The Nigerian 419 scam


The so-called Nigerian 419 Scam is the only scam to have a whole section of a National Criminal Code devoted to it and takes its name from Section 419 of the Nigerian National Criminal Code.

It is also the only widespread scam on record as having been the cause of abduction, kidnapping blackmail and even murder!

It is one of the oldest frauds around! This type of scam, originally known as the "Spanish Prisoner Letter", has been carried out since at least the sixteenth century via ordinary postal mail. (The Spanish Prisoner was a nobleman "unjustly imprisoned in Spain" who needed help in releasing funds for his ransom and who would richly reward assistance.) The scam was given a new lease of life through Fax communication in the 1990s as the oil-based economy of Nigeria went downhill. Several unemployed university students first used this scam as a means of manipulating business visitors interested in shady deals in the Nigerian oil sector before targeting greedy businessmen in the west, and later the wider population.

The spread of email and easy access to email-harvesting software made the cost of sending scam letters through the internet extremely cheap. While various figures have claimed that the 419 scam employs as many as 250,000 people in Nigeria, in reality it has often been linked to small organized gangs often working in concert in western cities and in Nigeria (however, see video clip of a 419 bust . Everyone in the locality of the InterNet café seems to be upset, therefore involved?). There are also apocryphal stories that the police in Nigeria mainly turn a blind eye or are actively involved. It has also been alleged that the same privileged classes that form successive governments have themselves made their money (and continue to benefit) from the proceeds of 419 scams and therefore are unlikely to back any serious attempts to stop the frauds.

Although it is true that most 419 letters and emails originate from, or are traceable back to Nigeria, some originate from other nations, (mostly other West African nations such as Ghana, Togo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast ( Cote D'Ivoire ) etc.) In many cases scams seemingly from other nations are also of Nigerian origin in that the 'Home Office' of the perpetrators involved is Nigeria regardless of the source of the contact materials. (There are however, copycats trying to emulate the success of the Nigerians, generally not very successfully.) Because of the Nigerian scam reputation, some recent cases (allegedly originating in Sierra Leone) have made a point of denying any relationship with Nigeria in their early contacts! In recent years, the 419 scam has spurred imitations in various trouble spots in Africa and Eastern Europe and in European cities with large Nigerian populations, notably London and Amsterdam.

The Scam

The basis of the scam is a contact by various means completely out of the blue offering a slightly shady (or downright illegal) means of getting hands on a large amount of money very quickly and untraceably. This normally centres around a large amount of (shady or illegal) cash held in a ‘dormant’ or ‘undiscovered’ account to which the fraudster has (sole) access. The only thing is that they need help to get to it and are therefore willing to give away up to 90% (!) of sums in the millions for assistance in getting it out of the country. In recent cases though, the 'reward' has reduced to a more 'believable' 5-10%. Still, 5% of 15 Million is a lot!.

If the victim bites then they are led through various stages of manipulation to send larger and larger amounts of money to facilitate the deal. These payments are usually by Western Union and are variously described as fees or even bribes for corrupt bank officials. On occasion the money transfer has been face-to-face with the victim being invited to neutral locations such as Spain or Holland to hand over cash to an accomplice of the fraudster.

Either way the deal proceeds until the fraudster cannot extract more money from the target and other means are applied. It is at this stage that some of the more serious consequences listed above take place to extract as much money as possible from family, friends or employers. If the victim has run out of access to money, how else can the scammers use him/her?

Either way the scam continues until the victim has been bled as dry as possible. This scam has been responsible for Personal Bankruptcies, Company Failure and Suicides. Many of the (self-choosing) victims were desperately trying to repair holes in company or personal finances and therefore highly vulnerable. For instance many Americans were tempted during the Oil slumps in Texas or following some of the recent spectacular company failures. If your company in going down the tubes then one of these letters seemed like a gift from above to some small business CEOs. The ‘hook’ of slight illegality/immorality just made it more enticing in time of need. On the other hand the approach can be completely different and prey on the charitable nature of the victim.

How victims are sucked in

Although an incredibly diverse number of stories are told, the general nature of these approaches is always the same.

There is no real explanation about how YOUR name came up as being their saviour. The writer has the ability to gain access to a vast sum of money totalling millions of dollars with your help. They are prepared to place total trust in YOU, a complete stranger to help them get access to these funds and YOU will get a huge benefit from the scheme. A small ‘investment’ will be required to help get access to the funds.

The Cover Stories

The cover story is known as 'The Format'. For instance there is a variant known as "The Late Dictator Format". This is one of many wherein fraud perpetrators claim a family relationship or close business relationship with a deceased President/Dictator/Despot/Potentate/Head of the National Oil Corporation or National Bank Official. Often the names are instantly recognizable from the news as being the sort of person who could have easily salted millions away before their death.

More disturbingly, scammers use natural disasters or local conflicts as reasons why cash needs to move from existing accounts into Western accounts untraceably and rapidly. To give credibility to their story they may even provide links to web based news sites giving details of a plane crash or disaster which has resulted in this amount of money laying dormant and known only to them. The fraudsters often use recent news stories to lend credibility. In recent cases the cash is said to have been looted from the ruins of the Twin Towers following the 9-11 attack or to be the personal savings of Saddam Hussain.

The fraudster may even claim to be dying from some terminal illness and now wishing to donate their savings to a worthy and charitable cause. This ploy in particular has sucked-in some worthy institutions including Philanthropists, Churches or Charities, and in fact was deliberately targeted on (and mailed to) to more trusting recipients. Whatever the reason given, the request will always be the same in asking for the victims help to move this money into the victim’s personal bank account. In return they will be rewarded with a percentage of the total amount.

The scam is often ’supported’ by official looking documents with government stamps and seals. Documentation will be on realistic (or sometimes genuine!) letterhead or forms. The scammers often have working fax numbers and even contacts at government offices. An investigator attempting to research the offer background will often find that the pieces all fit together.

First Stage(s)

The initial request will be for some sort of ‘facilitation fee’. Examples are: “the minister needs to be persuaded to look at the funds release. We need something to get his attention”, “ We need to pay a small consideration to the bank manager to …”, We need to make a payment to a clerk in the Export Department” etc. Many and various, the requests will all be for (untraceable) money upfront to help grease the deal. They are all said to be ‘no risk’ because these are all ‘loans’ reclaimable from the final payment BEFORE the division of spoils.

Sometimes the request is simpler – “to be a party to this sort of transaction you need to have holdings of over $100,000 in a Nigerian Bank, but don’t worry it is just held there and never used.”

Emotional blackmail is frequent to get the victim’s support at this stage (and to hurry subsequent stages.) This can feature terminal illness of any of the figures involved or the fraudster having sold everything to get into this position etc. Terminal illness or imminent prosecution of the person allowing the opportunity to get to the funds are often given also as reasons why the payments need to be made rapidly.

This stage is often carried out by an independent operator known as a ‘catcher’ who will then pass it on to another person or team to complete the scheme for a share of the proceeds.

Continuation of Scam

The next stage is also constant. Those who contact the fraudsters will find themselves involved in a web of intrigue and deceit with requests to pay a constant stream of fees in order to overcome all the obstacles involved.

The stakes are gradually raised to tempt the victim into spending (always described as ‘investing’ of course) even more money to facilitate the release of the funds. This is the mid-stage and involves various ‘stunts’ to heighten the desire of the victim.

In some cases the fraudsters may ‘Flash the account’ of the victim. This means that they will (temporarily!) credit a large amount to the victims account to make themselves and the fraud seem more serious. They may even ask the victim to use part of this to fund some of the scheme (eg. To buy air tickets for everyone to meet up in South Africa.) This uses the same fraud mechanism as the Overpayment or Advance Payment Scam .

In one recent scheme, the victim was invited to meet the fraudsters in Spain. (These meetings usually take place in a neutral location such as Holland or Spain.) They were shown a sample of the bank notes. These were blackened and the victim was told that they had been sprayed with a special chemical in order to smuggle them into Europe. The victim was then asked for money to buy a solution that would clean the notes and return them to their original condition. A demonstration was staged whereby washing a sample of the notes returned them to pristine condition as dollar bills. Needless to say the rest of the notes were not genuine, there is no spray or cleaning solution and the demonstration is simply a sleight of hand.

The objective here of course is to raise the desire of the victim to such a level that, having depleted the original source of funds (whether personal, family, borrowed or embezzled), the victim will do anything in their power in their desperation to get hold of the pot of gold. This is the stage at which truly desperate acts by the victims have lead to horrific consequences with visits to Nigeria resulting in abduction and worse.

It has been reported that a frequent ploy when the victim has been bled dry of their own, or other people's money, is to try to get them to join the team in order to get some monies back!

Financial consequences and Law Enforcement involvement

Despite having its own law against it, the massive potential returns make the scam self- pertpetuating.

The GLOBEANDMAIL website has reported that “ In Festac Town (A district of Lagos, Nigeria), an entire community of scammers overnights on the Internet. By day they flaunt their smart clothes and cars and hang around the Internet cafes, trading stories about successful cons and near misses, and hatching new plots.

Festac Town is where communication specialists operating underground sell foreign telephone lines over which a scammer can purport to be calling from any city in the world.”

(See ) 070 telephone numbers ) [/span]

Because of the (often illegal) nature of the offer and the natural reticence of victims, estimates of the total losses due to the scam vary widely. According to a 1997 newspaper article:

" We have confirmed losses just in the United States of over $100 million in the last 15 months," said Special Agent James Caldwell, of the US Secret Service Financial Crimes division. "And that's just the ones we know of. We figure a lot of people don't report them."

In one case where money was actually recovered by the Nigerian Central Bank it was reported that the United States Government asked that the money not be returned to the victim until investigations were completed into her complicity! The lady from Florida had lost $400,000 to 419 fraudsters. In fact it was later claimed that the delay was merely to ensure that the $400,000 was HER fraud money and not someone else's but many victims feel that if they go to the police about the fraud THEY will end up being arrested for getting involved in an illegal scheme in the first place.

Since 1995 , the US Secret Service has been involved in combating these schemes, but they will not investigate unless the monetary loss is in excess of fifty thousand US dollars showing the size of some demands. The Metropolitan Police in England have a special unit for the investigation of these frauds but the success rate in convictions is unknown. Very few arrests and prosecutions have been made due to the international aspect of this crime.

NCIS (the UK National Criminal Intelligence Service) estimates that up to five Americans are sitting in hotel lobbies in
London everyday waiting to meet people connected with this con.

Although the success rate of the scam is also hard to gauge, it has been reported that some experienced 419 scammers get one or two interested replies for every thousand messages. An experienced scammer can expect to make several thousand dollars per month. Some recent convictions give an idea of the scale of the fraud with two scammers being forced to hand over assets of over $121million in a case involving a $242 million fraud. It is a little amusing (and perhaps a comment on the local attitude to the fraud) to note the defense sentencing plea that the fraudster was a first time offender with no previous criminal record, was sick and had dependant children and elderly parents - the sort of mitigation claims that might be made for a motoring offense elsewhere. It is also instructive to note the bomb scares in court with abduction of a witness and evidence tampering. When you've got $242 million of other people's money in your pocket you can hope to get away with a lot!

Recent figures

A recent report by Ultrascan, a Dutch based consultancy group as reported by Yahoo! claimed that Advance Fee Fraud (419 scams) cost the UK at least £275 million in 2005. Ultrascan also report 20 known active scam rings in the UK. The average individual loss to victims in the UK has been reported as over £31,000.

Outcomes for Victims

Some victims have hired private investigators in Nigeria or have personally travelled to Nigeria, without ever retrieving their money. The Metropolitan Police report cases of victims being unable to cope with the losses and committing suicide. One authority reported 25 deaths directly related to 419 scams up to 2002.

It has been reported that an American was murdered in Nigeria in June 1995 after being lured by a 419 scam.

In February 2003, a scam victim from the Czech Republic shot and killed Michael Lekara Wayid, an official at the Nigerian embassy in Prague.

In 2004 George Makronalli, a 29year-old Greek man, was murdered in South Africa after responding to a 419 scam.

In September 1999, Kjetil Moe, a Norwegian businessman, was reported missing and ultimately killed after a trade with Nigerian scammers in Johannesburg, South Africa.

In America a woman shot her pastor husband to death on March 22, 2006 after allegedly being taken for $17,500 in a 419 scam.

In England Leslie Fountain, a senior technician at Anglia Poyltechnic in England, set himself on fire after falling victim to a scam; Fountain died of his injuries.

In July 2001, according to The Times, a former Deputy Mayor of Northampton fell for the scheme and was held with a gun to his head in Johannesburg, South Africa. He was rescued in an international police effort.


Arrests are rare and convictions even rarer. In 2004, fifty-two suspects were arrested in Amsterdam after an extensive raid. An Internet service provider had noticed the increased email traffic. None were jailed or fined, due to lack of evidence. They were released in July. An entirely phony "Nigerian embassy" was also discovered in Amsterdam; another allegedly exists in Bangkok. Arrests have taken place in Nigeria but no great successes have been reported in reducing the volume of these frauds and reports are often heard of local Police collusion. Recent developments in Nigeria are a little more hopeful but externally the police focus is moving away fro 419 because of resource focus on anti-terrorism.

What the initial invitation looks like

The invitation to participate in the scam (as the victim of course) can come by any method of contact used in business or personal communications - letter, fax, telex (historical) or email. Here are some examples:

An invitation to (literally!) help launder illegal funds.

A direct invitation to partake in a fraud .

A specific business-to-business fraud based suspected underpaid contracts in the past.

An invitation based on distribution of a will. This is the form most frequently sent to religious, charitable or humane societies but is often frequently sent to individuals.

A small selection of fraud letters showing the variety of stories told to introduce the fraud.

The internet has many examples of the initial letter sent to initiate the fraud.

How to Avoid It

Use the advice in the Spotting Scam Emails section to spot the scam as early as possible. Most (but not all) of these scams originate in Nigeria and not all of the senders take precautions to disguise where the email is coming from so note especially the 'checking IP address' section.

The Nigerian 419 scam is mostly based on GREED. It may be need or circumstance-driven but is still based on the victim's willingness to accept a strange story because of the potential wealth at the end.

Remember this. There is no 'Secret Account' that has just been discovered or money waiting to be transferered to your account. There is no money in safe-keeping waiting to be claimed. IT IS ALL FICTITIOUS! THE MONEY NEVER DID AND NEVER WILL EXIST!

DON’T DO IT! Ask yourself - How do they know to trust you?

Why should you get such a large cut for just funding a small part of the operation? How did they get your name/email address in the first place?

The fact that you have received the offer just means that your email address is on one of the CDs of 'farmed' addresses sold in Nigerian marketplaces or has been found on other correspondence. More frequently nowadays the hard-disk drives on old charity-donated computers are being forensically searched for addresses (and bank details – Beware!)

Deposed Dictators normally have pretty good ways of getting their hands on salted-away funds! They normally don’t keep them in Nigeria anyway. If they’re in a Swiss account a Nuclear war would not release the funds.

JUST DON’T RESPOND! Pin the email on the wall, take it into work to show your colleagues that you have a way out of all this drudgery and have a laugh but DON’T RESPOND.

Remember – this is a scam for which only one person is really guilty and that’s the respondent! Without a response this scam cannot work!

Try to avoid receiving the email in the first place by not giving your email address away un-necessarily. Wipe all old hard-drives completely with a professional utility or freeware such as iSafeguard (especially if your old computers are being donated for charity). Physically destroy the disk platters in non-working drives.

[u]Just Say No![/u]