Letters from Nigeria
I learnt a few things from a roadside technician about
My love as always
Ha ha ha. I just read your piece titled "Wow! I've Won!" I work as a secretary in a law firm and my boss is, well, well-off - I mean among the wealthy. I check the office’s e-mail on a daily basis and the kind of mail you write about comes in daily. Sometimes there are five a day.
As a Nigerian living in
However, it is the Nigerian scam artists that this write-up is about. I think we can use a little explanation of terms here. The term "419" refers to the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code that criminalizes "obtaining of money [or anything] under false pretences". The term came into [its] present notorious use (to refer to fraud) at about 1991 and it is used in the noun, verb and adjective forms. The term "advance fee fraud" is used here because the scammers typically ask you to make an advance payment. Mugu, is a Nigerian term, traceable to the Yoruba language, which refers to a simpleton. It is a term contemptuously used by a scam artist to refer to his victim.
I have felt fascination for this art and revulsion for its practitioners’ utter ruthlessness in equal measure for some time. Their activities have got more than a passing mention in one or two of my short stories. I recently developed a little hobby: collecting 419 mails. You know how some people collect stamps. How some people collect Chinese art. How some people collect human heads - if you will pardon that rather morbid example. I have a collection of these 419 mails, saved in a file named "4nny mails", I could share with you. Now the question we often ask is, "Why do people fall for this kind of mail?" We wonder why people can’t see that "these letters represent a [high] output of pure fiction". I once heard a British analyst describe these people as "very intelligent and utterly ruthless". Ruthless, yes, definitely. Intelligent, no, not necessarily. The mails don’t look particularly impressive. Many of them are replete with grammatical, structural and logical errors. Yet, there are too many stories of people who have lost their life savings to these scammers I will not go into here for time and space. I personally know more than one person who has fallen victim of 419, and I know more than one person who has perpetrated 419.
There is a tendency here, which is pretty widespread, to dismiss victims of 419 as "greedy foreigners". Speaking to reporters at a pub in New York, Taiwo (last name unknown), a college student who says he is a former 419, who has now repented because of a return to faith in the traditional Yoruba religions as "you cannot approach the gods with a mouth full of lies", sums it all up by saying "foreigners are very greedy". These advance fee fraudsters typically play on the greed of their victims. Taiwo should know because, according to him, he comes from a family of scam artists, where every member participates in the family trade, he himself having started writing scam letters at age nine.
It typically works like this. A young man, sitting at a cybercafé in
In proceeding, let me analyse the parties to this: the fraudster and his victim. The victim first. Whatever condition the mails meets you - at a time you are in debt and need a lot of money to stay afloat, or a time of bountifulness - GREED prevents you from thinking about the number of pregnant women that must have died in the theatre somewhere because this dictator stole his country’s money meant to equip state hospitals. Greed, and perhaps racial prejudice, prevent you from wondering why this person who is so far away would trust you with so huge an amount of money, or why he should be paying out so much money when he could do it several other less expensive ways. The person sending the mail is only an African, so that makes it plausible to you. And so by the time he asks you to send $10,000 just to enable him process this and that, you send it willingly. When he asks for another 5000, you pause only long enough to contemplate the amount you are going to make from this, and send it. You disclose to no one as you had been instructed. When he asks for another 5000 you begin to feel suspicious, [but] he assures you this money will clear the last little matters and everyone will be living happily ever after in a week or so. But one month later, you are still waiting for him. By the time you realise you have been duped, you are going under and your business or family is coming asunder. You ask yourself repeatedly how you could have fallen for such a plainly implausible, indecent, proposal. You are reluctant to tell anyone as you do not want to let anyone know you have been outsmarted by a smarter crook.
Meanwhile, the perpetrator is celebrating at the other side of the
There is also the tendency to see 419 victims as criminals - criminals who happen to fall mugu to smarter criminals. Louise Odion, a leading Nigerian columnist, wrote: "…it would be interesting to hear how [they] would rationalize the incidence of 419 schemes by saying that the initiators in
But this wholesale blaming of the victim is not totally justifiable. It is, in fact, a dangerous analysis because it can detract us from the real issue - the initiator of the fraud. It is a perfect recipe for collective diversion and amnesia, and an excuse for official lethargy. Why, this thing has been with us here for quite some time, everyone has heard a lot about it, yet you still get Nigerian victims. (Most of them blame it on black magic, which is nonsense. They simply don’t want to admit they have been outsmarted.) And, of course, not all victims are greedy. Sometimes you are presented with [an apparently legitimate] proposal. Not all victims are even simpletons. What would you say of the top executive who gets a call that his daughter schooling in
Recently the Nigerian government has moved decisively to clamp down on scam art. A new special anti-economic crimes unit two years ago arrested all those behind the Brazilian scam. Money has been recovered from them, they are in court and have their properties confiscated meanwhile. Several others are also on trial. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has also reached an agreement with cybercafé operators and has a special unit monitoring the cafés. All cybercafés now hang on their walls bold warnings that scam mails, email extractors, and similar things, are prohibited in their premises. A lot of scammers have been arrested there. Of course the bigger scam artists set up shop at home. I hear these too are being monitored. Whether these efforts have had any significant effect on advance fee fraud is not yet clear.