The strange world of 419

Anyone who has been online for a year or two will have received hundreds, possibly thousands, of junk emails. Most of us shut out the deluge by learning to recognise what is and isn’t a bogus message, or setting up systems to automatically filter junk from our inboxes.

Every so often messages will get through these slim lines of defence. Every so often you will read one of these messages. Strangely enough, a high proportion of these messages seem to come from Africa – usually Nigeria or Zimbabwe.

The email usually looks something like this:

Dear Sir,

We are top ranking officials in the Nigerian government. During the military regime in our country, top ranking officials regularly over invoiced various ministry contracts. We have located a sum of $140 million resulting from this over invoicing. Because of our positions, we cannot access this money in our own names. We need a reliable contact in another country who can arrange for the money to be transferred into a foreign bank account. You have been identified by us as such a person.

We have agreed to share the money thus:

  1. 70% for us (the officials)
  2. 30% for the foreign partner (you)

In order to complete the transaction please contact us with a suitable business name and details of a bank account into which the funds can be transferred.

Yours,

Made up ministers name (Dr.)

The emails always have the same features:

  • a phenomenal amount of money (usually money no one will notice missing
  • despite the huge sum)
  • the chance for you to share in it
  • the potential for you to steal all of it

Often the messages are typed ALL IN CAPITAL LETTERS. Some messages refer to lottery prizes, others claim to be from a rich person who wants to donate money to a church and needs help organising it.

As implausible as these messages seem, there are many people who fall for them.

In 2001, the FBI reports, American citizens lost over $117 million dollars to internet fraud scams, including ones like this.

These scams are known as 419 scams. This is because they originated in Nigeria where 419 is the section of penal code covering fraudsters.

419 scams proceed like this:

  1. A gullible and possibly desperate person receives the email and sees the opportunity for wealth beyond their wildest dreams. They respond enthusiastically to the email.
  2. The con man replies and begins to build a relationship with their victim. Several emails may go back and forth, discussing business, family and often religion. When the fraudsters feel they have built up a sufficient level of trust they will ask the victim to transfer some money to the Nigerian account in order to check the transfer route or to confirm that the victim is indeed trustworthy.
  3. Depending on how much money the victim has transferred, the con men may give up with what they have. In some occasions they will see the potential to extract more money from the victim.
  4. They may request the victim’s bank details and signature. Shortly afterwards the victim will find their bank account empty!
  5. In order to make the transfer, some money may be required to bribe officials.
  6. In some extreme cases, victims have been lured to Nigeria to meet the fraudsters in person. This has resulted in the abduction of victims, who are held to ransom, and in at least one case murdered.

These letters are often funny and appear extraordinarily naive. Since so many people fall for them, and that some nasty things have happened as a result, lawmakers around the world take them very seriously. In January this year 52 people were arrested in Amsterdam in connection with these scams.

The funny side

Not everyone takes this seriously though. There are a number of web sites out there documenting correspondence with the scammers. The Spam Letters is a site devoted to baiting junk mailers, and has a section on 419 scams. The victims have turned the tables on the gangsters and wind them up with often hilarious results. Some have even convinced the fraudsters to send photographs of themselves doing silly things. One has a young Nigerian with a large fish balanced on his head. Another holds a sign proclaiming they are an obscene object. An incredibly large number of scammers have been drawn into ludicrous correspondence.

What to do if you receive one of these emails

Emails offering things too good to be true usually are. No stranger ever contacted anyone and gave them millions of dollars. These people are out to rob you. Do not believe that you can get something for nothing!

You have three choices if you receive one of these emails – ignore it, forward it to the appropriate authorities, or try and wind these criminals up, giving them a taste of their own medicine.

Sites that turn the tables

Originally published in Arusha Times 329

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