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. Sometimes this type of fraud is called "419" fraud, after the underenforced section of the Nigerian criminal code which makes it illegal. In simple terms, a criminal sends out thousands of spam emails, hoping that an unsuspecting soul will reply. Once contact is made, and it appears that the response is from somebody who may fall for the scam, the criminal will repeatedly make promises to send the promised cash, but problem after problem will arise. These problems can only be resolved, the criminal will swear, if the target sends them money to pay certain fees or bribe various officials. (The term "advance fee" refers to the money they get from you - and despite their promises of riches, you 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. And some people have literally been cheated out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Please note that these criminals often run multiple scams, including false promises of inheritance or lottery winnings.

But The Letter I Received Is Not From Nigeria

Although this scam was made famous by criminals in Nigeria, the fraud can occur out of any country. Further, even when an email originates from Nigeria, the scammers can misrepresent the nation from which they are contacting you.

Please do not make the mistake of assuming that the same type of offer from another country, such as South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Kenya, Senegal, Zaire, the Congo, the United Arab Emirates, or Sierra Leone, or even European nations such as England or Spain, is legitimate. There are people who operate the same type of fraud from a wide range of nations. Also, some scammers who are located in Nigeria will lie about their location.

Please remember that this type of email is always fraudulent, no matter who sends it or where they claim to be from.

How Did They Find Me?

Most people who have an email address for any significant amount of time receive so-called "spam email" (more politely known as "unsolicited commercial email.") Spammers create lists of email addresses by collecting them from websites, buying them from other businesses, and even by guessing possible names on popular email hosts such as Yahoo! mail and Hotmail. It is possible to buy large email lists for relatively small amounts of money. Most people who are running these scams get spam mailing lists in this manner, or buy them from spammers.

I Got The Same Type Of Letter, But By Fax - Is That Different?

Prior to the rise of email, it was common for this type of scammer to approach people by fax or even by regular mail. I am sure they are working on a way to reach people by instant messenger. However they reach you, they are trying to cheat you.

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 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.

A Sample Letter

The following is a sample spam letter from this particular scam:

From: []
Sent: Monday, June 28, 2004 7:20 AM
From: Markson Juliet/Kamara

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$

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.

Please, for you to be clarified because, I do not expose myself to anybody I see, I believe that you are able to keep this transaction secret for me because this money is the hope of my life, it is important. Please contact me immediately after you must have gone through my message, and feel free to make it urgent. That is the reason why I offered you 20 % of the total amount, and in case of any other necessary expenses you might incure during this transaction including your telephone calls.

N.B: Try and negotiate for me some profitable blue chip investment opportunities which is risk free that I can invest with this money when it is transferred to your account, and you will be our guardian, personally I am interested in estate management and hotel business, please advise me. Contact me immediately you receive this message for more explanation. And promise me and Juliet my younger sister to be a father considering our situation and not to betray us please.

Thanks and God bless

Best regards

Markson / Juliet Kamara

NB: my late father used me the only son as the beneficiary / next of kin on the day of deposit and also told me that I need an assistance of a foreigner with alegitimate bank Account abroad who will stand as co-beneficiary and partner abroad.

Are There Other Versions of this Scam?

The individuals behind these schemes develop new versions of their scam on a continuing basis. For example, in recent years they have sent out emails pretending to be from soldiers in Iraq trying to find a way to launder millions of dollars they have diverted from reconstruction projects, 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, or 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 transation.

Another technique is to hack email accounts and then to send requests for small amounts of money to everybody in the account owner's address book. For example, the email may claim 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.

What Can I Do About Spam Email?

The best approach to avoiding spam is ordinarily to be very careful about the distribution of your email address. Once you start to receive spam at a particular email address, you will usually end up receiving increasing amounts of spam at that address no matter what you do. There is filtering technology which some find helpful, which helps to screen out spam email from legitimate email. Please review this associated article about the problem of spam email, and possible steps to avoid it.

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.