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Doing the hustle: Nigerian and other worldwide scams


Nigeria is a reflection of Africa in all its contradictions. As the wealthiest nation of that continent, it is blessed with one of the richest concentrations of natural resources in the world while simultaneously suffering the ravages of corruption throughout its governmental infrastructure. Nigerian crude oil is especially prized in the world market because its low sulfur content eases the refinery process.

Following its liberation from Great Britain in 1960, Nigeria endured long periods of military dictatorship, totalitarian or ineffectual administrative institutions, including an often ineffective and crooked court system. This condition continued as the lucrative oil industry emerged, and may be one reason why this windfall has not benefited the masses. In any event, it provided a fertile breeding ground for those with a predilection for scams.

Stories out of Nigeria claim incidents of scamming actually started in the 1970s, when the impoverished masses mailed photocopied pleas for economic relief to sympathetic marks in America. The oil industry collapse of 1986, which collided with the spread of fax machines, encouraged locals to use faxes to smooth the transmission of their pitches to unsuspecting recipients on the other end of their faxes. Around this time, Nigerians also became involved in the trafficking of bogus credit cards, according to Det. Ed Whyte of the LAPD’s Commercial Crime Division.

Unlikely propositions
The economic downturn left its sociological footprint on the populace of Nigerian, as did the spread of comparatively low-cost personal computers. While few could afford to own computers, scores of cyber cafes popped up throughout the city of Lagos, especially in Festac, a federal housing project that grew to be the center of the cyber-scam universe.

The cafes became the preferred hangout for throngs of disaffected youth with few job prospects and plenty of time on their hands, and soon a subculture developed. These so-called “yahoo-yahoo” boys, a reference to the famous web portal of the same name, evolved into inventors of Nigeria’s most infamous export: the cash advance fraud.

Briefly, this hoax promises the mark a huge payoff (either in love or money) in exchange for cash up front. The scenario is as varied as the imagination of the scam artist, some of the most common being the request to help transfer an astronomical sum of money into the United States for a nominal fee. To conclude the transaction, the benefactor will be rewarded with a sizable chunk of the proceeds. Other set-ups involve the appeal to assist in the collection of a debt, or, playing upon the heartstrings to attain the girl of your dreams by simply forwarding payment for travel and incidental costs.

Over time, this hustle has become known as the “419” scam, a reference to article 419 of the Nigerian Penal Code, which prohibits fraud. Regardless of the label, the lure of an attractive inducement (emotionally or materially) in exchange for cash up front, is a lure that transcends culture and geography.

Typically, Nigerian scam letters are distinguished by their inventive spelling, shifting punctuation, and unique grammar, of which the following is an example received by the editors at Our Weekly:

I work with the hang seng Bank Hong Kong. I have a business proposition for you involving the sum of $24,500,000.00 in my bank which I know we will be of mutual benefit to both of us, If interested mail me at:

Ming Yang

As might be expected, these swindlers are not inhibited by convention, and have even invoked the Supreme Being in the course of executing their deceptions. And thus, many of these letters include the commitment to dedicate a significant portion of the money toward a church, orphanage, or other project worthy of glorifying the name of God. Enterprising shysters will even capitalize on current events and have forwarded pleas for relief aid in the wake of past tragedies like the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, Southeast Asia’s tsunami of 2004, and will likely exploit (if they haven’t already) the recent earthquake in Japan and potential radiation contamination from the meltdown at two nuclear power plants north of Tokyo.

The Lads from Lagos
The Nigerians who do gravitate towards crime tend to bond along tribal lines. “Confraternities” originally emerging on college campuses, have gradually begun to operate as crime gangs. Much like their Hip Hop brethren across the Atlantic who patronized inner-city America, these “entrepreneurs” of Africa love to cruise the local universities in their fancy cars with their gold chains and Rolex watches, and attended by gold-digging females.

The following is an excerpt from the chart-topping tune, “I Go Chop Your Dollar” by Nkem Owoh, comedian and winner of the African equivalent of the Academy Award:

419 no be thief, it’s just a game
Everybody dey play em
if anybody fall mugu,
ha! my brother I go chop em

Oyinbo man I go chop your dollar,
I go take your money and disappear
419 is just a game, you are the loser I am the winner

It may be inferred from the lyrics that the loser deserves no sympathy.

Reflecting the many local superstitions, they incorporate the customs of their forefathers to assist their pursuit of tangible success. Native charms, fetishes, and rites have been incorporated into the process. Because its practitioners perform West African Vodun (often referred to as voodoo here), derived rituals such as sleeping in a cemetery and bathing in a river are performed to improve the chances of successfully swindling their overseas victims. Devotees are also said to consult spiritualists to ensure the continued success of their virtual scams.

Playing the percentages
“In Nigeria we are always amazed that anyone could be stupid enough to respond to such an offer.” –Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Whyte joined the Commercial Crimes Division in the early 1990s, when it was known as bunco-forgeries, after stints in various other postings with the LAPD. He saw firsthand the Nigerian involvement with credit-card counterfeiting, when the process was more difficult because the white plastic exclusively reserved for this system of payment was highly regulated and difficult to come by.

All criminals are creatures of opportunity. Thus, someone working as a janitor in an office building would utilize the long nights spent alone to photocopy anything that might prove to be valuable later.

The real estate industry was one popular field of employment for many Nigerians in the 1990s. Working in it gave them access to data that was required for determining feasibility for loans and proved useful in furthering their schemes.

When that industry made its well-documented plunge a few years ago, the Nigerians made the transition along with everyone else. They set out shingles offering to refinance home mortgages, and often kept the money given to them by their desperate clients without lifting a finger to save the jeopardized properties.

Whyte noted that as “the market changes, they change.”

The collection of a person’s address, date of birth, driver license number, and other bits of information can be the bedrock upon which to fabricate a new identity and with which to do whatever the “new” individual sees fit. Simple possession of an e-mail address, innocent in and of itself, can be a gateway toward the accumulation of information on all the associates an individual has had contact with, and a substantial addition to the database for future ‘spam’ expeditions.

With the completion of a key stroke, millions of prospective marks maybe accessed, of which an overwhelming majority will likely not take the ‘bite.’ It doesn’t matter, for scams are predicated on that one person in a thousand who decides, in Whyte’s words, “I’m gonna take a chance!”

A common ploy used to separate the gullible from their currency is the e-mailed announcement that the targeted innocent (along with a score of lucky idiots) has won the lottery in a country they’ve never visited nor purchased a ticket from. The logic behind those who respond to such ploys escapes Whyte, who is driven by analytic reasoning, as in “you gotta be in it to win it!”
Another lucrative exercise is known as the access-device fraud, in which the culprit leases a commercial mailbox (in a false name). He then dives into the refuse of perhaps an apartment building to collect some of the scores of credit card offers that habitually go out to anyone who has a legal residence. By keeping the name of the recipient of the offer and changing the address to the fraudulent mailbox, the swindler may now apply for vast quantities of credit cards, and the fraud can begin in earnest.

Motivation and prevention
“(Fraud) can best be explained by three factors: a supply of motivated offenders, the availability of suitable targets and the absence of capable guardians …” –from “Social Change and Crime Rate Trends: A Routine Activity Approach,” by Lawrence E. Cohen and Marcus Felson (1979).

Merely listing all of the various forms of fraud would fill up a good-sized volume without dealing with any particular one in any semblance of depth. A general rule of thumb to safeguard against most kinds of identity theft, the hot-button issue in personal security, is preventing the release of pertinent information to anyone you are not absolutely comfortable with. The spread of e-commerce and the convenience of ordering virtually anything from the comfort of your home must be leveraged against the possibility of suffering extensive financial damage by the slip of a key stroke. When you do resort to online shopping, beware of any requests asking to “confirm this account,” “verify your billing information,” or similar phases.

Old adages like “if it looks too good to be true, it is,” still apply, even in the virtual world. A blanket admonition courtesy of Laura Eimiller, spokesperson for the Los Angeles FBI field office, is “never send money to get money.”

At this point, it should be pointed out that Nigerians are not the only ones out to make a crooked buck. Robert Siciliano, an identity theft expert for the Silicon Valley-based company McAfee, reckons Romanian immigrants may be the present-day driving force in this sorts of illicit behavior. A hundred years ago people encountered a ruse called the “Jamaican Switch,” which was merely a variation of the earlier “Pigeon Drop,” in which the mark is persuaded to front a given amount of money in order to obtain a much larger amount (in essence, a face-to-face version of the 419 scam).

Regardless of their origin, thieves gravitate to the United States because, as prolific bank robber and urban legend Willie Sutton said,” … that’s where the money is.” Besides its status as a global cash cow, its vast social support system and the personal freedoms implemented by the founding fathers provide an attractive toehold for new arrivals, and, for the launch of potential scams.
Armenians also figure prominently on Whyte’s caseload, and a favorite ploy of theirs is credit-card skimming, the theft of sensitive information during the course of a legitimate transaction. Over the years this basic concept has progressed from the thief photocopying receipts to the placement of skimming devices over the card slots of ATMs. The skimmer then reads the magnetic strip from each patron, then records it for later retrieval and further mischief. Some crooks are so erudite that they’ve utilized Bluetooth wireless technology in order to visually observe the activity around an ATM, then pick up the desired data via handheld device from the security of a parked car.

Ethnic nationalities naturally group together so it’s not unusual for them to participate in crime together. While each group may become known for a particular style or expertise (Whyte recalls the Colombians refining the art of pickpocketing throughout the ’80s and ’90s), criminality is becoming homogenous along with the spread of globalization.

Most of the scams covered, in retrospect, seem banal and readily apparent, to the point of stupidity. Indeed, several of the people interviewed inferred that the victims themselves are primarily responsible for the predicament they land in. Still, the sheer volume of people, many of them well-heeled and sophisticated, who fall for these scams indicates that there is something more at play here then sheer naïveté.

The hustle then arguably offers gratification for predator and prey simultaneously. As noted, a depressed economy helped trigger the initial cycle of cyber-scamming. After the elevation from deprivation, however, the “yahoo-yahoo” boys appear to be motivated by the act of the scam itself rather than financial gain. Each additional success becomes a salve to the ego, an opportunity to prove that they are superior to the rest of the world. The act of dominating another becomes an end unto itself.

The hustle is pointless unless the intended has disposable income. If the recipients are presumably well off, this suggests simple greed may be an explanation. Here in Los Angeles, with its hedonistic lifestyle, the blatant presence of those who are demonstrably better off in terms of material comfort, possessions, and status can induce the urge to “keep up with the Jones.” The pressure exists to possess what one realistically cannot afford. Such examples are readily apparent as legions struggle to live beyond their means. This in and of itself is motivation enough to defy the odds of one in a million to win the lotto, or put up a stake on the say-so of someone you don’t know on the other side of the world.