We have all had that junk mail claiming to be someone who was either the daughter, son or banker of the late Nigerian Dictator General Sanni Abacha, claiming to have access to a secret stash of money, a clandestine fortune stored in some obscure bank in Switzerland, running in the millions of dollars, and all they want is someone like you, a honest and extremely reliable person to help them transfer this great cash reserve to a bank in your country in return for a substantial percentage of the late head of state's massive secret fortune. They only need your bank account number, your name and other particulars and a small fee to help with the transfer sent via Western Union. If you pay, the fees keep on building up.
General Sanni Abacha
Another variant of these scams is that your email address was randomly drawn in a lottery and you have just been declared the winner of a massive lottery draw by some obscure London Lottery agency and all that you needed to do was send some money for processing and your bank particulars for the funds to be deposited into.
Dead African leaders or those that have been overthrown are the prominent subjects of most of the 419 letters. The term 419 refers to the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code which deals with a type of fraud known as a Nigerian “Advance Fee Fraud.” In these schemes, someone pretending to be a Nigerian official or business-person asks ordinary individuals and companies to help move millions of dollars out of Nigeria in exchange for high, hassle-free profits. The fraudsters solicit investors through mass mailings, faxes, phone calls, and e-mails.
In another example an individual claiming to be a twenty something year old claims to have seen your picture on Facebook and knew there and then that you were meant to be with them for life. They then ask you for money to buy clothes, take pictures and send to you.
These 419 mail solicitations are usually deleted as mere annoyances by many and most computer software recognize them as phishing scams and send them automatically to junk mail. In many cases however, many people have fallen prey to these get rich easily schemes and it is actually surprising that thousands of gullible and trusting people all over the world fall for these scams.
Of course some of these scams are very elaborate. The letters are carefully crafted, the grammar impeccable and constructed in such legal language that the mind that is not skeptical easily believes they are genuine letters. My first exposure to these type of scams occurred when a friend of mine at the Gamtel post office in the Gambian city of Janjangbureh called me one day and said he got a letter claiming his name was randomly selected in a drawing and he had won a million pounds. My friend used to apply for those dubious correspondence courses from unaccredited british colleges and they probably would have just sold his address to their fellow scammers. But as it was in the Gambia in those days and the isolated island of Janjangbureh for that matter, none of us had heard about these scams then. Janjangbureh people are not even aware of most of the things that happen in the capital Banjul half of the time. My friend called me, very excited and showed me the letter claiming he had won a million British pounds an he just needed to pay 50 pounds for processing and he was wondering where he was going to get the 50 pounds from. "Sabally" (I believe that was his name) I said, always the skeptical Sierra Leonean, "why not reply and tell them to take that 50 pounds out of your million, and probably take ten thousand pounds for themselves and send you the rest?" Sabally looked at me for long and said "Sheku these people would have got me, I never thought about that. If they have that much money for me, why can't they just take out the 50 pounds and send the rest?" "Exactly!" I said, and that was my introduction to mail scams.
Though these scams are now known as Nigerian 419 scams, they most probably did not originate in that country. Nigeria only became renowned for these scams when a large population of unemployed youths with access to Internet cafes decided to make the sending of these letters or mails a full time profession. The success of the early scammers who convinced many unsuspecting people in America and Europe to mail millions of dollars to the country, convinced others to join them in these easy money schemes and soon Nigeria added this title to her already sullied reputation, not because most Nigerians were involved, but because a sizable number of greedy people would destroy the reputation of their country country in a bid for easy riches.
Just as piracy has become an established way of life in some Somali communities, 419 has become a way of life for many youths in Nigeria. There are also people in countries all over the world engaged in these deceptive practices who do not even know where Nigeria, but they are all known now as 419ers. So somehow, the country us getting a bum rap as many of these schemes do not originate in Nigeria. But if you are known as a rapist the first person people think about when a rape occurs is bound to be you and Nigeria sure has a sizable bunch of questionable characters.
419er paid in his own coin
Over the years, many people have tried their hand at these scams and as too many people are now sending out these mailings, they have grown from elaborate plots to simple ideas to even downright stupid schemes and letters. Last month, I received a letter from a guy claiming to be Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations who claimed that UN had some funds for me! Another claimed that my father hid some secret money in a bank in Switzerland which they discovered and then proceeded to ask me which country I was from. My father may not even know where Switzerland is and if you know my father who had never left Africa, how come you would not know where I am from?Some of the grammar used in the letters would be so horrible that you do wonder how the Nigerian government would have made the writer the governor of the central bank of that great country. I have even received a scam letter from Goodluck Jonathan, the president of Nigeria!
Of course many people have fought back against these scammers. Major TV networks in USA such as NBC and ABC have done investigative reports of these scams. Microsoft and other email systems now automatically detect these letters as scam and send them to junk mail folders. Even ordinary people have joined in the fight against these 419ers and some people have also gone to elaborate lengths to scam the scammers themselves. A valuable web resource on how people are fighting back against 419ers is http://www.419eater.com/index.php
The website is pretty exciting and hilarious and one of the most enjoyable sites on the Internet in my weird opinion.
419 scammers are smart people who are not really clever. I have met a lot of honest, hardworking Nigerians who are very successful people through honest endeavors. Most people today look at you differently however, when you tell them you are from Nigeria. Even those of us who have met honest Nigerians, unconsciously become immediately skeptical to engage in transactions with anyone saying they are from Nigeria and these scammers should realize that though they may be getting immediate temporary benefits at the end of the day their country is losing millions in foreign investment because of skepticism about doing business their. Nigerians may think they are smarter than most people, but they are winning battles and losing the war. One bitten twice shy, and many people are shying away from Nigeria. The leadership of that country should really put their foot down against these guys and not glorify them them as is done in most nollywood movies.