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 Ukrainian businessman, for example, or a U.S. soldier stationed abroad.) 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 bogus sweepstakes, "money mule" recruitment and online dating. Social Catfish, a company that helps customers verify the identity of people they meet online, says it has even unearthed a detailed training manual for Nigerian romance scammers (among other things, it advises targeting single women over 40).
Federal authorities and cybersecurity researchers have also 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.
- 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.
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