The internet has always been home to shady scam artists looking to prey on unsuspecting users by compromising their data or stealing their money. One of the most common (and long-lived) type of online fraud are the infamous Nigerian email scams. It’s one of the oldest internet scams in the book, and it’s more effective than ever.
What is the Nigerian Email Scam?
Nigerian email scams are a variant of “advance-fee” fraud originating from West Africa. According to the FBI, “the victim pays money to someone in anticipation of receiving something of greater value—such as a loan, contract, investment, or gift—and then receives little or nothing in return.” They’re also referred to as “419 Scams,” after section 419 of Nigeria’s Penal Code, which expressly prohibits such fraud. Some variants include:
If you’d like, you can read actual Nigerian scam emails at Hoax-Slayer. And those are just the ones they’ve collected since 2004. The actual scam emails date back to the early 1990s.
Whatever you call them, these advanced-fee scams are still as common and costly as ever with billions of dollars in losses reported to the FBI.
How Do New Nigerian Email Scams Work?
All Nigerian email scams have the same basic approach. The sender, who sometimes claims to be a Nigerian Prince, relates a tragic story and informs you that you’ve mysteriously been chosen to receive an inheritance or enormous monetary reward. In exchange for a simple “advance” of a few thousand dollars, the “prince” will get the money out of the country and into your bank account.
Once you send the money, the “prince” disappears without a trace and there’s no reward.
New Online Scam Techniques
Some Nigerian scammers bypass your email inbox in hopes of reaching you through other ways: letters, text messages, even fake online dating profiles.
The American Soldier Variant
Sometimes, the scammers are more creative. They pose as an American soldier in Iraq who needs help depositing a large sum of found cash into an overseas account, namely yours. Would you help a brave soldier in need?
Fake Dating Profiles
The latter is perhaps one of the trickiest methods. The scammer will create an entirely fake profile in hopes of making a “love” connection with someone ready and able to send money. Luckily for you, most scammers aren’t adept at the whole love thing, so learning how to spot fake dating profiles is usually pretty simple if you know what to look for.
“Phishing” for Victims
While some scammers still use the silly “Nigerian Prince” angle, many fraudsters are more sophisticated. Some use “phishing” techniques. You might receive an official-looking email that claims to be from Paypal, your bank, or another online business. The email might claim your account has been “limited” in some way, prompting you to log in, providing a link to your account in the email. The scammers trick you into clicking a link where you enter your username and password. But instead of logging into your account, the link unleashes a virus on your computer. The virus provides the scammers access to all your computer passwords, bank accounts, etc. They then steal your identity and soon max out your credit cards.
New Names, Old Cons
No matter how they dress it up, it’s same the idea: send some money or share your bank account info in exchange for a large reward that never materializes.
I’m a Victim. Now What?
If you’ve found yourself the victim of advance-fee fraud, contact local law enforcement and your bank immediately. Whenever you receive any suspicious emails or communications, file a complaint with the FTC, which handles millions of consumer complaints each year.
How To Protect Yourself from Scammers
If you’ve met someone new online and are feeling suspicious, run a quick background check on their email address or, if you were lucky enough to get it, their phone number. This can be a quick way to verify someone’s identity. You might find their name, address history, social media photos, and more.
If you still don’t recognize the sender, it’s probably safe to block their email address and move on. Never share personal information (name, address, social security number, banking info) online, much less with someone you don’t know.
As with so much else online, always err on the side of caution. You’ll be happy you did.