Advance Fee Fraud and 419 Scams


You just received an email from somebody - perhaps a barrister, a relative of a deposed head of state, or a widow in distress - asking for your help. The email may seem almost comical, containing childish spelling and grammatical errors. The person who sent you the email claims to have an enormous amount of cash - millions of dollars - but they can't get it out of the country in which it is situated. If only you will assist them, they will give you a considerable commission amounting to millions of dollars. All they need is a good hearted person with a bank account, and...

It sounds "way too good to be true".... But it is also awfully tempting. Isn't it? What's the possible harm if you reply....

How Does Advance Fee Email Fraud Work?

Advance feel fraud involves an effort to trick you into paying money by making you believe that you're on the verge of a huge financial windfall, with an associated possibility of identity theft. In simple terms, a criminal sends out thousands of spam emails, hoping that an unsuspecting soul will reply:

  1. You are contacted with the possibility or promise of a financial windfall;

  2. Once you respond, you are assured that steps are being taken to deliver the promised money to you;

  3. You are told that problems have arisen, that necessitate the paying of fees, bribes, or other costs in order to free up the promised money;

  4. You are assured that if you send money, the problem can be cleared up and the much larger amount of money will be released to you;

  5. If you pay, you will be told that another problem has arisen and that you need to again pay money to resolve the problem;

  6. This cycle continues until you stop sending money;

  7. You receive nothing in return for the money you have sent.

Prior to the rise of email, it was common for this type of scammer to approach people by fax and by regular mail. The most common means of contact is now by email. However they reach you, the people who send you these false promises of wealth are trying to cheat you.

As this type of fraud is practiced throughout the world by criminal operations based in Nigeria, this type of fraud is often called "419" fraud after the under-enforced section of the Nigerian criminal code that makes the scam illegal. The term "advance fee" refers to the money they convince you to advance to them. Despite their promises of riches, you will never get a cent in return.

Sometimes, the fees and bribes these people describe will seem small, particularly in comparison to the riches they offer, but there is no upside. Even if you are only risking $30 or $40, you'll lose that money forever. Some people who have fallen for this scam have literally been cheated out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Please note that these criminals often run multiple scams and multiple versions of each scam, including false promises of a large inheritance or lottery winnings, but the end of the story is always the same: They get money from their victims, and the victims get nothing in return.

But The Letter I Received Is Not From Nigeria

Although this scam was made famous by criminals in Nigeria, this type of fraud can occur out of any country. There are people who operate the same type of fraud out of every nation in the world. Please do not make the mistake of assuming that the same type of offer from another country in Africa, Asia, or from a nation in Europe, is legitimate.

Also, some scammers will lie about their location. Even when an email originates from Nigeria, the scammers can misrepresent the nation from which they are contacting you. Letters received in the mail may have been forwarded from a mail drop, or mailed by an overseas accomplice.

Remember that this type of email is always fraudulent, no matter who contacts you with the promise it or where they claim to be from.

How Did They Find You

Odds are your email address was obtained from a website, from a list of confirmed addresses that is sold to commercial marketers and spammers, or perhaps when you were misled into submitting your contact information to a website designed to harvest email addresses. At the end of the day it doesn't matter where the scammers got your email address or mailing address. What matters is that you don't fall for the scam.

What Harm Is There In Contacting Them, "Just In Case"

First, there is no point in contacting them "just in case" - of the thousands upon thousands of people who have been cheated in this manner, not one has received the promised money. You won't, either.

Second, you may inadvertently provide the scammer with information that they can use to fake your identity and commit credit card fraud or bank fraud. Even providing them with your name and bank account number can provide them with the basis to try to forge a bank draft or obtain a fraudulent money transfer from your account. If you give them any information, they will try to use it to cheat you.

Third, some of these scammers will actively try to lure you to Africa with the intention of holding you for ransom.

You may have seen sites where people claim to have turned the tables on the scammers, making them do foolish things or stringing them along. But it's safer just to delete their emails and forget them. Note that even when a scammer is tricked by the intended victim, the intended victim receives no money.

A Sample Letter

The following is an example of the type of letter used in this particular scam:

From: markson2@example.com [mailto:markson2@example.com]
To: markson2@example.com
Subject: YOUR ASSISTANCE IS NEEDED ASYLUM CAMP ABIDJAN
From: Markson Juliet/Kamara
ADDRESS. MOTHER THREASA CAMP ABIDJAN COTE D'IVOIRE
EMAIL ADDRESS. (kamara35@example.com)

Dear Sir,

I am markson Kamara the only son of late former Director of finance, Chief Vincent R. Kamara of Sierra-Leone diamond and mining corporation. I must confess my agitation is real, and my words are my bond in this proposal. My late father diverted this fund acquired from the over influencing of price of sales/purchasing of raw materials., now he deposited the money with a BANK IN ABIDJAN BY FIXED DEPOSIT FORM, where I am residing under political asylum with my younger sister Juliet who is 17 years old. Now the war in my country is overwith the help of ECOMOG soldiers, the present government of Sierra Leone has revoked the passport of all officers who served under the former regime and now ask countries to expel such person at the same time, freeze their account and confiscate their assets, it is on this note that I am contacting you, all I needed from you is to furnish me with your bank particulars:

1) Bank name
2) Account name
3) Account number
4) Bank address, telephone and fax numbers to enable me transfer this money in your private bank account, the said amount is tweenty Six Million United States Dollars (US$26.000.000.00).

I am compensating you with 20% of the total money amount, now all my hope is banked on you and I really want to invest this money in your country, where there is stability of Government, political and economic welfare. Honestly I want you to believe that this transaction is real and never a joke. My late father Chief Kamara gave me the photocopy of the deposit certificate issued to him by the BANK IN ABIDJAN on the date of deposit, and he called me closer to his bed side before his call to glory (R.I.P) that I should pray to God first, before contacting any foreigner and he warned me strictly not to deal with a greedy and evil minded people since this is the only legacy we are inheriting from him.

Thanks and God bless

Best regards

Markson / Juliet Kamara

The letters and emails used for this scam are often full of spelling and grammatical errors. However, while those errors may help you recognize a scam, the contact may also come from an operation that is much more professional, with highly polished emails that include links to websites that appear to be those of actual businesses or charities.

Are There Other Versions of this Scam?

The individuals behind these schemes develop new versions of their scams on a continuing basis. For example, over the years they have sent out emails pretending to be from soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan trying to find a way to launder millions of dollars they have diverted from reconstruction projects. They have pretended to be priests or other charity workers trying to get your help with the transfer of a huge donation of money from a donor to their organization. They may pretend to be an individual in another country attempting to collect a huge debt from somebody who lives near you, with you being offered a huge percentage if you collect the money. That last scam is often directed at lawyers, with the hope that they'll cash a huge, easily obtained check from the supposed debtor and forward the money "received" from the debtor before the bank finds out that the payment check was fraudulent and reverses the transaction.

Another scam that was recently popular involves hacking email accounts and sending requests for small amounts of money to everybody in the account owner's address book. For example, the scammers may send an email that claims that the account owner is stranded in a foreign country and has suffered a serious problem -- an accident, a robbery, the loss of a passport, or some similar setback -- and needs you to wire them hundreds or thousands of dollars right away. If you investigate, you will find out that the account owner is at home and knows nothing about the emailed pleas.

What Can I Do About Spam Email?

Your best approaches are:

  • Use a Good Spam Filter - Use software through your email service to filter out spam email;

  • Report Spam - If your email service allows you to report spam emails, use that feature when you find it in your inbox;

  • Never Respond to Spam - All a reply to a spammer will do is confirm that your email address is both genuine and active; and

  • Filter Your Children's Email - Consider using a "white list" so that your children can only receive emails from addresses that you have pre-approved.

Copyright © 2004 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was first published on Jun 1, 2004, and was last reviewed or amended on Sep 12, 2014.