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On Reserve


Letters from Nigeria

              by Ehi


Nigerian Cyberscams

Sunday 2005-12-11
Dear Wendy
I learnt a few things from a roadside technician about China yesterday. But I am unable to tell you about it now as I am not disposed to write anything and do not want to send you a badly written letter. Last week I was talking about the problem of internet fraud originating from Nigeria and the crisis of trust this causes the majority of Nigerians who work hard at honest jobs. This problem, with the stereotyping it often generates, is widespread as you would see if you type “Letters from Nigeria” in Google. I have decided to send you this mail I believe I promised to send you sometime ago after you had an encounter with these guys who write these Letters from Nigeria. I wrote this last year in response to an article written by Moira Allen, the editor of, an online writing journal. I am reproducing it here the way I sent it to Moira. Braces that do not appear inside quotations indicate the two or three changes made due to typos.
My love as always
Dear Moira
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 Nigeria, I have heard a lot about these people - variously referred to by the people and press here as "advance fee fraudsters", "scam artists" or "419ers". Of course there is nothing uniquely Nigerian or African about scam art. Why, it came to light two years ago that a number of aspiring Nigerian writers were defrauded of large sums of money by British vanity publishers who use words coated with honey to lure their victims into paying since "that is the way we deal with new authors" to have their "exceptionally good works" published - only for them to not print any books! I was myself saved from a similar scam by my inability to raise 2500 pounds.
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 Lagos, sends the same mail, explaining that he is the younger brother to the second wife of the deposed Liberian dictator, to 600 people. He explains to you that his sister has 10 million US dollars and 20 million worth of diamonds to tuck away. The poor woman is diabetic and as the closest person to her, he is acting for her. Would you just make available your bank account and safe deposit facilities to be used to move this money to the safety of Houston? For this, you will get a cool 30% of everything. You are told in strong terms that this is URGENT and TOP SECRET. On receiving this mail, you, one of the 600 it was sent to, swallow the bait - a potential mugu. You are the only person who replies, but the young man only expected one or two replies. He even prepared himself for the eventuality that no single person replies this one.
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 Atlantic. The 419er is utterly ruthless. He goes for everything you have. One thing is common with them - they have a warped perception of morality, conscience and society. The small 419er will tell you that as he has no job [he] has to survive. He will tell you that he is better than those who rob and kill their victims, and those who loot the treasury, and those who sell drugs to kids. The bigger ones play in a different league. I am talking about the 419er who tells you he has discovered oil in his village and has no intention of informing the government about it. And so can you come and purchase the land and so secretly explore the oil. Some 419ers recently took out a bank in Brazil for amounts running into over 300 million dollars. A big 419er is almost invariably a "philanthropist". He builds and donates hospitals, institutes scholarship for the poor and doles out money to the disabled. (Is someone remembering Pablo Escobar?) He is loud and a showman. He lives in a fairytale world of fast cars, beautiful women, and alcohol. Some of them have values of their own. They believe it is proper to steal from the rich and give to the poor. They help to build churches and attend services regularly. The pastor, who may or may not know the source of his income, lays hands on him and prays for God to continue to bless his business. Racial prejudice may not be the preserve of their victims. They believe they are righting the wrongs of the slave trade and colonialism by defrauding white men. In a Nigerian movie which deals with the problem of 419, a character says: "I cannot be a party to any scheme to defraud the government of this country. I told you right from the start, I joined this to get back at the white man for what he did to Africans." I guess these are thoughts the thieves contrive to help them get through the nights.
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 Nigeria are more guilty than those who bought the ideas gullibly in America or Europe. Truth be told, the 419 scam is often the case of the smarter of two trans-Atlantic crooks outsmarting the other."
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 London has made this request for money. And without bordering too much about it, sends the money across, only to later realise his daughter knew nothing about the person who made the call or the one who collected the money supposedly on her behalf? In any case, greed is not a crime and it probably exists to some degree in all of us.
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.
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