Shri 419: the Nigerian scam

Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code has given us a lively term for cheaters – the “420″. If however, you search for “419,”  you will find that this number refers to a section of the Criminal Code of Nigeria dealing with various types of advance-fee fraud.

Why does this matter to you? Well, you’ve probably received some version of the following email which I fished out from my spam folder:


Reaching you is courtesy of my favourite international business directory, which vividly tells your position and capability to execute this business presently with me in my office. We have Twenty Million, Five Hundred Thousand United State Dollars only, ($20,500,000.00) which we got from over-inflated contracts awarded to foreign contractor in the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (F.A.A.N).

We are seeking your permission to transfer this money into your bank account.  This money will be shared between you and we (Colleagues) over here in Nigeria.

We have agreed to share the funds as follows:
I. 30% of the total sum for you (Account Owner)
II. 65% of the total sum for us (The official involved)
III. 5% of the total sum of setting all financial expenses been incurred by you and us in the course of this transaction.

We will visit you immediately we include this transaction to collect and invest our share of total sum into any viable business you may advise in your country. Please, let me know if you are interested in this business by replying urgently. Full details of this business will be sent to you upon receipt of your reply.  For the purpose of communication in this matter, please give us your telephone and fax numbers including your private home telephone number.

We await your urgently reply and be rest assured that this transaction is 100% risk free, there is not risk involved on both sides.

Yours faithfully,
Geoffrey Chaucer

I have not changed the name since fraudsters are known to impersonate prominent individuals (like 14th century English authors). The grammatical error in the last sentence is also unaltered and amusing. I imagine that the fraudsters meant to say “no risk on either side,” but blurted out the truth: of course the risk is completely on the recipient’s side.

As soon as you contact the fraudsters, they inform you that certain “processing fees” are required to release funds and that you will be contacted as soon as funds become available. Of course this is a hoax and soon you are have lost your hard earned money.

With the globalization of world economies in the early Nineties, unscrupulous individuals in West Africa (and primarily in Nigeria) began to use the internet to send out unsolicited invitations to hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting individuals. The widespread availability of email and pharming software transformed local cottage start-ups into multinational corporations complete with offices, machinery, and salaried staff.

India’s first 419 victim was Piyush Kankaria who registered a section 420 complaint in 2003. Unfortunately, most victims do not get any form of compensation due to the international nature of the racket and the connections of the educated, management ranks that run the scam corporations. A report in Wired in 2006 estimated that Americans lost around $200 million that year to West African 419 scams. A more recent report mentioned that 419 scams resulted in worldwide losses estimated at over $9 billion making it anywhere from Nigeria’s fifth to third largest industry. Estimated rates of success via unsolicited email spamming vary from one in one thousand to one in ten thousand.

In fiction, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s celebrated debut novel I Did Not Come to You by Chance provides a humorous fictional perspective on the lives of scammers. But 419 scams don’t just result in loss of money, many are tied to kidnappings and murders.

In scanning recent headlines, I came across the news-story of a woman in New Zealand who stole NZ $450,000 from her employer in the hope of cashing in on millions. She had planned to pay her employer back once she received money, which of course never happened.

I am shocked by incredulity of the situation. What toxic mix of greed and incomprehension compels middle-class white-collar workers to resort to criminal activities?

Text: © 2010-2012, Anirban


19 thoughts on “Shri 419: the Nigerian scam

  1. My mailbox too is overflowing with spam like this…but I never realized so many people fell victim to it.
    P.S:I’ve made a mental note to pick up “I did not come to you by chance” 🙂

    1. I read about the lady in New Zealand and was similarly shocked to find out that this was one of Nigeria’s largest industries. I came across the book after after investigating 419s. I’ve just started reading the book, but am pretty excited.

      It is the first book by a Western African author that I’ve ever picked up. (I’ve read Camus but he is technically French and Algeria is considered to be part of North Africa).

      Thanks for reading! 🙂

    1. There are many variations to this email and some of the newers ones start with a warning not to reply to previous hoaxes. I’ve collected at least 50 different variations on this theme.

  2. I know this thing. I’ve received this types of email two times or more I think. But, unlike other, I knew it was a fraud. So, just enjoyed the scam corp keep waiting for my reply. lol.

    1. There are also scam-buster groups that play a prolonged game of cat-and-mouse with these scammers. It is a psychological game!

  3. It’s not a scam. I do have a claim to the money left behind by Late Jennifer Mukherjee of Nigeria. It may sound funny, but strange things do happen. And since none of my wealth is quite ‘hard-earned’, I guess I should pay the required ‘administrative fees’ soon. I hope you’ll make another blog post then.

    [A typo in the post: “$200 million dollars”]

    1. Haha… indeed that is how the lady in New Zealand was fooled.

      Thanks for the catch on the redundant dollar sign! Corrected. 🙂

  4. This greed for money makes people silly…How else can one explain people faling prey to those innocuos U HAVE WON mails…

    Hope to gobble up soon “I did not come to you by chance”

    1. Exactly Nish. Another type of scam commons these days is the romance scam. Ladies with attractive (but fake) Facebook and messaging profiles will seek people out for friendship and then ask for “loans”.

    1. The comment above was one of the insufferable spam messages that come into the inbox. I’ve removed the URL link. In this case I found it amusing in the context of the post.

      Good advice, Unknown troller. If I send out spam related to the Nigerian scam I’m SURE I’ll have “tons of suscriber”.

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