March 26, 2009
The Nigerian 419 scam goes meta
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?