Nigerian Scam - History

History

The Nigerian 419 scam is a form of advance fee fraud similar to the Spanish Prisoner scam dating back to the late 19th century. In that con, businessmen were contacted by an individual allegedly trying to smuggle someone connected to a wealthy family out of a prison in Spain. In exchange for assistance, the scammer promised to share money with the victim in exchange for a small amount of money to bribe prison guards. One variant of the scam may date back to the 18th or 19th centuries, as a very similar letter, entitled, "The Letter From Jerusalem" is seen in the memoirs of Eugène François Vidocq, a former French criminal and private investigator. Another variant of the scam, dating back to circa 1830, appears very similar to what is passed via email today: "'Sir, you will be doubtlessly be astonished to be receiving a letter from a person unknown to you, who is about to ask a favour from you . . .' and goes on to talk of a casket containing 16,000 francs in gold and the diamonds of a late marchioness."

The modern 419 scam became popular during the 1980s during the hyper-corrupt "Second Republic" governed by President Shehu Shagari. There are many variants of the letters sent. One of these, sent via postal mail, was addressed to a woman's husband and inquired about his health and a long, unexpected silence. It then asked what to do with profits from a $24.6 million investment, and ended with a telephone number. Other official-looking letters were sent from a writer who said that he was a director of the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. He said that he wanted to transfer $20 million to the recipient's bank account – money that was budgeted but never spent. In exchange for transferring the funds out of Nigeria, the recipient would get to keep 30% of the total. To get the process started, the scammer asked for a few sheets of the company's letterhead, bank account numbers, and other personal information. Yet other variants have involved mention of a Nigerian Prince or other member of a royal family seeking to transfer large sums of money out of the country.

The spread of e-mail and email harvesting software significantly lowered the cost of sending scam letters by using the Internet. While Nigeria is most often the nation referred to in these scams, they may be originated in other nations as well. For example, in 2006, 61% of Internet criminals were traced to locations in the United States, while 16% were traced to the United Kingdom and 6% to locations in Nigeria. Other nations known to have a high incidence of advance fee fraud include Côte d'Ivoire, Togo, South Africa, the Netherlands, and Spain.

One reason why Nigeria may have been singled out is because of the comical, almost ludicrous nature of the promise of West African riches from a Nigerian Prince. According to Cormac Herley, a researcher for Microsoft, "By sending an email that repels all but the most gullible, the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select." Nevertheless, Nigeria has earned a reputation as being at the epicenter of email scammers, and the number, "419", refers to the article of the Nigerian Criminal Code (part of Chapter 38: "Obtaining Property by false pretences; Cheating") dealing with fraud. In Nigeria, young men would use computers in internet cafes to send mass emails promising potential victims for riches or romance, and to trawl for replies. They refer to their targets as maghas – scammer slang that developed from a Yoruba word meaning "fool". Many also have accomplices in the United States and abroad that move in to finish the deal once the initial contact has been made.

In recent years, much effort has been done, by both governments and individuals, to combat the scammers involved in advanced fee fraud and 419 scams. In 2004, the Nigerian government formed the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to combat economic and financial crimes, such as advanced fee fraud. In 2009, Nigeria's EFCC announced that they have adopted smart technology developed by Microsoft to track down fraudulent emails. They hoped to have the service, dubbed "Eagle Claw", to be running at full capacity to warn a quarter of a million potential victims. Many individuals will also participate in a practice known as scam baiting, in which they pose as potential targets and engage the scammers in much dialogue so as to waste their time and decrease the time they have available for real victims. Details on the practice of scam baiting, and ideas, are chronicled on a website, 419eater.com, launched in 2003 by Michael Berry. One particularly notable case of scam baiting involved an American who identified himself to a Nigerian scammer as James T. Kirk. When the scammer – who apparently never heard of the television series, asked for his passport details, he sent a copy of a fake passport with a photo of Star Trek's Captain Kirk, hoping that the scammer would attempt to use it and get arrested.

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