This page considers the 'Nigerian Advance Fee' or '419'
scam, email offers to cut you in on illicit disposal of
loot supposedly secreted by African mass murderers or
It covers -
- what is the 419 Scam?
- the history of 'advance fee' fraud from the late Middle
Ages to the internet era
- how does the scam operate?
- how many messages, how much money
and scam baiting - action by governments
- research into the sociology and restriction of the
Nigerian Advance Fee fraud
following pages examine types of '419' frauds, highlight
particular incidents and discuss requests to feed sundry
orphans in Africa, Asia and the former USSSR.
The note supplements discussion elsewhere on this site
Security & InfoCrime
The 'Nigerian Advance Fee' frauds (often known as the
419 scam, after the corresponding section of the Nigerian
penal code) typically involve receipt of an unsolicited
letter, fax or email that is claimed to come from
heir/associate of a notable (eg African and Asian politicians
such as Nigerian President Abacha, Congo's Laurent Kabila
and Mobutu or Philippines President Marcos) with illicit
wealth in an unfriendly jurisdiction
from someone in a financial institution with access
to that wealth
government official or individual in a financial institution
with with access to other funds from, for example, unclaimed
estates or corporate overpayments.
recipient is asked to assist in transferring the funds
to a friendlier jurisdiction, generally to the recipient's
personal bank account, with the promise of receiving 5%
to 30% of the proceeds. If the recipient responds to initial
contact the scammer invites the person to travel overseas
to complete the transaction in person or merely exchanges
correspondence, sometimes featuring impressive-looking
stamps and letterhead. At some stage the scammer reports
either a hitch - typically an official has to be bribed
- or requires the recipient to provide money for processing
and other fees. That provision of funds, rather than supplying
details of the recipient's bank accounts, is generally
the purpose of the scam.
Examined objectively the fraud sounds deeply implausible
- why would Yasser Arafat's widow ask you, a total stranger,
to launder her loot - but it is a scam that judging by
complaints to regulatory agencies appears to have gulled
a considerable number of people. Some individuals have
made substantial payments to 419 scammers. Others have
travelled to unlovely locales such as Port Harcourt or
Lagos to consumate the supposed transfer, on occasion
being grabbed by gangs or entertained by visits to 'government
Precursors of the email scam - like those of online chain
letters - can be traced back several centuries, with
the so-called Turkish Letter and Spanish Letter frauds
of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Victims were
induced to hand over money by promises that they would
share in the wealth of a merchant or noble who had been
imprisoned by the Moors, Spanish Inquisition, Khedive
of Egypt or Ottoman Sultan and needed money to bribe the
guards or pay a ransom. Some people found such stories
more credible than requests for final-stage funding of
research into alchemy.
A rash of Russian Letters appeared in the 1920s, with
money supposedly needed to rescue people held by the Bolsheviks.
Drake's Fortune: The Fabulous True Story of the World's
Greatest Confidence Artist (New York: Doubleday 2002)
by Richard Rayner, highlighted elsewhere
on this site, profiles conman Oscar Hartzell, who used
agents to relieve several thousand greedy fools of money
for 'legal fees' to unlock the supposed vast estate of
Elizabethan explorer Sir Francis Drake. In the 1950s and
1960s some cons sought advance payment for retrieving
supposedly sunken SS or Mussolini gold from lakes in Austria
and North Italy.
Nigeria came to the attention of the public and regulators
during the 1970s over letters - generally aimed at small
businesses rather than individuals - purporting to come
from figures in the Nigerian government (often the Central
Bank or Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation) wanting
help disposing of new oil wealth. Those letters were posted
in Africa and Europe. In 2002 the US Department of Justice
gained a court order to open every item of mail from Nigeria
passing through JFK airport in New York, with around 70%
involving scam offers. Russell Smith notes (PDF)
that between August and November 1998 Australia Post confiscated
4.5 tonnes of advance fee correspondence (1.8 million
items) that had counterfeit postage.
Uptake of faxes during the 1980s and 1990s saw the scammers
move from print to fax messaging. That was followed by
an explosion of email at the end of the millennium, with
the scammers spamming recipients
in advanced economies (primarily those in English-speaking
nations). The addressing of that email was indiscriminate,
encompassing organisations and personal addresses.
The 419 scam reflects costs (eg how much does it take
to identify, contact and 'groom' victims;
what inducements are necessary to ensure the complaisance
of people in financial institutions or regulatory agencies),
benefits (how much money can be extracted from the victims),
success rates and risks (what is the likelihood of detection
and successful prosecution by a local or foreign law enforcement
While human greed and gullibility do not seem have changed
substantially, the net has altered the economics of the
advance fee business. It is for example estimated that
419 spammers need only a 1% success rate to make a profit
and that an individual could easily send around 100,000
messages a day.
Prior to the mid-1980s when identifying and contacting
potential victims was labour intensive the scammers used
business directories, trade journals and other publications.
Advent of the fax saw purchase or theft of electronic
directories or rekeying or print directories. More recently
the scammers have purchased email lists (eg disks with
large-scale collections of names that are promoted by
spam) or have trawled the net in search of names. As with
other spam, if your address has appeared on the web you
are likely to get an offer to engage in money laundering.
The location of the 419 scammers is uncertain. Email forensics
suggest that some indeed operate out of Nigeria, with
many apparently using cybercafes,
academic institutions and even government offices. Some
are domiciled in Europe or other parts of Africa. In 2004
for example three people from Nigeria and three from Benin
were convicted in Amsterdam for defrauding victims of
several million dollars, including a Swiss professor who
lost US$482,000 after being promised 25% of US$36 million.
In 2006 prominent US psychologist and neuroscientist Louis
Gottschalk was reported to have lost US$3m over a 10 year
The Nigerian Government blames mass unemployment and poverty,
extended family systems, a get rich quick syndrome, and
- with some justice - both the greed and stupidity of
foreigners. 'Ritual Killing, 419, and Fast Wealth: Inequality
and the Popular Imagination in Southeastern Nigeria' by
Daniel Smith in 28(4) American Ethnologist (2001)
803-826 places Nigerian practice in the context of globalisation.
A UK Metropolitan Police alert aptly warns
that "if it sounds too good to be true, then it is!".
We have elsewhere commented that if an offer from Lagos
or Port Harcourt seems too good to be true it will not
become legitimate merely through delivery online ... and
that why should you trust a total stranger who typically
invites you to break the law?
Statistics about the 419 are problematical: perpetrators
do not publish information on their demographics or revenue,
victims often do not report their losses, successful prosecutions
are rare, media coverage is often uncritical.
A UK presentation at the 2002 International Conference
on Advance Fee (419) Frauds reportedly claimed that around
millions of people who receive 419 e-mails and faxes
are successfully scammed. Annual losses to the scam
in the United States total more than $100 million, and
law enforcement officials believe global losses may
total over $1.5 billion.
US National White Collar Crime Center and FBI Internet
Fraud Complaint Center (IFCC)
2001 Internet Fraud Report (PDF)
indicated that 419 fraud cases amount to 15.5% of reported
grievances, with only one in ten crimes being reported.
The median loss was US$5575, compared to a median for
all internet fraud of US$435.
In 2006 the Queensland Police Fraud & Corporate Crime
Group reported that 419 scams had defrauded over $7 million
from Queenslanders, including financial advisers, lawyers
and university professors. One victim had handed over
$2.2 million to scammers over the preceding two years.
Harvey Glickman's insightful The Nigerian "419"
Advance Fee Scams: Prank or Peril? (PDF)
analysed a set of 419 email messages, which supposedly
South Africa 35 (18%)
Sierra Leone 16 (8%)
Zaire 11 (6%)
Zimbabwe 10 (5%)
were attributed to -
from widows, heirs, or someone representing
4 from ex-military, most of these numbers rolled into
governmental officials as a category
67 from governmental officials
53 bank officials/accountants
2 other company officials
sources of funds vary by recipient. Our tabulation of
3,400 offers over June 2004 to June 2007 is as follows
regulation and scambaiting
Regulation in advanced economies has centred on warnings
to potential victims and, more subtly, on diplomatic pressure
against states such as Nigeria that are perceived to be
lax in controlling scammers (eg by not assisting US officials
tracking money flows). As with much online information
crime, enforcement frequently involves multiple agencies
and action across borders.
The Nigerian federal government belatedly established
an Economic & Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC)
curb the menace of corruption that constitutes the cog
in the wheel of progress; protect national and foreign
investments in the country; imbue the spirit of hard
work in the citizenry and discourage ill gotten wealth;
identify illegally acquired wealth and confiscate it;
build an upright workforce in both public and private
sectors of the economy and; contribute to the global
war against financial crimes
practice that body has been mired in Nigeria's murky politics
and made little progress in systemic reform of the nation's
kleptocracy, which as the EFCC lamented in June 2005 had
"stolen or squandered" a mere £220 billion
foreign aid between 1960 and 1999.
Government warnings include -
Treasury Advance Fee Fraud Advisory page
US Federal Trade Commission Consumer Alert
- The 'Nigerian' Scam: Costly Compassion
US Department of State - Bureau of International
Narcotics & Law Enforcement Affairs Publication
10465 - Nigerian Advance Fee Fraud (PDF),
which comments that 25 tourist murders or disappearances
have been directly linked to 419; other people have
been beaten, held against their will or blackmailed
responses include scam
baiting, misleading the scammers. An offline collection
features in Greetings in Jesus Name! The Scambaiter
Letters (York:& Harbour Books 2006) by Michael Berry,
aka Shiver Metimbers.
The 419 scam has attracted surprisingly little scholarly
attention. Exceptions include Andrew Apter's lucid 'IBB=419:
Nigerian Democracy and the Politics of Illusion' in Civil
Society & the Political Imagination in Africa
(Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 1999) edited by John Comaroff
& Jean Comaroff, Pauline Reich's 2004 Cybercrime:
advance fee scans in-country and across borders (PDF),
the 1999 Nigerian advance fee fraud study (PDF)
by Russell Smith, Michael Holmes & Philip Kaufman,
'Online crimes and advance fee fraud in Nigeria - are
available legal remedies adequate?' by A Salu in 8(2)
Journal of Money Laundering Control (2004) 159-67
and faddish 'A "Tribe" Migrates Crime to Cyberspace:
Nigerian Igbos in 419 E-Mail Scams' by Farooq Kperogi
& Sandra Duhé in Electronic Tribes: The
Virtual Worlds of Geeks, Gamers, Shamans, and Scammers
(Austin: Uni of Texas Press 2008) edited by Tyrone Adams
& Stephen Smith.
Language studies include 'A Rhetorical Analysis Of Fund-Transfer-Scam
by Martin Kich in 14 Cercles (2005) 129-42, 'Email
Fraud: Language, Technology And The Indexicals Of Globalisation'
by Jan Blommmaert & Tope Omoniyi in 16(4) Social
Semiotics (2007) 573-605, Susanne Budge's 2006 undergrad
'To Deceive The Receiver: A Genre Analysis Of The Electronic
Variety Of Nigerian Scam Letters' and 'I Go Chop Your
Dollar': The Nigerian 419 Scam And Chronoscopic Time'
by Bjorn Nansen in 18 Antithesis (2008) 32-56.
The bibliography for Glickman's paper, noted above and
also available in 39(3) Canadian Journal Of African
Studies (2005), offers a valuable point of entry
into the literature.
Questions regarding racism and vigilantism
are highlighted in 'Your Assistance Is Urgently Requested:The
Intersection Of 419 Spam And New Networks Of Imagination'
by Matthew Zook in 10(1) Ethics, Place & Environment
(2007) 65-87, the 2006 'Scamming The Scammers: Vigilante
Justice In Virtual Communities' (PDF)
by Lauri Tuovinen & Julia Röning and 'Effects
of the Electronic Nigerian Money Fraud on the Brand Equity
of Nigeria and Africa' by Viosca, Bergiel & Balsmeier
in 27(6) Management Research News (2004) 11-20.
Douglas Cruickshank's 2001 I crave your distinguished
indulgence (and all your cash) article
offers an irreverent view of the genre.
The Informant (New York: Broadway 2000) by Kurt
Eichenwald covers the fall of Archer Daniels Midland executive
Mark Whitacre, whose misdemeanours started when he fell
for a 419 scam.
Swindling and Selling: The Spanish Prisoner &
Other Bargains (New York: Free Press 1976) by Arthur
Leff considers the structure of scams and victim psychology.