I must have been all of 14 years old when I saw my first Nigerian scam letter: addressed to my dad, it was an actual letter typed on paper and folded in an envelope, and it told the story of some rich Nigerian dude who needed help to get hold of his 100 M$. Dad kept it on his cork board at home like a trophy, marvelling at its sheer scamminess.
Since then, the Nigerian scam has become a profitable way of life for many “smart” Nigerians who would rather cheat and lie than do an honest day’s work. I say “smart” because while the scammers are computer literate, English-speaking individuals, it is sometimes hard to believe just how dumb they can be… especially when it comes to believing that everyone is as dumb as they are.
This is the inevitable conclusion one reaches reading the correspondence between scammers and scameaters at the 419 Eater website (fraud is covered by article 419 of the Nigerian penal code). The Trophy Room an unbelievable and almost embarrassing display of human greediness and stupidity in photos, including the one that illustrates this post. The first time I reached this site, I spent a couple of hours reading, looking at photos, LOLling and, in some cases, ROLFing and even ralphing. Surrealistic is not enough to describe some of the cases. The one of the baiter passing as Gillian Anderson of X-Files fame is beyond Monty Python.
But do not be fooled by the humor, or hard love, depending on how one looks at it. 419 Eater addresses the issues behind the fun, the real facts and figures behind the 419 scam phenomenon, the mentality of the scammers and the ethical issues deriving from the 419 Eater basic principle: keep ’em too busy to scam anyone else. Their Ethics page starts thus:
Most decent people who stumble across this site are initially amused by the antics but then start to feel some pangs of conscience – sure it’s funny but maybe it’s not very *nice* to string them along like that. After all, surely they wouldn’t be doing it unless they had to…etc
Over time there have been some excellent answers to this question so it was decided to collate these together.
1. Surely no one believes it when they get one of these letters?
It often comes as a surprise when you hear of someone who actually believed that some ex-presidents son wanted their help to rescue the family fortune. In February 2004, Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said:
“In Nigeria, we are always amazed that anyone could be so stupid as to respond to such an offer.”
The fact is that many people do believe these letters – enough to make 419 crime quite a lucrative money earner. It has been estimated that there are well over 250,000 scammers involved in 419 scams worldwide and that they reap in over US$1.5 billion annually. The average victim pays out US$20,000.
People who already know that it’s a scam tend not to get taken in. But there are so many variations from ‘help me get this dead man’s money out of the country before the nasty government confiscates it’ to ‘I’m dieing. Please look after my children when I’m gone’ that it is quite easy for someone who does not know to get sucked in. And of course once the scammers have their claws into their victim they use every trick they know to make them pay more and more until there is nothing left.
ScamPatrol comes across between 15-20 victims per week, many of who have already sent money at the time they were warned. Sadly, many of those are already so convinced by the story that they refuse to believe the warnings and continue to contact the scammers.
So this isn’t good clean fun, on either side. It is a push-shove action-reaction, or said otherwise: 419 Eater is the kind of symmetrical counterbalance karma just loves. A spoonful of tit-for-tat, a pinch of ouch. We are here to learn, after all. And there can be no doubt that many of the lessons collected at 419 Eater were richly deserved and will hopefully be remembered… because they will be in the final exam!
Scammy in Spain
Here in Spain we have a long and proud tradition of scamming that dates back to, well, to whenever the peninsula was first colonized, and continues to this day. I’m talking old-school scams, classics like the tocomocho, in which the “village idiot” has either a winning lottery ticket or an envelope filled with “banknotes” and is willing to part with it in exchange for real money. The usual targets for this scam are greedy old ladies who think they’re ripping off the village idiot, which is why social condemnation for this type of activity is not particularly strong. For the gents there is the “magic paint” scam, involving “banknotes” or “gold” bars that are revealed using a magic paint, a scam which remains surprisingly popular despite its high level of incredulity strain.
In Barcelona, there are scammers galore preying on the tourists –not to be confused with the legions of skilled pickpockets which make Dicken’s London rat crews look like dilettants– from Romanian gypsy girls collecting signatures to the “hash” dealers in Plaza Real, but the all-time tourist favorite are the trileros (three-card monty) that set up shop in the middle of the Ramblas; one working the cups, a couple more pretending to be winning money and about three looking out for the heat. One shout and they’re gone in a heartbeat, leaving ripped-off tourists standing there like bunny rabbits in the headlights. A friend of mine likens the Ramblas to a natural savannah ecosystem: the gnus herd up and down the main boulevard while the hyenas crouch in the sidestreets, picking off the weak and infirm.
To end on a more relative note, let us not forget that these Nigerian scammers are mere aficionados compared to Spain’s biggest scammers of all: the banksters, the construction mangantes and the politicos, for robbing us blind and telling us the crisis is our fault for “living beyond our means”. For forcing us to pay for it under coercion. Ah, but there is a specially-toasted bun waiting for that hairy mojo to be served up with a generous side of crow. Or is it of tar and feathers…?