What is a Nigerian 419 scam?

In the world of fraud prevention, you’ll see the term “Nigerian 419 Scam” come up quite a lot. But what is it?

Simply put, a Nigerian 419 scam (or just “Nigerian scam”) is a type of advance fee fraud; the victim sends or wires money to the scammer in hopes of receiving a large payout. Naturally, this payout never comes.

In the early days of the scheme (1980s), crooks used postal mail and fax to try and hook people, but email is the preferred medium today—you can send millions of messages at the same time, for free.

Here’s the hook: the con artist claims to be a relative of a deposed dictator, an African prince living in exile, a government employee, banker, or similar. In every case, they claim to know of a large sum of money, either their own or someone else’s, but need your assistance in obtaining it. In return for your help, they will give you a percentage of the fortune, usually to the tune of several million dollars.

The victim will be asked to help by sending money, either to bribe a bank official or to set up a bank account (they are given the impression that they must keep a certain amount of money in a Nigerian bank in order to get a piece of the fortune). Once the victim starts sending money, the con artists will claim to experience various delays and the need for more cash, in hopes of further stealing from the victim.

At some point, the victim either realizes they’ve been had, or the crooks move on to new victims. There have been cases of victims being kidnapped, robbed and murdered, as well.

It sounds so obvious when you deconstruct it, but the simple fact is that an awful lot of people still fall for this scheme. Crooks don’t keep hammering away at scams that don’t work.

There are a thousand different signs to watch out for, like messages sent from free web-based email addresses or persons asking you to wire money via Western Union or Moneygram, but I think we can narrow it down to just this one point: never send money in an attempt to get money (or gold, diamonds, or anything else).

For one thing, how many Nigerian princes do you think there are in the world? How did this prince, banker, government official or whatever, just happen to pick you, out of over six billion other people on Earth? How do you know you’re dealing with a real person at all?

More to the point, why in the world would you even attempt to get your hands on a pile of stolen or embezzled cash? Think about that—stealing is stealing, no matter what country it originated in. Even if it all turned out to be true, how do you think you’re going to explain $2,500,000 to the IRS? They’re going to ask. You know they will.

Of course, that won’t happen, because it never turns out to be true. Stop asking yourself, “But what if it is?” right now. It’s not. In the history of the entire universe, there has never been a single case of this deal being legitimate.

By the way, why is it called a “Nigerian 419 scam” in the first place?

Well, these things originated in Nigeria in the 1980s, when their economy was circling the drain in a major way (they’ve never really recovered). Many of these scams still come from Nigeria, and there may be actual Nigerian government officials involved in some of these schemes, which can be run by single people acting alone, or by powerful organized crime syndicates. “419” is an article of the Nigerian Criminal Code that deals with fraud.

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