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.