Outlaws: 419 Scams

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Photo by Sophie G. 

“Sir, you will doubtlessly be astonished to be receiving a letter from a person unknown to you, who is about to ask a favour from you…”

Modern advance-fee fraud saw a watershed moment with the advent of the fax machine, and its use exploded once scammers infiltrated the Internet. Sometimes, the confidence tricks come in the form of catfish* operations, romances where scammers a continent away create false online profiles in order to prey on middle-aged, widowed Westerners. Another strand dates back to the 1910 short story “The Spanish Prisoner” wherein the scammer, insisting on secrecy, enlists the aid of the target in freeing a wealthy relative from prison with the implied promise that the wealthy relative will lavishly repay their kindness. But perhaps most ubiquitous is the 419 scam, named after an article in the Nigerian Criminal Code dealing specifically with fraud.

The scam begins with the promise of millions that can be unlocked once the mugu, or mark, has paid a facilitating fee via wire transfer. Roadblocks arise, necessitating more deposits, until a family’s savings or a trading firm’s foreign account is bone-dry. The promised riches could be the stolen fortune of a deposed dictator, the bequest of a wealthy relative recently and tragically deceased, even, in one case, a cache of gold found by a US soldier in Iraq. In every case, the scheme succeeds because of greed. Overriding common sense, it makes the mark complicit in the crime and can turn the most skilled financier into an addicted gambler.

The first recorded 419 letter, which describes 16,000 francs of gold and diamonds trapped in a suitcase, was very likely drafted in a French prison around 1830. Prisoners entered and left French prisons with such regularity that inmates could easily learn the addresses of the province’s wealthiest residents. The letter-writer tells a story that usually goes something like this: He, a valet-de-chambre to the Marquis de [insert name here] was mistaken for another criminal and needs money from the addressee to clear his name and return to the valise he buried before his capture. But there is no casket and no valet-de-chambre, only the money the recipient of the letter sends to the letter-writer or an accomplice often stationed in Jerusalem, never to be heard from again. Hence, the scam’s original moniker as “The Letter from Jerusalem.”

*The term “catfish” can be traced to fish exporters that used to keep catfish in with the cod on the long trip from Alaska to China, keeping the cod agile and fleshy when they arrived on the other side of the Pacific. Catfish, in this context, keep us on our toes, so we don’t become flabby and tasteless after it’s all over.

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