Nigerian e-mail scams.

How an idea spread and grew on the Internet.
Oct. 22 2002 10:13 AM

The Nigerian Nightmare

Who's sending you all those scam e-mails?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Perhaps you heard from Daniel A. Oluwa over the past few days. He's a member of Nigeria's Federal Audit Committee. He dropped you an e-mail, labeled "Strictly Confidential," stating that he's discovered a frozen account containing $42.5 million. Mr. Oluwa wants to snag the loot, but, for unfathomable reasons, he needs a foreign-based partner to act as an intermediary. Interested? Merely send along your "bank name, address, account number, swift code, ABA number (if any), beneficiary of account, telephone and fax numbers of bank." Thirty percent of the booty shall eventually be yours.

If you didn't receive Oluwa's electronic plea, maybe you were instead pitched by Dr. Chukwubu Eze, who's looking for a partner to help him spirit away $33.62 million in illicit oil money. Or Steve Okon, the purported son of a murdered Zimbabwean diplomat. He's got the skinny on about $10 million stashed away in an Amsterdam vault. Or any number of women named Mariam who claim to be the widows of either the late Nigerian strongman Sani Abacha or the deceased Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. They need help tapping into some Swiss bank accounts.

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As you no doubt guessed, none of these supplicants were on the up-and-up. But you might be surprised to learn that they are, in fact, Nigerian. Odds are they're all Lagos-based con artists looking for American dupes greedy enough and dumb enough to spend thousands in pursuit of nonexistent fortunes. They aim to lure you to Nigeria or to a nearby nation where you'll be cajoled into ponying up endless fees to secure the "riches"—$30,000 for a "chemical solvent" to disguise the money or $50,000 for "customs duties." When you eventually wise up, faux police barge into your hotel and demand massive bribes in exchange for your freedom. Tapped out? Expect to be held for ransom or murdered.

This swindle is commonly known as "419 fraud," after the section of the Nigerian penal code covering cons. According to the anti-spam software vendor Brightmail, 419 come-ons are the Web's second-most common form of junk mail, ranking behind only those incessant "herbal Viagra" ads. Though most people merely laugh at the pleas' awful grammar and all-caps style ("I WILL LIKE YOU CONTACT MY LAWYER ..."), about 1 percent of recipients actually respond. Of that number, enough people fork over enough cash to sustain an industry that ranks in Nigeria's top five, right up there with palm oil and tin. The U.S. Secret Service has estimated—conservatively, by its own admission—that the scammers net $100 million per year.

The scam is experiencing a digitally aided heyday, but 419's roots stretch back to the Jazz Age. It's an Africanized version of "The Spanish Prisoner," a classic 1920s scheme in which suckers were convinced that a wealthy scion was rotting in a Barcelona jail. Front some cash to win his freedom, and you'd be amply rewarded for your troubles. Or not.

Nigerian updates on the Spanish Prisoner first appeared in the late 1970s, when photocopied pleas began arriving in American mailboxes. Organized gangs located potential victims by combing through the White Pages, and they paid for the postage with bogus stamps. The volume of letters picked up in the mid-1980s, when Nigeria's oil industry tanked. The widespread adoption of the fax machine gave the hucksters an additional means of contacting their prey, and corporate faxes churned out plenty of junk letters beginning, "PLEASE EXCUSE MY INTRUSION INTO YOU BUSINESS LIFE. …"

The scam's transition to e-mail began around 1996. At first, because of Nigeria's lackluster telecommunications infrastructure—household phones are a rarity, to say nothing of dial-up Internet access—only the old organized gangs could afford to participate. But in the past two to three years, cybercafes have sprung up all over Lagos and other major Nigerian cities.

Information technology has lowered the barriers to entry for Nigerians hoping for a share of the 419 haul, just as it's helped countless Americans indulge their fantasies of becoming self-taught electronic musicians, video auteurs, or MP3 swappers. Brains, not money, is the scam's only prerequisite now, thanks to the Internet's inherently democratic nature. Unfortunately for the gullible of the world, Lagos teems with bright, underemployed youths who grasp that concept. No longer the sole domain of professional criminals, 419 has become a cozy family business, Nigeria's version of the Greek diner or Irish pub.

For $1 per hour, a lone 419er can use a cybercafe terminal to send out duplicitous spam, eliminating the need for sizeable startup capital (even fake postage stamps cost something). Spam "bots," or automated programs, comb the Internet in search of e-mail addresses, replacing the need to spend hours upon hours thumbing through American or European phone books. E-mail accounts can be obtained for free via services like Hotmail or Yahoo!, and they're untraceable when registered with false information and used from a public terminal. Some 419ers with rudimentary HTML skills have even begun to set up fake Web pages to bolster their scams. A site for the fictitious "Dominion of Melchizedek" recently bilked thousands of Filipinos in a bogus-passport con.

Not surprisingly, the number of 419 letters received by Americans has soared. The Secret Service reported a 900 percent increase in the volume of Nigerian scam spam between 2000 and 2001. The U.S. government is so rankled by 419 spam that it's given the Nigerian government an ultimatum: Do something about the problem by November or face economic sanctions. Although last year only 16 Americans claimed financial losses, totaling $345,000, that's probably a fraction of the full amount. Most victims are too embarrassed by their own stupidity to ever come forward.

Heartless as it may sound, there's a silver lining to the digitization of 419. The proliferation of cybercafes in Nigeria can be linked directly to the demand supplied by 419ers, who form the establishments' core clientele. Walk into an Internet cafe in Lagos, and chances are that a good percentage of the terminals are occupied by men masquerading as Laurent Kabila's long-lost son or as a rogue official at the Central Bank of Nigeria. The wiring of Nigeria is being propelled by 419—much as America's appetite for porn helped shepherd the commercial Internet through its infancy. AOL made it through its lean, early years only because of adult chat rooms and spicy picture downloads (which kept the meter running during the era of per-hour access fees).

Someday 419 will abate, when young, educated Nigerians have better economic prospects and foreign Internet users get it through their thick skulls that, no, you're not going to rake in millions by flying to Nigeria and fronting some stranger your life savings. And when that day comes, there will be a thriving Internet culture for Nigerians to use for more legitimate purposes. If the Daniel A. Oluwas of the world have the technical chops to work a 419 scam, they can surely get an e-commerce site going.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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