419 Fraud: Everything You Should Know About the Nigerian Scam
The type of fraud we'll discuss today is called an advanced fee scam, but you are more likely to hear about it as the Nigerian Scam or the Nigerian Letter Scam. It's often referred to as the 419 Scam as well because Article 419 in the Nigerian Criminal Code deals with it. To make things more confusing, however, the Nigerian Scam is actually an evolution of a confidence trick called 'The Spanish Prisoner.'
The origins of the Nigerian Scam
Rewind the tape back to 17th century Europe. A well-off member of society receives a letter that is supposedly coming from a person that has been imprisoned in Spain. Revealing the prisoner's identity is too risky, the letter says, but the recipient might be interested in the story nevertheless.
The prisoner allegedly knows the location of a buried treasure, but to get to it, he obviously needs to get out of jail. If the recipient is kind enough to lend some money that could be used to bribe the prison guards, the grateful criminal would be happy to share the treasure.
The Spanish Prisoner scam was primarily aimed at wealthy individuals, and some of them inevitably let their greed get the better of them. They were later disappointed to find out that there was no Spanish prisoner at all. Instead, there was a con artist that pocketed the bribery money and moved on to the next victim.
In essence, the Spanish Prisoner scenario is simple: in exchange for a comparatively small fee paid upfront, a stranger is offering a huge reward. This is the basis for the modern-day Nigerian Scam or 419 Scam.
From the Spanish Prisoner to the 419 Scam
Variations of the advanced fee scam have existed for years, but its popularity really took off in the 1990s when the internet made communicating with people on the other side of the world easy, quick, and affordable.
Suddenly, the crooks could send thousands of emails to users all around the world with no more than a few clicks, and as an added bonus, they could also hide behind a moniker. Once again, they had an interesting proposition for the recipient.
The message supposedly comes from a distressed member of a royal family in an African country that has recently been through major political turmoil. The king has been killed by a vicious dictator who has now usurped power and is persecuting the king's relatives. They are in hiding, and the only way they can save their lives is to flee the country.
All the king's wealth (millions upon millions of dollars) is stored in a bank account, and they are set to inherit it, but rather predictably, the political regime won't let them access it. A corrupt bank employee is willing to turn a blind eye, but they'll only do it in exchange for a cash bribe. With no access to their inheritance, however, the late king's relatives are virtually penniless, and they seem to have run out of options.
This is where the randomly chosen recipient of the unsolicited email comes in. The African royalty is willing to part with a significant portion of their inheritance (sometimes in the range of 60% to 70%) and give it to anyone who is willing to help them out of this calamity. If the reader of the email wires enough money to bribe the bank employee and set the whole escape plan into motion, they stand to receive millions as a thank-you present.
You may have already guessed how it all ends up.
There are limitless variations of the scenario outlined above, and although some of you may think that they're too smart to fall for this particular scheme, the millions of dollars the scammers have made from this type of fraud show that many people have been tricked. In some cases, the victim is biting on the bait so hard, that the scammers get the chance to develop different imaginary setbacks and request additional payments.
The Nigerian connection
You could say that the modern advanced fee scam was born in Nigeria. In the 1990s, the vast majority of scammers were located there, and the African country was also a part of some of their scenarios.
Millions were made, and the Nigerian government tweaked Article 419 to cover this type of crime as well. Unfortunately, if they know what they're doing, the scammers can cover their tracks pretty effectively, which means that few of the perpetrators have actually faced the consequences. This makes the crime all the more appealing, and it has predictably been adopted by scammers from many different countries.
For years, poor grammar and spelling mistakes were considered strong indicators of a 419 scam, but nowadays, the criminals are located all around the world, and they come from all walks of life, which means that identifying the fraud is a bit more difficult.
How to avoid falling victim to a Nigerian scam?
Nigerian scams should not be underestimated. The scenarios outlined above might not sound particularly believable to you, but as we mentioned already, they have been convincing enough for many people. What's more, you should never underestimate the scammers' social engineering skills. The level of sophistication displayed by perpetrators of advanced fee scams varies wildly, which means that relying on the spam filters to protect you is not a good idea.
Any messages that encourage you to engage in any sort of activity with a stranger should be treated with suspicion, and if the email tells you that you can make a lot of money with next to no effort, you're most likely better off just deleting it. On the internet, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.