There are several e-mail scams floating around the Internet. However, one scam has become so popular that it even has its own song. According to Fox News, the 419 – or Nigerian e-mail scam – has swindled an estimated $200 million a year out of people’s pockets. Each year, the number of people who fall victim to this scam climbs. According to the Federal Trade Commission, 55,419 complained in 2005 about receiving an e-mail that appeared to be a scam. In 2002, there were only 21,616 complaints.The 419 scam – named after the section of the criminal code of Nigeria the scam violates – has become so significant in Nigeria that a Nigerian comic released a song taunting Americans who fall for it. The song says, “I go chop your dollar. I go take your money and disappear. Four-one-nine is just a game. You are the loser and I am the winner.”
The scam has become very lucrative in the impoverished African country. One man told the Associated Press, “Now I have three cars, I have two houses and I’m not looking for a job anymore.” The Nigerian government does its best to catch and arrest many of these crime rings, but due to high unemployment rates in Nigeria, the number of scammers keeps growing.
The original scam was an e-mail that offered commission in exchange for helping a barrister recover a large amount of money frozen in an overseas bank somewhere.
Usually, the e-mail asks you to send them your bank account information so they can transfer and “free” their funds. However, people have caught on to the original scam, causing many variations to spring up.
One new scam targets church leaders. The scammer writes that their spouse has just died, and that the deceased wanted their estate to go to a good cause. The sender then says they picked the church leader’s particular church after praying to God. Then, they ask the church leader to send money to cover wire transfer costs and other expenses. Instead, the scammer just keeps it. In a much more elaborate version of these scams, the scammers win online auctions and send a cashier’s check to pay for the merchandise. The criminal purposely sends more than the winning amount and asks for the person who set up the auction to wire back the extra money. These victims successfully deposit the cashier’s check into the bank so they think the buyer is legit. The victim then wires the money to a bank in Nigeria. After a few weeks pass, the victim’s bank discovers the cashier’s check is fraudulent, and the depositor has to account for the missing funds.
Another way these scams work is by staying current with the news. According to MSNBC, the “trapped money” belonged to someone impersonating an “Iraqi national persecuted under Saddam Hussein” instead of a barrister in 2001. In 2000, however, it was the families who had lost someone in the Concorde plane crash. Tsunami victims and families of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq have also been impersonated in other versions of the scam.
Though the content of these scam e-mails might change, the way they are written rarely does. They are often written in all caps and are riddled with bad grammar, misused and and misspelled words – even though English is the official language of Nigeria.
Just reading about these scams makes me wonder how anyone falls for them. Any e-mail that shows up in my inbox that tells me to wire money out of the country sends up a red flag in my mind. In the May issue of The New Yorker last year, former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich said, “American culture is uniquely prone to the ‘too good to miss’ fallacy. ‘Opportunity’ is our favorite word. What may seem reckless to people in many parts of the world seems a justifiable risk to Americans.”
There are many Web sites dedicated to educating people about the 419 scams, so if you ever receive an e-mail that you think is a scam – or worse, become an unfortunate victim of a scam yourself – get in contact with the U.S. Secret Service Financial Crimes Division. By staying educated about how these scams are done, people can help end 419’s crime reign for good.
Shemir Wiles is a senior majoring in mass communications.