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Do most 419 E-mail scams originate from Nigeria?

The numbers “419” have since become an international phenomenon. From its humble beginnings as a section in the Nigerian criminal code, it has now taken the front burner on the global stage as a designation for every form of advanced fee scam. This malicious e-mail fraud typically has a sender who is a “Nigerian Prince” or some other high place Nigerian who has had his hands long in the state coffers and needs somewhere to stash his loot. The recipient of the mail is promised a share of the booty once he can help facilitate the transfer of the funds outside of Nigeria. Often times payment of bribes to government officials, taxes and legal fees are described in great detail to give the con a legitimate feel, and the targets are promised that all expenses will be reimbursed as soon as the funds are out of Nigeria. The recipient is asked to send information such as blank letterhead stationery, bank name, and account numbers.

If the target takes the bait and sends the required fee, the sender sends a follow-up mail that something has gone wrong. There’s been a change in leadership and new bribes are needed or something has happened to a key figure trying to facilitate the transaction, hence more money will be needed. The more money that’s sent, then the more money that will be required, essentially trapping the victim in what economists call the “sunk cost fallacy”- a situation in which someone has already invested too much money to walk always and is just trying to make back what was lost. When the victim finally returns to his senses and refuses to send more money, the perpetrators then use personal information obtained during the course of the scam to drain the victim's accounts or credit cards.

What most people do not realize is that Nigerians were not the first to invent and use advanced fee scams. In fact, this scam happens to be very old with the first recognizable version cropping up after the French revolution. It went like this: A letter arrived describing an aristocrat in exile, say, the Marquis de _______, who in escaping from revolutionary violence had thrown a chest full of jewels into a lake. His faithful servant, now writing this heartfelt letter, had come back to retrieve it and unfortunately ended up in prison. With just a little help from you, a fellow Frenchman, to aid in the servant’s bail or escape, you’d earn a portion of the loot. The scheme worked: “Of a hundred such letters” sent by French confidence tricksters, “twenty were always answered,” wrote Eugène Vidocq, the French criminal turned detective.  All through the years up to the internet age this scam was modified to fit the desired scenario but with the essence and form still remaining the same. Finally, some smarty pants from Nigeria must have gotten exposed to this and decided to capitalize on it to make a quick buck.

Another often overlooked fact about advance fee scam emails is that those mentioning Nigeria as their source of origin, might not be from Nigeria. So why mention they are from Nigeria? Such scammers go with Nigeria because of its popular reputation as being a treasure trove of corruption, this adds to the plausibility of the story of looted fund needing stashing abroad. According to Basil Udotai, who was formerly the cybersecurity director at the office of Nigeria's National Security Adviser, “There are more non-Nigerian scammers claiming [to be] Nigerian than ever reported. Even when Nigerians relocate to other West African countries they retain the Nigerian status, addresses, and operational bases in their e-mails for competitive reasons.” But he suggests that this has another motive: it is Nigeria's dreadful reputation for corruption that makes the strange tales of dodgy lawyers, sudden death and orphaned fortunes seem plausible in the first place.

Another reason scammers from other countries claim to be Nigerian is to weed out unprofitable targets. Scammers also have to contend with the economics of scale and need to make the best use of limited resources, so by mentioning they are from Nigeria, they are sure that only the most gullible will respond to the mail since the Nigerian fee scam is fairly well known.

If you are still unconvinced at this point, here is some empirical evidence as to the source of 419 scam emails. Two researchers from the University of Ibadan wrote a paper titled “On the Origins of Advance Fee Fraud Electronic Mails: A Technical Investigation Using Internet Protocol Address Tracers.” They harvested in real-time aggregated advance fraud e-mails over a two-year period using freeware e-mail and internet protocol address tracers. Their results showed that the generally held belief that advance fee fraud e-mails originate mainly from Nigeria and West Africa was incorrect. The table below presents the results of their findings.

So next time you received a mail from a “Nigerian Prince,” do try to keep in mind that the sender might not actually be Nigerian.

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