Most readers of my blog should be familiar with the 419 Nigerian scam. But since the scam is still open for business, obviously, there are folks out there that know nothing about it. So, for those who don't know what the Nigerian scam is, here is yet another description for the Google bots to crawl.
The Nigerian scam, also known as the Nigerian mail scam, is a version of the old Spanish prisoner scam. In the old scam prospective dupes were contacted, through letters, by an individual allegedly trying to smuggle a wrongly convicted man out of a prison in Spain. In some versions of the scam the dupe was informed that the prisoner was actually a distant relative of the dupe, which helped explain why the dupe was being contacted, in the first place. The prisoner would be a wealthy man but due to his incarceration was unable to access his own funds, until he was out of prison. The dupe was told that the prisoner offered money to anyone helping in his escape, but some money was first needed to bribe prison guards. So, the dupe was asked to put up some money up front for the bribes. In exchange for assistance, the con artist promised to share the reward money with the dupe. After the dupe has turned over the initial funds, he was informed that further difficulties had arisen and more money was needed. With such explanations, the con artist continued to press for more money until the dupe couldn't or wouldn't put up more funds.
The Nigerian scam is almost the same. In this case SPAM bots are used to send out mass emails to millions of harvested email addresses. In many versions of the scam the email messages state that princess Bhurunda Mhurunda (or whatever her name) from Nigeria is trying to access $20,000,000 of her father's money that is locked up in some account in Nigeria. Her father, also a prince or something if that sort, is either recently deceased or wrongfully incarcerated and is unable to access these funds. So, the princess took her own initiative to find a trustworthy person who owns a bank account in a country outside of Nigeria, so that the funds could be cleared through that account. At that point all that the princess is asking from the prospective dupe is permission to clear $20,000,000 through his/her account. And who on earth would say no to that? For his/her troubles, the dupe is promised 10% of the $20 mil. Somewhere in the world there is always going to be a dupe that going to run to a 99 Cents store to buy a calculator and do the math and conclude that he/she is going to end up with $2,000,000 overnight. But hurry, the letter says, because the Nigerian account will be closed in a couple of days and the funds will be seized by the government. And there's a catch, like in the Spanish prisoner scam, the Nigerians also explain that some "small" amount of money is initially needed to cover some administrative fees or to bribe someone, so that the princess can access her father's 20 million dollar account.
The whole point of any confidence game, of course, is to get the money. "Traditionally," Nigerian con artists would instruct their marks to go to the nearest Western Union outlet, as soon as possible, and send the money. I've read some articles that said Western Union made quite a bit of dough through Nigerian scams, just through transaction fees. Well, that's like saying that a utility company had an increase in revenue that was caused by people opening their fridge door too often and thus causing the 5 Watt light bulb to significantly increase the electricity usage. So, if Western Union had an increase in revenue, caused by money transfers to Nigeria, then how much did the Nigerian con artists collect?
Apparently they've made enough money to grow their industry to the point that they now have their own "legitimate" service that offers money transfers to Nigeria, offering convenience to their customers.
So, why did the Nigerians go the extra step to open their own money transfer service? Might they have also read the reports that Western Union was making a ton of money? Why give away the commissions, right? Or perhaps they just studies advertising and realized that constant exposure to a service or product is one of the basic advertising strategies to gain public trust.
I did notice that the poster says, Send Money to ANY Bank Account in Nigeria. It is possible that Nigerians lost a few customers because some people might have been reluctant to send money to an individual, using Western Union. After all, one has to be careful when sending money to a complete stranger halfway across the world. Perhaps the option of sending money to a bank account increases the percentage of dupes that will follow through all the way.
One detail that I find particularly amusing is the way the map of Nigeria is rendered, on the poster. You really have to look at a larger image to see what I mean, but a close up of a section of the Nigerian map will also show what I mean. Take a look.
When I saw the Nigerian poster I just had to go inside the shop and talk to the clerk. She explained that this was a new service. I asked if they had any Nigerian customers and if there was a Nigerian community around that neighborhood. Not her her knowledge, she said. Most of their customers, she said, were Latino folks, just like herself. And she also told me that there were quite a few people that have been sending money to Nigeria. Do many Latino folks have relatives in Nigeria? I don't think so and neither did the clerk. But apparently their customers have some business dealings with some people in Nigeria. Were these people perhaps dealing with a West African princess? The clerk didn't quite know what to make of this question, but with a puzzled expression and a smile said she didn't think so. A princess...?
So, why a princess or a prince? Why not just a businessman? And why don't Nigerians at least try to pretend the money is going to another country? After all, Nigeria now has the reputation of being the number one scam capital of the world.
If you're interested in more detailed descriptions of Nigerian scams I highly recommend that you read the article Why do Nigerian Scammers Say They are from Nigeria? The article was written by Microsoft researcher Cormac Herley, who says, "Far-fetched tales of West African riches strike most as comical. Our analysis suggests that is an advantage to the attacker, not a disadvantage. Since his attack has a low density of victims the Nigerian scammer has an over-riding need to reduce false positives. By sending an email that repels all but the most gullible the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select, and tilts the true to false positive ratio in his favor."
Makes sense to me. A con artist has no use spending time with a mark who is likely to back out right before the money transfer. So, they look for people who will believe they've been contacted by a princess. If they believe that, they'll believe anything else, especially the part that requires them to send more money, over and over again, because of unforeseen complications. That's the key, you recruit a sucker once and the same sucker keeps coming back until he has no more money left to send. That has to be some pretty dumb sonofabitch. And how might one go about finding such person? Perhaps you could tell everyone you're a princess and see who believes it. That's the guy you'd want to talk to.
Cormac Herley makes some very good points about continuing to use Nigeria as the destination. When you type the word "Nigeria" into the Google search box, "Nigerian Scam" is one of the five auto-complete Google suggestions. All that one would have to do at that point is to click on that and read all about Nigerian scams. But the auto-complete suggestions are not the same on every computer (it depends what other Google searches have been conducted in the past, from any given computer) and Nigerian con artists just want to eliminate anyone who is likely to do a Google search for "Nigeria" or "Nigerian Scam." So, although Nigeria might at first appear to be a terrible choice of destination for a scam it actually turns out to be the best choice for eliminating those who are not the best candidates.
Cormac Herley explains that in the first part of the scam all the free work is done by SPAM bots that are sending millions of SPAM emails around the world. The part that involves real work is starting an email correspondence with those who respond. Con artists need to keep track of all the lies they've been telling to all their marks, and that's hard to do if one has too many marks to keep track of, especially when a high percentage of those will not follow through.
You really can't argue with the points that Cormac Herley makes. It also fits with the observations that I made, regarding the geographic location of the Nigeria Direct poster. I didn't find the poster in a neighborhood where you can buy the Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker Magazine at a news stand. I found it in a pocket neighborhood where it wouldn't surprise me to find a typewrite repair shop. The money transfer shop was next door to another shop that still offers affordable international phone calls. Walking into the place next door feels like passing through a wormhole, to a time half a century ago; the place is fitted with a row of phone booths. Across the street there is yet another place offering cheap phone calls. Who still goes to a phone booth to make international phone calls, when you can just use Skype to call any phone in the world? But we live in a transitional time and there are still people out there who haven't caught up with all the new technological marvels that make our lives so different from the lives our parents (or even our older siblings) lived. There are millions of people who might have a computer and know how to use an email account but never used Google, or don't even know of the existence of a service called Skype (not to mention the string theory). Obviously the phone booth places would not stay in business if they didn't have customers, many of whom walk around the neighborhood while scratching lottery tickets.
Speaking of lottery tickets, what's the difference between a lottery ticket and a Nigerian scam letter? Both offer money you cannot get and both ask for a small sum up front. There really is no difference, so if one is going to spend money on lottery tickets one might as well send some money to Nigeria.
So, there you have it. If you've read all the way through my article you are probably not likely to send any money to a Nigerian princess, any time soon. And if you're still doubting my suspicions, go ahead and send some money and let me know when you get a cut of that $20 mil.