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The 419 Scam, or Why a Nigerian Prince Wants to Give You Two Million Dollars

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You've probably gotten a copy of this email— A Nigerian prince or government official sending a desperate plea: He’s being cheated out of millions of dollars, and needs your help spiriting the money out of the country (letting you make a fortune in the process). Kyle Cassidy tells you how to protect yourself from this dangerous scam.

If you've been on the Internet for any length of time, you've probably gotten a copy of this email already. A Nigerian prince or government official sending a desperate plea: He's being cheated out of millions of dollars for one reason or another, and needs your help spiriting the money out of the country. He got your name from a business associate and you, Obi-Wan Kenobi, are his only hope. Like millions of other Internet users, you no doubt have deleted dozens of these without a second look. Who could fall for something so obviously a hoax?

You might be surprised to discover that Americans are bilked out of more than one million dollars a day by this scam, which has been operating out of Nigeria in snail-mail form since the 1980s, with a total of more than five billion U.S. dollars lost to fraud, more than $100,000,000 of it to U.S. citizens. Called alternately "Nigerian Businessman Scam," "Advance Fee Fraud," or "419 Fraud" (after the relevant Nigerian criminal code number).

How It Works

Typically the scam works like this (pick one from Column A, one from Column B, one from Column C, and one from Column D):

You are contacted by a

Column A:
Family member of deposed leader
Wealthy businessman

who needs your help getting large amounts of

Column B:
"Forgotten" government money
Personal wealth
Excess money from over-invoiced contracts

out of the country. He is willing to pay you an absurd amount of money—several million dollars—to help. All he wants to do is deposit the money in your account, escape the country, and then retrieve the money—minus your generous fee. Being a good citizen (and because you've always wanted to own a Movado watch and a Ferrari), you agree. Typically, the scammers will ask for signed business letterhead and bank routing numbers; these are then often used for other purposes such as being made into "legitimizing" evidence to show other potential customers ("See this great letter of satisfaction we have from Bob's Widgets?") and to apply for fraudulent documents. In return, all sorts of official looking documents will begin to arrive in your mailbox: lots of stamps and seals. You think you're sitting pretty. (The State Department has a collection of these documents in its booklet about 419 scams: http://www.state.gov/www/regions/africa/naffpub.pdf). But then, while transferring the money, your new friend runs into a snag:

Column C:
A banker will not transfer the money without a bribe
There are taxes on the transfer
Export fees are necessary
The money is marked and must be "cleaned" (for a fee)

The options here are more bizarre. You may:

Column D:
Give up after paying several "fees" and seeing nothing in return
Travel to Nigeria and be bilked of further funds
Travel to Nigeria and be kidnapped/held for ransom
Travel to Nigeria and be killed
Be contacted by a "Nigerian Government" recovery agency who will ask for an up-front fee to recover your lost money. (This is what the State Department refers to as "revictimization.")

Although there have been numerous reports of kidnapped, missing, ransomed, or dead foreigners in the past few years, the more typical scenario involves you traveling to Nigeria and bearing witness to a bafflingly complex display of grift. You are left not only penniless, but in debt to everyone you know. The Web site www.crimes-of-persuasion.com notes that the meeting may occur in real or fake government offices, with dozens of supporting staff adding to the officialdom. You even get a tour through government buildings by high-ranking officials, and are shown piles of cash in the vault of the Central Bank. The character actors and extras rival those in "The Sting."

Typically, physical force (for example, kidnapping) happens only when victims come to Nigeria to close the deal, and after paying several "fees" or "bribes" that appear unexpectedly, refuse to cooperate any more and attempt to leave.

There have been several documented cases of actual kidnapping. In July 2001, the Times of London reported that a former mayor of Northampton fell for the 419 scam, and ended up in Johannesburg, South Africa with a gun to his head. He was rescued by an international police effort after getting a message to his wife.

And in 1999, a Romanian businessman, Danut Mircea Tetrescu, was kidnapped and held for a half-million dollar ransom.

Also in that year, Kjetil Moe, a Norwegian millionaire who had fallen for the 419 scam and traveled to South Africa, was kidnapped and eventually murdered. Police arrested five Nigerians and two South Africans who they believed were responsible for both the kidnapping and murder of Moe and the kidnapping of Tetrescu.

The most bizarre variant of this fraud is the "threat scam." The scammers get directly to the point without monkeying about with export fees and documents. The victim receives a fax or email supposedly from an assassins' guild, which reads something like this:

"We have received a fax message from our World Headquarters, New York, this morning to inform you to produce a mandatory sum of US$35,000.00 (THIRTY-FIVE THOUSAND UNITED STATES DOLLARS) only, into our account given below in Switzerland within Ninety Six hours (96); alternatively, you will be kidnapped and forced to commit suicide during the period of our oncoming anniversary of fifty years."

(This text is actually pulled directly from a State Department publication, which reproduces an actual document complete with a skull-and-crossbones assassin letterhead.) This variant is more popular in Europe than the U.S., and the State Department has no evidence that such threats have ever been carried out. However, Congress found that, in total, 15 foreigners and two American citizens have been murdered when they flew to Nigeria to "close the deal."

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