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Nigerian Scams

One of the first cons to flourish on the internet, the “Nigerian prince” scam, also known as the “419” scam (named for the section of Nigeria’s criminal code dealing with fraud), has an ignominious history that long predates the digital age. Its roots go back to a notorious 19th-century swindle called the “Spanish Prisoner,” and the method of attack has progressed from letters and faxes to emails and social media.​​

What hasn’t changed is the premise: The scammer poses as a person of wealth and position who needs to get a huge sum of money out of their country and urgently requests your assistance, in return for a sizable share of the treasure.​

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The scam first became ubiquitous online in the 1990s: The supposed benefactor is a Nigerian royal, government official or business executive whose fortune is hostage to war, corruption or political unrest. This desperate personage needs only your bank account number (to transfer the money for safekeeping) or a relatively small advance payment (to cover taxes, bank fees or well-placed bribes) or both. For your trouble, some of their millions will become your millions.​

Of course, if you bite, your Nigerian “partner” will drain your account dry or string you along for more and more fees.​ And these days, generative AI offers criminals the opportunity to generate emails with fewer spelling mistakes and better grammar.​​

Increasing variety of scams

There is an increasing variety and breadth of Nigerian scams, which has stuck as a catchall for international “advance fee” frauds that dangle a windfall if you provide financial information or money upfront. These scams actually emanate from many countries and may use real-world events. (That Nigerian prince might now be a Ukrainian businessman, for example, a U.S. soldier stationed abroad or an official with an international investment offer.) Some of these criminals perpetrate inheritance scams: They send personalized letters claiming to be foreign bankers representing a distant relative who has left the victim a large bequest. Of course, before the inheritance can be released, certain taxes must be paid. ​

And Nigeria remains a hotbed of online crime with scammers expanding the 419 playbook into areas such as bogus sweepstakes, “money mule” recruitment and online dating (romance scams). ​

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

Federal authorities and cybersecurity researchers have also implicated sophisticated Nigerian crime networks in multimillion-dollar thefts from businesses. One group was convicted in 2023 in New York’s federal court of stealing $2.5 million by posing as work supervisors or third-party vendors and insisting employees wire money to an account. Scams targeting government benefit programs, including phony claims for enhanced unemployment benefits and stimulus payments during the COVID-19 pandemic, have also been prosecuted.​​​

Warning signs

  • You get an unsolicited email from someone claiming to be a foreign dignitary or executive promising you a share of a multimillion-dollar fortune in exchange for helping get the money out of the sender’s home country.​
  • You get an official-looking email or letter from a bank claiming to be holding a foreign bequest made to you, or offering a foreign investment backed by the U.S. government
  • You get an email at work that looks as if it’s from a supervisor or vendor urgently requiring money be sent.​
  • Someone claiming to be a bank or government official approaches you either online or by mail and wants you to send money by wire transfer, international fund transfer, cash-reload card or cryptocurrency. ​
  • Someone promises a huge payoff for your cooperation in a fund-transfer scheme. ​

How to protect yourself from this scam

  • Don’t reply, even out of curiosity, to emails (or any form of communication) from someone representing himself or herself as a foreign government or business official who needs help transferring a large sum of money or says they are holding a bequest for you.​
  • Never provide personal or financial information to anyone without verifying their identity first.​
  • Examine email addresses carefully. Look up the business location and phone number yourself; then either call or visit in-person to verify demands or appeals for money.​

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spinner image cartoon of a woman holding a megaphone

Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.