become familiar with the Nigerian 419 scams but they have been going on since the early 1980's by snail mail -- though they generally used counterfeit postage. Now scammers also lurk in chat rooms, dating sites and set up call centers to snare the gullible and naive.
How It Works
The variety of 419 scams is immense but they'll usually follow a certain formula where you will be contacted by a businessman needing a foreign partner for an immense bank transfer, or a large inheritance is waiting to be claimed and you're invited to step in as next of kin, or you will be informed that you have won first prize in a lottery that you never actually entered -- but you always knew your lucky number would come in some day, right?
So now you have this foreign benefactor offering you millions (the rewards are always suitably immense as to dazzle) and he has found you through "extensive research and investigations, knowing you to be an honourable and trustworthy person." How they worked all that out with only your email address to go by is a mystery but we all know that Providence works in mysterious ways ...
Before you can step forwards to claim your millions there are unfortunately the necessary evils of a mountain or paperwork and bureaucratic hurdles to be leaped -- but never mind, your millions are on their way, just hold tight and be patient. Your benefactor will thank you profusely and thank God that you have come to his aid. Then he will explain the next steps to be taken, all of which are designed to loosen the straps on your wallet.
Before you can access the millions of dollars sitting in limbo in some African bank account, it will be necessary to pay some transfer tax, lawyer's fees, or bribe to the bank manager -- but what's a few thousand bucks compared to the millions you're about to make?
After long phone conversations to make you feel important as a real business partner, you'll be talked into sending off an advance fee on some pretext -- but the story doesn't end there.
The Hook Is Sunk
The Nigerian scammers know well enough that once someone is hooked, they can be dragged right down to the bottom -- i.e. once you've paid once, you're now so emotionally identified with your pipe dream that any number of extra "fees" can be extracted from you as "complications" arise.
When looked at in this light, it seems incredible that anyone would fall for such a scam. Yet it's estimated that over $700 million was scammed from American businesses and individuals in 2005 and more than $3 billion worldwide. And the only costs the scammers run are the setting up of hundreds of thousands of ghost bank accounts and the use of a computer with an internet connection.
So if it's a scam why aren't the police doing anything about it?
Well, the first thing to note is that almost all of these scammers are from Nigeria and, while they operate from countries all around the world, including the USA, they tend to only target people living abroad.
The advance fees they ask for will typically be transferred to a third country and, when you consider that the scammers are often on the move themselves, the tangle of legal, financial and jurisdiction complications makes tracking them down a tricky task.
Add to the equation that the negotiations are chiefly carried out in cyberspace and that most victims are too embarrassed to report the crime, and it's understandable that the law enforcement authorities have been slow to shut down, let alone slow down, the 419 scams.
How Do You Spell ...
A couple of years ago, I was in an internet cafe in Holland, a known centre for Nigerian scammers who get student visas there and I found myself sitting next to an African guy who asked me how to spell "inheritance."
I asked him what he did for a living and he looked at me with mistrust for a moment, a suspicion that was gradually replaced with a predatory look as he sized me up for an innocent sucker.
"I am a businessman." He declared, "Have you ever thought of being an export partner?" His rap continued and it emerged that there were 8 cases of diamonds just waiting to be picked up at a Dutch security firm but only by a "trusted" individual holding a European passport.
Of course I had to understand that in return for my 30% share I would need to set up my own export company but fortunately he would take care of all that for me if I would just furnish the necessary $10,000 start-up costs.
The word "shameless" could have been invented for these people. I recently received an email asking me to be the beneficiary of an inheritance and to use the funds to help "widows, orphans, the downtrodden and the indigent." If I lacked any further motivation the scammer reminded me that, "It is often said that the hand that giveth is blessed."
For a bit of fun, the next time that you receive an email like this, try replying and playing the scammer along until it reaches the point that they ask for money. I heard of one guy who replied to these emails with the response that he would most happily do business with them, but his faith required that he could only negotiate with members of his own faith -- and that joining his church cost $20!
It's even been suggested by some that if everyone were to string along 5 scammers then eventually too much of their time would be wasted to dupe the innocent out of their savings.
If you know of anyone who has been targeted by a 419 scam and is seriously thinking of getting involved, go easy on them. It's not just their greed that's at stake here but their overall need to feel special and change their lives -- if you make them feel foolish for being taken then they may turn even more strongly to their scammers for emotional support.
The scammers in turn may then reference stories from CNN to support their case and send you impressive folios of forged business accounts. If they think they're really onto a winner they may even hire actors to play the part of lawyers, Interpol agents or state officials to authenticate their business.
Why They Do It
Lastly, if it seems a little racist or a generaliation to account all of these scams to the Nigerians, the sad fact must be mentioned that the 419 scams are thought to be the 3rd to 5th largest industry in Nigeria and its neighboring countries of West Africa: Togo, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
This is a very populous zone and one that has suffered enormously through colonial misrule and civil war, creating conditions whereby scamming may be the only way many people can make a buck.
The majority of Nigerians are good, honest people and it's only an estimated 250,000 Nigerian scammers who give a bad name to their country.
And if you're still not convinced then perhaps I could interest you in a little export business I happen to know about: knowing you to be an honorable and untrustworthy individual, there's $43,000,000 (FORTY THREE MILLION) lying unclaimed in an African bank account.
Tom Glaister is the founder and editor of www.roadjunky.com - The Online Travel Guide for the Free and Funky Traveller.