Got message number 419
The advance fee fraud, or the 419 scam after section 419 of the Nigerian criminal code, is a form of internet fraud commonly associated with nationals of the Nigerian state. Typically takes the form of someone under a false identity contacting a member of the public and asking them in suspiciously shaky English for assistance in moving a large sum of money via their bank accounts or by presenting themselves as legal heirs to it. The reason given for the contact varies, but typically the money is in a sealed account, locked trust fund, and so on, which the sender of the email cannot retrieve directly. The mark is promised a substantial share (usually 10% or more) of the millions in the account once the money is liberated. Another variant is to claim the victim has won a lottery they never participated in.
Once a potential victim swallows the bait, they will soon find out (if it's not already mentioned in the initial email) that they will be required to send some of their own money to complete the transaction; trivial initial payments (at first) to bribe an official, apply processing fees, create new authorization documents -- any reason the scammer can think of. There is of course no account with millions waiting to be delivered to the mark: the scammer will stall until they refuse to send more funds, at which point he will promptly cut contact. The funds previously sent are all but irretrievable since scammers prefer wire transfers like Western Union, which can be sent anonymously and allow no recovery.
What tends to hook the mark is the initial surge of greed. When this dies down, what keeps them in it is often the Sunk Cost Fallacy—the sense that having invested so much in the game already, they can't afford to stop now—anger, or a desire to outwit or dupe the "ignorant foreigner." Since they have been playing a game with less than laudable motives, victims seldom go to the police even when they begin to suspect they are being played: if the con is true, after all, they are committing bank fraud. Victims may also fail to report to authorities out of a sense of shame at falling for the scam, so reported losses to the Nigerian scam are likely lower than the actual total.
It is now becoming increasingly common for scam messages to be sent out that purport to be sent by an agency (such as the FBI) that can help the victim recover the money lost in a 419 scam or even promise the original imaginary millions can still be reached. For whatever reason, these are characterised by the use of the phrase "Attention: Beneficiary" to address the potential victim. Taking this trend even further, at least one message has been spotted addressed to people who had already been scammed by the promise of money in the first place and then of recovering the money in the second place, promising to set both right. This seems not to have caught on, so there may be a limit to human gullibility after all.
Despite being relatively straightforward and often a case of Name's the Same, hundreds of thousands of people around the world have fallen victim to such scams. As a result, Nigeria has a very dire reputation amongst some countries and investors. The problem is so bad that it is seriously affecting investment opportunities within Nigeria. The Nigerian government has countered with the statement that it is not just Nigerian nationals who are responsible for such 419 scams, but rather, people masquerading as Nigerians due to its terrible reputation with other countries abroad (why a scammer would pretend to come from a known scammer hideout would need some explanation).
The prevalence of the 419 scam has provided juicy opportunities for "scam baiters," who purposefully pretend to fall for the scam and then force the scammer to do time-wasting/embarrassing things, (hopefully) distracting them from actual victims.
A variation of the scam involves the target being baited to the scammer's country to finish the operation, then kidnapping and ransoming them.
Scam baiting sites
- In the introduction of Dave Barry's Money Secrets, Dave Barry claims to have received the promised $47 million from a Nigerian businessman after sending him two $5,000 "advance fee" checks. Less gullible readers may be able to tell that he was making this up.
- In Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, the protagonist has a side job writing emails for 419 scams.
- In The Onion: Our Dumb World, the first page on Nigeria is taken up by a scam letter. A sidebar illustrates the educational system which teaches Nigerians how to send mass e-mail in the "Computers 419" course.
- In "Our Man in Geneva Wins a Million Euros" by Petina Gappah, the protagonist falls for one of these scams. Less usually, both the victim and the scammer are people of African origin living in Europe.
- In Monster Hunter Vendetta, this and other internet scams are mentioned as being sent by real trolls, as in the mythical creatures otherwise known for harassing goats trying to cross bridges.
- The Veronica Mars episode "The Wrath of Con" features two college students pulling off a scam based on this one in order to raise money for the video game they're making. The "sealed account" is the students' trust fund.
- In an early episode of Thirty Rock, Tracy Jordan asks his entourage if they remembered the Nigerian prince who needed his help. He then nonchalantly informs them he recently received the money . . .
- In Season 2, Episode 2 of Flight of the Conchords, Murray invests the band's last remaining emergency funds with with a Nigerian man named Nigel Seladu, who contacted him by e-mail. While Bret and Jermaine are confident it's a scam, it turns out to be legitimate, and the band uses the money to pay their rent and bail themselves out of jail for prostitution.
- One of the sketches in That Mitchell and Webb Look had two insanely wealthy people phoning up members of the public to give them a free yacht, provided they paid off a few legal fees. Naturally they were quite confused that nobody was interested in their free yachts and that getting people to pay for some small legal fees was quite reasonable.
- On Leverage, it is not directly mentioned, but is implied during the pilot when Nate chooses to set up representatives of Nigeria as a part of their con. In reality, they are really Nigerians and their purpose was for the mark to assume that they were not
- Michael Scott on The Office has been mentioned to support "about twenty Nigerian princesses".
- I Go Chop Your Dollar is a taunting song from the perspective of the perpetrator of such a scam, and even includes the line "419 is just a game".
- Just to clarify, a "dollarchop" is a term used by scammers to describe the practice of scammer #1 picking up the money a victim had sent sent to scammer #2, without #1 being in on the deal. In other words, that song is actually a scammer taunting other scammers.
- The song by MC Frontalot in the page quote. See also there.
- Since Mass Effect 2 gave Shepard an email account it was inevitable that one of these would drop into his/her inbox eventually. Apparently in the Mass Effect verse the standard spiel involves Prothean artefacts and Ilos.
- Hawke in Dragon Age II gets one as well, in the form of an actual letter which is ostensibly from the Seneschal serving Starkhaven's recently-overthrown Vael family. He promises a sum of 10,000 sovereigns if Hawke were to open a bank account in Antiva with 100 sovereigns deposited to make the account viable. Incidentally, the last son of said Vael family is a party member.
- You can find some in computer mailboxes in Deus Ex Human Revolution (but apparently, antispam technology progressed, since you NEVER find them in office computers, only home PCs).
- If you look around in Upper Hengsha, you can actually find one on one of the computers. Another computer contains an email lamenting the fact that an employee was stupid enough to give out a corporate email to scammers, and that now the network admin has to go through and change all the security protocols to prevent any kind of spyware intrusion.
- This strip of the webcomic The Joy Of Tech.
- Irregular Webcomic has an entire theme devoted to a literal Nigerian Finance Minister who often employs schemes such as this.
- To be fair, the NFM is actually HONEST, and is trying to do good. A financial problem necessitated him trying to move money out of the country, for Nigeria's good: the fee was an honest reward. He can't understand why no-one responds to his emails.
- There was also a completely separate "Nigerian Prince" scam that tried to pin everything on Steve Irwin. Fortunately Jane Goodall was able to prove in court that not only was he not king of Nigeria, but Nigeria is a republic with no royal family. It Makes Sense in Context.
- In this Achewood Story Arc, Ray gets a Nigerian scam email that turns out to be an actual plea for help getting money out of the country.
- A strip from Real Life Comics has Greg Dean looking through his email which is full of these scams. The email is asking for a monetary donation because the daughter (or other relation) of the sender is suffering from terminal illness. Except with each scam email he reads, the sickness gets progressively less severe and the asking amount for the donation progressively more, with the last one asking for a $100 donation for a cold.
- Sluggy Freelance: Sam is too clever for the scammers: "Aw! Just another scam from some dude claiming to be the Prime Minister of Abscondia trying to drain my bank account! That lame-o doesn't know my account was already drained by the Princess of Scamrobi. But that's OK because she was probably hot."
- Least I Could Do: Rayne gets an e-mail with this sort of scam in this strip and decides to go to Nigeria to meet his princess and claim his inheritance.
- User Friendly: Pitr receives a 419 scam e-mail. He uses his wits and his hacking skills to screw the scammer over.
- Alien version.
- 419 Old Style: "The Telegram That Convinced Western Union To Pack It In".
- Wally and Osborne briefly references this here.
- Rusty and Co in its usual Dungeon Punk style had Calamitus scammed by one such letter in Critical Missives after he began to look like a genuine threat rather than a comically incompetent goofball.
- xkcd takes the 419 scam into Cloudcuckoolander territory in strip #1777.
- Referenced in the Red vs. Blue PSA "Real Life vs. The Internet", comparing getting mail from a mailbox vs. e-mail.
Simmons: Pardon me, my friend, but I am Nigerian royalty, and I need you to send me money. Please ignore the fact that I can not spell "Nigerian" or "royalty".
- Something Awful's Rich Kyanka did his own bit of scam baiting once (apparently genuine), just because it's the kind of thing he does when he gets stupid emails.
- College Humor did a sketch with the twist being that the Nigerian prince funds really were legit, only for the email to be deleted by a jaded college student!
- The Drabblecast hosts the annual Nigerian Scam Spam Contest, the winning one gets emailed out to unsuspecting members of the general public.
- Practically every scambaiting site out there with a publishing section counts as this.
- Clients From Hell has one in a rather imaginative and surprising form. Still, "I declined this job because of my “No Nigerian Prince Phishing Scams” policy."
- The first Futurama feature film, Bender's Big Score, centres on a group of scammers who con the Planet Express business and then use that as a base to scam the whole of Earth. Hermes is onto them from the start, but just about every other character falls for it at least once. Eventually the scammers are defeated by Bender, who claims he's been working the long con all along.
- The Zigerions in Rick and Morty. If their name isn't an indication, they are a whole alien race whose hat is this sort of scam. Their scheme in the episode is to con Rick out of his Concentrated Dark Matter formula. Still, as evil as they are, they can't out-evil Rick, who tricks them into stealing a rather explosive formula that destroys their ship.