Inside the Mind of a 419 Scammer

Ze Frank’s Dramatic Reading of a 419 Email

Everyone, at least everyone who follows my words, is well aware of the 419 Scam, commonly known as the Nigerian Email Scam, or the “Advance Fee Fraud.”

It’s almost literally one of the oldest tricks in the book when it comes to the web (witness, Ze Frank’s dramatic reading of a 419 email at a 2004 TED).

Still, it’s astonishing how little I know about the 419 scam, and what actually motivates these individuals to perpetrate the scams in the first place.  I had always been told that the common myth in the various parts of Africa (where the practice of scamming Americans is prevalent) was that the US government repaid all money lost in scams to its citizens. Obviously we know that to be untrue, and given how the world has shrunk due to widespread adoption of social tools and the Web, I’d imagine that if that myth were ever commonly held it would no longer be that.

That’s why I’ve been fascinated by a series of posts I discovered today at Scam Detectives, where the author was actually approached by a reformed 419er, who gave surprisingly detailed accounts of what goes on inside these operations.

I come from a poor family in Lagos, Nigeria. We did not have very much money and good jobs are hard to find. I was approached to work for a gang master when I was 15, because I had done well in school with my English, and was getting to be good with computers. The gang master was offering good money and I took the chance to help my family.


Scam-Detective: How did you find victims for your scams?

John: First you need to understand how the gangs work. At the bottom are the “foot soldiers”, kids who spend all of their time online to find email addresses and send out the first emails to get people interested. When they receive a reply, the victim is passed up the chain, to someone who has better English to get copies of ID from them like copies of their passport and driving licenses and build up trust. Then when they are ready to ask for money, they are passed further up again to someone who will pretend to be a barrister or shipping agent who will tell the victim that they need to pay charges or even a bribe to get the big cash amount out of the country. When they pay up, the gang master will collect the money from the Western Union office, using fake ID that they have taken from other scam victims.

Part of the motivation is the constant detachment the Internet provides for the scammers:

I never met a victim, but I was involved in a couple of Wash-Wash scams. We would tell the victim that we had a trunk full of money, millions of dollars. One victim met some of my associates in a hotel in Amsterdam, where he was shown a box full of black paper. He was told that the money had been dyed black to get through customs, and that it could be cleaned with a special chemical that was very expensive. My associates showed him how this worked with a couple of $100 bills from the top of the box, which they rinsed with some liquid to remove the black dye. Of course the rest of the bills were only black paper, but the victim saw real money. He handed over $27,000 (about £17,000) to buy the chemicals and was told to return to the hotel later that day to pick up the cash. Of course when he came back, there was nobody there. He couldn’t report it to anybody because if it had been real it would have been illegal, so he would have gotten himself into trouble.

image There is a lot of self-delusion and desperation that comes with the territory:

I would use whatever tactics were needed to get more money. I would send faked letters which stated that the money was about to be taken out of the account by the bank or seized by the government to make them think it was urgent, or tell them that this was definitely the last obstacle to the money being released. I would encourage them to take out loans or borrow money from friends to make the last payment, but tell them that it was important that they didn’t tell anyone what the money was for. I promised them that the expenses would be paid back on top of their share of the money.

Some of the blame has to go to the victims. They wanted the money too because they were greedy. Lots of times I would get emails telling me that they wanted more money than I was offering because of the money they were having to send. They could afford to lose the money. I am not proud of it but I had to feed my family.

The life of a scammer isn’t all unicorns and rainbows, though:

The gang was full of bad people. There was always pressure to send more emails and get more victims. It was always “send more, send more”. When I was promoted and was asking victims for money, the boss always wanted to know when the money was coming. Whatever I was doing was not good enough and if he thought I was not working hard enough he would threaten me and my family. One time I tried to run my own scam on the side and cut the boss out. He found out and beat me badly. He watched me much closer after that and I didn’t dare to try it again.

Another time I got into big trouble because of a victim who kept saying he had sent money when he hadn’t. He sent me 4 fake wire transfer codes and each time the boss went to pick up the money they told him that the number was wrong. The last time the office staff called the police and the boss had to run away. I got beat really bad for that one. I think the guy was just playing with me for fun and never had any real money.

It’s a stellar job of investigative journalism, and really poignant.  The sense I got is that there is a lot of institutional corruption in the nations where this happens, and those that aren’t on the take are truly in the dark as to what’s going on.

The bottom line is that this sort of activity will always continue to take place, and it will only get more sophisticated over time. The only way to remove the incentive would be to vastly improve economic conditions in areas like that so the most attractive option for making money wouldn’t be stealing it.  There are efforts underway by numbers of organizations to make that happen, but there’s a long way to go in that arena.