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Nigerian Scams

En español | 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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In the version that 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, until you finally get wise.

These days, Nigerian scams emanate from many countries and involve different scenarios of riches to come, sometimes tracking real-world events. (That Nigerian prince might now be a Syrian banker, for example, or a U.S. soldier in the Middle East.) But the term has stuck as a catchall for international “advance fee” frauds that dangle a windfall if you provide financial information or money upfront.

And Nigeria remains a hotbed of online crime, with scammers expanding the 419 playbook into areas such as online dating and bogus sweepstakes and turning victims into “money mules” to launder fraud proceeds. Federal authorities and cybersecurity researchers have implicated sophisticated Nigerian crime networks in multimillion-dollar thefts from businesses and government benefit programs, including phony claims for enhanced unemployment benefits and stimulus payments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Warning Signs

  • You get an unsolicited email from someone claiming to be a foreign dignitary or executive.
  • The email promises you a share of a multimillion-dollar fortune in exchange for helping get the money out of the sender’s home country.


  • Do be skeptical of any promise of a huge payoff for your cooperation in a fund-transfer scheme.
  • Do contact your local FBI or U.S. Secret Service field office if you or someone you know has become enmeshed in a 419 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.
  • Don’t provide personal or financial information to anyone making such an appeal.
  • Don’t agree to send money by wire transfer, international fund transfer, cash-reload card or cryptocurrency to a stranger who approaches you online.

More Resources

Updated October 28, 2020

About the Fraud Watch Network

Whether you have been personally affected by scams or fraud or are interested in learning more, the AARP Fraud Watch Network advocates on your behalf and equips you with the knowledge you need to feel more informed and confidently spot and avoid scams.

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