Friday, September 25, 2015

Page 32: The Nigerian email scam

Whether the “Nigerian email” is an urban legend or merely a scam, it has certainly attained legendary status as a pop culture trope—and also as a meme. You know the email. It goes something like this:
I have been requested by the Nigerian National Petroleum Company to contact you for assistance in resolving a matter. The Nigerian National Petroleum Company has recently concluded a large number of contracts for oil exploration in the sub-Sahara region. The contracts have immediately produced moneys equaling US$40,000,000. The Nigerian National Petroleum Company is desirous of oil exploration in other parts of the world, however, because of certain regulations of the Nigerian Government, it is unable to move these funds to another region.
“You assistance is requested as a non-Nigerian citizen to assist the Nigerian National Petroleum Company, and also the Central Bank of Nigeria, in moving these funds out of Nigeria. If the funds can be transferred to your name, in your United States account, then you can forward the funds as directed by the Nigerian National Petroleum Company. In exchange for your accommodating services, the Nigerian National Petroleum Company would agree to allow you to retain 10%, or US$4 million of this amount.
However, to be a legitimate transferee of these moneys according to Nigerian law, you must presently be a depositor of at least US$100,000 in a Nigerian bank which is regulated by the Central Bank of Nigeria.

These are known as “advance fee scams” or “419 scams”—so called in reference to the section of the British colonial penal code, retained to this day in the Nigerian Criminal Code, against impersonating officials for financial gain. They frequently target emails associated with business and academia. Although originating in Nigeria (hence the name), it has since spread globally and rakes in conservatively $3 billion annually.

The Nigerian email is a modern spin on the sixteenth century “Spanish Prisoner” scam, which involves a wealthy prisoner who has promised a handsome reward to whoever should post bail. The scammer, posing as an intermediary, promises the mark a generous cut if they put up the bail. In another version, the mark is asked to help finance the smuggling out of the country the child of an imprisoned nobleman. In modern times, the ruse has evolved into multiple forms: A distant relative has died and the mark is the nearest living relative that the scammer (posing as a lawyer) could find. Or a rich businessperson has died leaving no heir, and thus there is an opportunity to claim the contents of his/her bank account in exchange for putting up a little cash to file the necessary paperwork; in this scenario, the mark is sometimes asked to pose as the dead person’s distant relative…otherwise the money will just be kept by the undeserving bank. In all these scenarios, the payback for assistance with up-front legal costs is handsome, if not ridiculously large.

The Spanish Prisoner scam illustrated by Star Wars...except Han really does get the reward!
© Twentieth Century Fox, video source: YouTube.

Whatever variation this gambit takes, the process unfolds the same: Complications and roadblocks arise that require more and more money to resolve. It can even escalate to a meeting abroad at a five-star hotel (the Netherlands being a popular destination) where the promised fortune is in a bank just down the street, but another large influx of cash is required to complete the transaction.

Given the scam’s notoriety, it is surprising that this implausible scenario suckers in so many people. Schaffer (2012) proposes that the scammers use a potent mix of
apologies, flattery, attempts to intrigue recipients, and appeals to greed, altruism, trust, and religious feelings, while patterns in writing features include use of attention-inducing buzz words like “urgent” and “secret” in subject headings as well as in the letters themselves, and obvious nonnative English grammar, mechanics, and vocabulary errors.
Once people have made that first investment, they stay on the hook for an average of $2,000. It’s almost like they don’t want to admit to having been had, so they keep playing along in hopes that their efforts will be rewarded. Of course, they never are. (Unless your name is Han.)

Given the ease and low cost of generating huge amounts of spam, there is every incentive for the scammers to persist, as even a miniscule success rate rewards their efforts.

There is, however, one disincentive: The Internet has given rise to counter-scammers, or scam-baiters, as they call themselves. See, for example, 419 Eater. These digital vigilantes seek to turn the tables on the scammers, often luring them into doing silly or ridiculous thing. The most famous example was when a pair of scammers were convinced to recreate Monty Python’s famous “Dead Parrot” sketch with the promise of big grant money in return:

Nigerian email scammers are scam-baited into recreating Monty Python's "Dead Parrot sketch.

The scam-baiters’ goal is to keep the scammers so busy that they don’t have time to rip off others. On September 12, 2008, This American Life aired a story about what is perhaps the most extreme case of scam-baiting known at the time.  I remember listening to the original broadcast and finding it fascinating as the story unfolded into a pathic gray area.

Postscript: Literally as I was typing up this post, I received a 419 scam email. Surely, The Billionth Monkey  lives! It was a rather short exemplar, but the guy even included a link to his Facebook page, which shows him wearing an official-looking a curly white wig.

I want to present you as the Beneficiary and next of kin to my late
client account worth of $10.5 million  Dollars with a bank here in
Togo. Get back to me immediately now for more information this is my
private e-mail address: XXXXXXXX

Barrister James TOSSY .(Esq)
Senior Advocate, International Legal
Practitioner& Financial Attorney
Address: 17 boulevard DE GOLFE Lome Republic of Togo

For Further Reading

Innocent Chiluwa, “The discourse of digital deceptions and ‘419’ emails,” Discourse Studies, December 2009, 11(6): 635–60.

Harvey Glickman, “The Nigerian ‘419’ Advance Fee Scams: Prank or Peril?Canadian Journal of African Studies 2005, 39(3): 460–89.

Barbara Mikkelson, “Nigerian Scam,”

Deborah Schaffer, “The Language of Scam Spams: Linguistic Features of ‘Nigerian Fraud’ E-Mails,” ETC: A Review of General Semantics, April 2012, 69(2): 157–79.

Andrew Smith, “Nigerian Scam E-Mails and the Charms of Capital,” Cultural Studies, January 2009, 23(1): 27–47.


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