Farewell, noble scion of a Libyan oil fortune; I shall miss your misspellings. Adieu, widowed princess of a diamond-producing country with troubled politics and tortured syntax.
For decades, I have enjoyed (and destroyed) your urgent entreaties to rescue you, your relatives and your vast, somewhat shady fortune. I always thought it odd that I could be of service only if I would give you my bank account information, but no matter anymore.
A scam, known today as the Nigerian or 419 scam, is going away.
So says the Federal Trade Commission, which again this year has published its list of biggest consumer complaints.
I learned it this week by reading our story about the Federal Trade Commission’s list of top scams. The final sentence caught my eye. It notes:
[O]ne popular scam from prior years seems to be dying out, or is at least complained about less: Complaints in the category “Nigerian/Other Foreign Money Offers” fell by half in two years, to just 7,800 in 2012.
You’ve probably seen examples of the scam yourself. There are many variations, but they begin with a foreign citizen reaching out to seek help, and offering a vast sum in exchange. Victims who get caught up in the scam are lured into by fantastical tales and by the promise of riches, and are enticed into giving up their own account information or cash in a vain effort to pry loose the foreigner’s nonexistent fortune.
Today it’s called the Nigerian scam, because a cluster of scammers persistently operate there, or the 419 scam after the fraud section in Nigerian law. But its origins go way back. In the 1800s, Americans would receive a letter, ostensibly from a foreign national in trouble, The New York Times noted in its March 1898 story, “The ‘Spanish Prisoner’ and Buried Treasure Bait Again Being Offered to Unwary Americans.” Note the word “again” in the headline — even in the 19th century, the scam was old hat.
The Times’ account notes that a typical scam letter includes:
“… a word misspelled here and there, and an occasional foreign idiom. The writer is always in jail because of some political offense. He always has some large sum of money hid, and is invariably anxious that it should be recovered and used to take care of his young and helpless daughter by some honest man …”
It is also a scam I’m well familiar with. As an assistant city editor at the Miami Herald’s Broward bureau in the pre-Internet days, one of my duties was to sort through the tall stack of faxes. I’d keep the potentially newsworthy and discard the chaff — which in those days consisted mostly of car-lot ads and mortgage come-ons. In with them were mixed occasional and obviously phony (to me, anyway) solicitations from rich grieving widows of foreign potentates.
While I’m being flippant about the scam, I know it has caused great harm to individual victims, whose good sense was overcome by greed. Possibly worse, it tarnished the reputation of a nation. What’s an honest Nigerian to do?
Still, I confess to a pang of regret that this one is going away. I got a smile out of the creative fictions, the travelogue element and how they lightly tickled my greed bone. Others took it further than my detached amusement, and actually engaged the scammers in a scam of their own. The website 419eater.com chronicles the exploits of “scambaiters” who turn the tables on the scammers. The “victims” play along, feigning gullibility and dangling money but adding a twist: They invent complicated tales of their own, detailing why they’ll send over the money, but only after the scammer proves his worthiness by sending something to the “victim” first. Say, a photograph. Oh, and make sure the picture shows you wearing a fish on your head. Or holding up a sign reading, “I urgently need a Cialis.”
As I shifted from a paper-based journalist to an online one, the scam followed. For my own amusement, I kept a trove of the best (worst?) examples, some of which I will post below. If you have an email address, you’ve probably seen similar ones, too. Email technology made it easy to blast the scams worldwide. While that may have initially boosted the take, I suspect that the fact that everyone has seen the scam means more of us have been inoculated against it.
I know I may be premature in celebrating the demise of the scam. It has survived the transition from hand-written letter to fax to email, and may surface again on a new technological platform. So if your iPhone 5’s Siri voice suddenly affects a foreign accent and tells you it has an urgent matter of importance regarding a fortune in Bitcoins …