Why This May Mean the End of the Nigerian Prince Scam

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — More about the latest developments from the FTC right after I finish wiring $2,000 to my new pen pal in Abuja...

On Wednesday the Federal Trade Commission signed an agreement with the government of Nigeria to help combat cross-border fraud. Participants in the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) included the FTC as well as two Nigerian law enforcement bodies, the Consumer Protection Council and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.

"Cross-border scammers use fraudulent emails and other scams to bilk consumers all over the world, while undermining confidence in legitimate businesses," wrote Edith Ramirez, chairwoman of the FTC, in a press release. "This MOU will help our agencies better protect consumers in both the U.S. and Nigeria."

Ultimately, in the internet age, this means tackling the Nigerian Prince Scam.

Although very widely known, Nigerian Prince scams are no laughing matter. Otherwise known as a "419 scam," the style of this con changes, but the substance always stays the same: a wealthy stranger emails you out of the blue asking for help moving or hiding a vast amount of money. In exchange, he offers to let you keep a startling percent of it.

The catch is that you must first provide your banking information and typically help cover an ever increasing number of taxes, tithes and "transfer fees" before ever seeing a dime of your money.

The scam gets its name from some of the first of these emails to crop up back in the 1990s, but its roots surprisingly go back hundreds of years. In the 19th Century, it was called the Spanish Prisoner, when supposedly wealthy families would reach out to businessmen, claiming that they only needed a little bit of cash to help smuggle themselves and their vast fortune to the United States. Even then, the New York Times referred to this as "an old swindle revived." It has lived on ever since, and today the term "419" refers to the section of the Nigerian criminal code dealing with such fraud.

The game is to see how far you'll go. A 419 scammer doesn't have an end goal in mind; like any spammer, he works by volume, throwing as many hooks into the water as possible and only paying attention to the ones that bite. As long as you're paying, he's interested. As soon as you stop, or he's bled you dry, he'll move on.

These scams have generally become the subject of ridicule these days, not only because they're so well known but because the often-bizarre wording of the emails almost always betrays their shady origins. (Although some researchers have suggested that the grammar issues are actually an intentional part of the con.) Unfortunately, according to the FBI and FTC, 419 scams remain all too effective and all too dangerous.

"These messages are the butt of late night jokes, but people still respond to them," the FTC writes on its website. "According to State Department reports, people who have responded to these emails have been beaten, subjected to threats and extortion and in some cases, murdered."

According to the popular mythbusting site Snopes.com, a Nigerian Prince scam works on the sheer volume of the promised reward:

"In a nutshell, the con works by blinding the victim with promises of an unimaginable fortune. Once the sucker is sufficiently glittery-eyed over the prospect of becoming fabulously rich, he is squeezed for however much money he has. Thus he parts with it willingly, thinking 'What's $5,000 here or $10,000 there when I'm going to wind up with $2 million when this is all done.'"

The logic is unfortunately effective.

In order to combat these scams, and any other form of cross-border fraud, Nigerian and American authorities will begin to establish joint training programs and workshops. They will also begin identifying specific cases where the two countries can share resources to help crack down on local issues.

Director General Dupe Atoki of the Nigerian Consumer Protection Council said that her agency has already sent a senior official to the FTC to begin a six month exchange, programs which under the memorandum may well expand in the future.

This will build upon past efforts between the FTC and Nigerian law enforcement, although it's important to note that this agreement serves more as a statement of intent than of law. It will impose no binding obligations on anybody, but rather lays the framework for future cooperation.

--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.

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