The 419 scam originated in the early 1980s as the oil-based Nigerian economy declined. Several unemployed university students first used this scam as a means of manipulating business visitors interested in shady deals in the Nigerian oil sector before targeting businessmen in the west, and later the wider population. Scammers in the early-to-mid 1990s targeted companies, sending scam messages via letter, fax, or Telex. The spread of email and easy access to email-harvesting software made the cost of sending scam letters through the Internet inexpensive. In the 2000s, the 419 scam has spurred imitations from other locations in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, and, more recently, from North America, Western Europe (mainly UK), and Australia.
The number "419" refers to the article of the Nigerian Criminal Code (part of Chapter 38: "Obtaining Property by false pretences; Cheating") dealing with fraud. The American Dialect Society has traced the term "419 fraud" back to 1992.
The advance-fee fraud is similar to a much older scam known as the Spanish Prisoner scam in which the trickster would tell the scam victim that a (fictitious) rich prisoner had promised to share (non-existent) treasure with the victim if the latter would send money to bribe the prison guards.
Insa Nolte, a lecturer of University of Birmingham's African Studies Department, stated that "The availability of e-mail helped to transform a local form of fraud into one of Nigeria's most important export industries.
Embassies and other organizations warn visitors to various countries about 419. Countries in West Africa with warnings cited include Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Togo, Senegal and Burkina Faso. Countries outside of West Africa with 419 warnings cited include South Africa, Spain, and The Netherlands.
Many operations are professionally organized in Nigeria, with offices, working fax numbers, and often contacts at government offices. The victim who attempts to research the background of the offer will often find that all pieces fit perfectly together. Such scammers can often lure wealthy investors, investment groups, or other business entities into scams resulting in multi-million dollar losses. However, many scammers are part of less organized gangs or are operating independently; such scammers have reduced access to the above connections and thus have little success with wealthier investors or business entities attempting to research them, but are still convincing to middle-class individuals and small businesses, and can bilk hundreds of thousands of dollars from such victims.
If the victim agrees to the deal, the other side will often send one or more false documents bearing official government stamps, and seals. 419 scammers often mention false addresses and use photographs taken from the internet or from magazines to falsely represent themselves. Often a photograph used by a scammer is not of any person involved in the scheme. Multiple "people" involved in schemes are fictitious; the author of the "WEST AFRICAN ADVANCE FEE SCAMS" article posted on the website of the Embassy of the United States in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire believes that in many cases one person controls many fictitious personas used in scams.
A scammer will introduce a delay or monetary hurdle that prevents the deal from occurring as planned, such as "in order to transmit the money, we need to bribe a bank official. Could you help us with a loan?" or "In order for you to be allowed to be a party to the transaction, you need to have holdings at a Nigerian bank of $100,000 or more" or similar. More delays and more additional costs are added, always keeping the promise of an imminent large transfer alive, convincing the victim that the money they are currently paying will be covered several times over by the payoff. Sometimes psychological pressure is added by claiming that the Nigerian side, in order to pay certain fees, had to sell all belongings and borrow money on their house, or by pointing out the different salary scale and living conditions in Africa compared to the West. Much of the time, however, the needed psychological pressure is self-applied; once the victims have put money in toward the payoff, they feel they have a vested interest in seeing the "deal" through. Some victims believe that they can cheat the con artist. This idea is often encouraged by the fraudsters who write in a clumsy and uneducated style which presents them as naive and easily cheated by a sophisticated westerner.
The essential fact in all advance-fee fraud operations is that the promised money transfer never happens because the money or gold does not exist. The perpetrators rely on the fact that, by the time the victim realizes this (often only after being confronted by a third party who has noticed the transactions or conversation and recognized the scam), the victim may have sent thousands of dollars of their own money, and sometimes thousands or millions more that has been borrowed or stolen, to the scammer via an untraceable and/or irreversible means such as wire transfer.
In extreme cases the victim may not realise he has been defrauded. A version of the scam is for the thief to claim to have contacts to facilitate legitimate business loans; the victim here is not persuaded that he is doing anything illegal. The fraudster will meet the victim, and must be able to act the part of a well-connected and experienced loan broker. He will ask for payment in advance; this is normal when arranging large loans. Then the loan will gradually fall through in a plausible way, and the victim may end up being defrauded of tens of thousands of dollars or pounds, but often thinking only that the deal unfortunately failed. These frauds may go unreported either because the victim does not realise he has been cheated, or due to reluctance to admit the facts; and reporting may be delayed until the victim becomes certain he has been cheated by non-disclosure clauses.
The spam e-mails perpetrating these scams are often sent from Internet cafés equipped with satellite Internet. Recipient addresses and email content are copied and pasted into a webmail interface using a standalone storage medium, such as a memory card. Many areas of Lagos, such as Festac, contain many shady cyber cafés that serve scammers; many cyber cafés seal their doors during afterhours, such as from 10:30 PM to 7:00 AM, so that scammers inside may work without fear of discovery.
Nigeria also contains many businesses that provide false documents used in scams; after a scam involving a forged signature of Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo in summer 2005, Nigerian authorities raided a market in the Oluwole section of Lagos. The police seized thousands of Nigerian and non-Nigerian passports, 10,000 blank British Airways boarding passes, 10,000 United States money orders, customs documents, false university certificates, 500 printing plates, and 500 computers.
During the courses of many schemes, scammers ask victims to supply bank account information. Usually this is a "test" devised by the scammer to gauge the victim's gullibility.
Scammers often request that payments be made using a wire transfer service like Western Union and Moneygram. The reason given by the scammer will usually relate to the speed at which the payment can be received and processed, allowing quick release of the supposed payoff. The real reason is that wire transfers and similar methods of payment are irreversible, untraceable and, because identification beyond knowledge of the details of the transaction is often not required, completely anonymous.
Telephone numbers used by scammers tend to come from mobile phones. In Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) a scammer may purchase an inexpensive mobile phone and a pre-paid SIM card without submitting subscriber information. If the scammers believed they are being traced, they throw their mobile phones into wastebaskets and purchase new mobile phones.
In Benin Nigerians operate scams with Beninese cooperating in the schemes.
Some crime syndicates employ fraudsters in the United States who conclude "deals" or threaten victims who try to leave deals.
In addition to requiring payments, the fraudsters may use the victim's bank details and signature to withdraw money for themselves. In extreme cases the victim may be lured to a place where he or she may be kidnapped, have assets plundered, and then be murdered.
The use of cheques in a scam hinges on a U.S. law (and common practice in other countries) concerning cheques: when an account holder presents a cheque for deposit or to cash, the bank must (or in other countries, usually) make the funds available to the account holder within 1-5 business days, regardless of how long it actually takes for the cheque to clear and funds to be transferred from the issuing bank. The cheque clearing process normally takes 7-10 days and can in fact take up to a month when dealing with foreign banks. The time between the funds appearing as available to the account holder and the cheque clearing is known as the "float", during which time the bank could technically be said to have floated a loan to the account holder to be covered with the funds from the bank clearing the cheque.
The cheque given to the victim is typically counterfeit but drawn on a real account with real funds in it. With a piece of software like QuickBooks and/or pre-printed blank cheque stock, using the correct banking information, the scammer can easily print a cheque that is absolutely genuine-looking, passes all counterfeit tests, and may even clear the paying account if the account information is accurate and the funds are available. However, whether it clears or not, it will eventually become apparent either to the bank or the account holder that the cheque is a forgery. This can be as little as three days after the funds are available if the bank supposedly covering the cheque discovers the cheque information is invalid, or it could take months for a business or individual to notice the fraudulent draft on their account. It has been suggested that in some cases the cheque is genuine - however the fraudster has a friend (or bribes an official) at the paying bank to claim it is a fake weeks or even months later when the physical cheque arrives back at the paying bank.
Regardless of the amount of time involved, once the cashing bank is alerted that the cheque is fraudulent, the transaction is reversed and the money removed from the victim's account. In many cases, this puts victims in debt to their banks as the victim has usually sent a large portion of the cheque by some non-reversible 'wire transfer' means (typically Western Union) to the scammer and, since more uncollected funds have been sent than funds otherwise present in the victim's account, an overdraft results.
Wire transfers via Western Union are ideal for this purpose. The wire transfer, if sent internationally, cannot be cancelled or reversed, and the person receiving the money cannot be tracked. In fact, that person often does not have to provide identification; they only have to know the identifiers of the transaction such as the control number and secret question. Thus, the overwhelming majority of scams involve making payment via wire transfer. Other similar uncancellable forms of payment include postal money orders and cashier's cheques, but as wire transfer is the fastest method, it is the most common.
These services, when notified of an address being used illegitimately, are generally quick to suspend the account. However because a scammer can create as many accounts as he or she wishes and often has several active at one time, finding and shutting down scammer accounts presents only a minor hindrance to scammer operations.
Some fraudsters hijack existing e-mail accounts and use them for advance-fee fraud purposes. The fraudsters e-mail associates, friends, and/or family members of the legitimate account owner in an attempt to defraud them. This ruse generally requires the use of phishing or keylogger computer viruses to gain login information for the e-mail address.
Many scams use telephone calls to convince the victim that the person on the other end of the deal is a real person and telling the truth. The scammer, possibly impersonating a U.S. citizen or other person of a nationality - or even gender - other than his or her own, would arouse suspicion by placing an ordinary voice call to the victim. In these cases, scammers use TRS, a US federally-funded relay service where an operator or a text/speech translation program acts as an intermediary between someone using an ordinary telephone and a deaf caller using TDD or other TeleType device. The scammer might specify they are deaf or not, and that their use of a phone requires the use of a relay service. The victim, possibly drawn in by a sense of sympathy for the caller in light of a stated disability, might be more inclined to agree to the fraudulent arrangement.
Because of current FCC regulations and confidentiality laws, operators are required to relay every call verbatim and must adhere to a strict code of confidentiality and ethics. Thus no relay operator is permitted to make judgements about the legality and/or legitimacy of any relay call and must relay the call without interference. As such, the relay operator cannot warn victims even when they suspect that the call is a scam; some sources claim that up to half of all IP Relay calls are scams.
Due to the relative ease at tracking phone-based relay services, scammers have a tendency to use Internet Protocol-based relay services such as IP Relay to place these calls. A common strategy consists of binding their overseas IP address to a router or server located on US soil, thus allowing them to use US-based relay service providers without interference.
TRS is sometimes used to relay credit card information for the purposes of making a fraudulent purchase with a stolen credit card. In many cases however, it is simply a means for the scammer to further lure the victim into the scam.
Another twist on scamming is where links are provided to real news sites covering events the scammer says are relevant to the transaction they propose. For instance, a scammer may use news of the death of a prominent government official as a backstory for a scam involving getting millions of dollars of the slain official's money out of the country. These are real websites covering legitimate news, but the scammer is usually not connected in any way with the events reported, and is simply using the story to gain the victim's sympathy.
Some cheque-cashing scammers use multiple victims at multiple stages of the scam. A victim in the U.S. or other "safe" country such as the UK or Canada (often the country in which the cashing victim resides) is sometimes approached with an offer to fill out cheques sent to them by the scammer and mail them to other victims who will cash the cheque and wire the money to the scammer. The cheque mailer is usually promised a cut of the money from the scammer; this usually never occurs, and in fact the cheque mailer is often conned into paying for the production and shipping costs of the cheques. The cheque information has either been stolen or fictionalized and the cheques forged. The victim mailing the cheque is usually far easier to track (and prosecute) than the scammer, so when the cheques turn up as fraudulent, the one mailing them usually ends up not only facing federal bank fraud and conspiracy charges, but liability for the full amount of the fraudulent cheques. Because the cheque mailer is taking the fall, the scammer is even less likely to be caught, which makes it a popular variation of the scam for scammers in nations with tougher anti-fraud laws.
A recent variant is the "Romance Scam" which is a money-for-romance angle. The victim is usually approached by the scammer on an online dating service, on an Instant messenger (like Yahoo IM) or even social networking sites. The scammer claims to have become interested in the victim, and have pictures posted of an attractive person who is not actually the poster. The scammer uses this communication to gain the victim's confidence, and then ask for money. The offending party may claim to be interested in meeting the victim, but needs some cash up front in order to book the plane, hotel room, and other expenses. In other cases, they may claim they're trapped in a foreign country and need assistance to return, to escape imprisonment by corrupt local officials, to pay for medical expenses due to an illness contracted abroad, and so on. The scammer may also use the confidence gained by the romance angle to introduce some variant of the original Nigerian Letter scheme, such as saying they need to get money or valuables out of the country and offer to share the wealth, making the request for help in leaving the country even more attractive to the victim. A newer version of the scam is to claim to have 'information' about the fidelity of a person's significant other which they will share for a fee. This information is garnered through social networking sites by using search parameters such as 'In a relationship' or 'Married'. Anonymous emails are first sent to attempt to verify receipt, then a new web based email account is sent along with directions on how to retrieve the information.
Much like the various forms of overpayment fraud detailed above, a new variant of the lottery scam involves fake or stolen cheques being sent to the 'winner' of the lottery (these cheques representing a part payment of the winnings). The winner will then be more likely to assume that the win is legitimate and subsequently more likely to send the fee (which he does not realize is an advance fee). The cheque, and associated funds, will then be flagged by the bank when the fraud is discovered and debited from the victim's account.
In 2004 a variant of the lottery scam appeared in the United States. Fraud artists using the scheme call victims on telephones; a scammer tells a victim that a government has given him or her a grant and that he or she needs to pay an advance fee, usually around 250 USD, in order to receive the grant.
Related to the hitman scam, the scammer will contact a business, mall, office building or other commercial location with a bomb threat. The scammer says they will detonate the bomb unless the management of the business does as the scammer tells them. Often, the scammer says that they have the store under surveillance; however, analysis of the calls by police have established that the vast majority of threat calls are made from other states or even from outside the country. Some evidence exists that points to the scammers hacking into the store's surveillance network, but this has not been confirmed in any case and has been refuted in others. The scammer usually demands that the store management or people in the headquarters office of the store (if the store is a chain) send money via wire transfer to the scammer to spare the store and the people in it. Other demands of these scammers have been more personal and humiliating, such as demanding that everyone in the store disrobe.
Because the underlying threat in the scam is a bomb threat, local law enforcement very quickly responds to the site under threat; however, because the scammer is usually nowhere near this location, the scammer is in little if any danger of being apprehended while the scam is playing out. Law enforcement, in the meantime, cannot assume the threat is anything but genuine, and therefore can do little to intervene without risking the detonation of the bomb. The fact that the threat was in reality a scam has usually not been discovered until long after the situation is over—and the extortionist has collected the money demanded.
In a related variant, the scammer will pose as a terminally ill mother, poor university student, or other down-on-their-luck person and simply beg the victim for money for college tuition, to sponsor their children, or a similar ruse. The money, they say, will be repaid plus interest by some third party at a later date (often these third parties are some fictitious agency of the Nigerian government, or the scammer themselves once a payment from someone else is made available to them). Once the victim starts paying money to the scammer, the scammer will tell the victim that additional money is needed for unforeseen expenses, similar to most other variants; in the case of the ill mother, the children will fall ill as well and require money for a doctor's care and medicine (many scammers go as far as to say that as the sponsor of the children, the victim is legally liable for such costs), where the student might claim that a dormitory fire destroyed everything they own.
The Nigerian scam is hugely successful. According to a 1997 newspaper article: "We have confirmed losses just in the United States of over $100 million in the last 15 months," said Special Agent James Caldwell, of the Secret Service financial crimes division. "And that's just the ones we know of. We figure a lot of people don't report them."
Although the "success rate" of the scam is hard to gauge, some experienced 419 scammers get one or two interested replies for every thousand messages. Stephanie Nolen of The Globe and Mail said that an experienced scammer can expect to make at least several thousand dollars per successful scam letter.
Ultrascan Advanced Global Investigations, a Netherlands-based firm which has been studying 419 matters since the mid-1990s, has prepared a table quantifying 419 operations by country for 2005 and 2006. These stats are based on Ultrascan's in-house investigations and include, by nation: number of 419 rings; number of 419ers; income of the 419ers (the amount of losses by victims to the 419ers); and additional data. 419 Coalition view is that these stats present a reasonably conservative and realistic look at the extent and magnitude of 419 criminal operations worldwide.
Since 1995, the United States Secret Service has been involved in combating these schemes. The organization will not investigate unless the monetary loss is in excess of fifty thousand US Dollars. However, very few arrests and prosecutions have been made due to the international aspect of this crime.
In 2006, a report by a research group concluded that Internet scams in which criminals use information they trick from gullible victims and commonly strip their bank accounts cost the United Kingdom economy £150 million per year, with the average victim losing £31,000.
In other cases, the victim will continue to contact the scammer after being shown proof that they are being scammed or even being convicted of crimes relating to the scam, having been drawn so deeply into the web of deception that their trust in what the scammer tells them overrides everything else in their life. Such victims are easy prey for future scams, digging themselves even deeper into financial and legal trouble.
In October 2006 the Amsterdam police launched Operation Apollo to fight internet fraud scams operated by West Africans and notably Nigerians. Following this investigation police have arrested 80 suspects, most of them from Nigeria, and seized from their homes lists of email addresses, as well as fake documents. On June 16, 2007 111 people were arrested for being in The Netherlands illegally and suspicion of fraud, although their implication with the email scams is yet unknown.
Authorities in Nigeria have been slow to take action and for many years nothing was done. Nigeria has a reputation for criminals being able to avoid convictions through bribery and rumours abounded of official connivance in the scams. In 2003 however the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) was charged with tackling the problem. A couple of success stories including convictions in a large 419 case were reported in 2005.
Edna Fiedler, 44, of Olympia, Washington, on June 25, 2008, pleaded guilty in a Tacoma court and was sentenced to 2 years imprisonment and 5 years of supervised release or probation in an Internet $1 million "Nigerian check scam." She conspired to commit bank, wire and mail fraud, against US citizens, specifically using Internet by having had an accomplice who shipped counterfeit checks and money orders to her from Lagos, Nigeria, last November. Fiedler shipped out $ 609,000 fake check and money orders when arrested and prepared to send additional $ 1.1 million counterfeit materials. Also, the U.S. Postal Service recently intercepted counterfeit checks, lottery tickets and eBay overpayment schemes with a face value of $2.1 billion.