Chapter 38 of the Nigeria Criminal Code deals with 'Obtaining Property By False Pretences; Cheating', and Section 419 within that chapter states:
Any person who by any false pretence, and with intent to defraud, obtains from any other person anything capable of being stolen, or induces any other person to deliver to any person anything capable of being stolen, is guilty of a felony, and is liable to imprisonment for three years.
Nigerian courts use this section of the legal code to prosecute anyone found obtaining money by false pretences or committing fraud. However, a certain type of fraud, known as Advance Fee Fraud, is so prevalent in the country that it has become known the world over as a '419 scam'. Though Nigeria does not have the monopoly on this form of fraud, the perpetrators have acquired the moniker 'the Lads from Lagos1', and it is thought to be the fifth largest industry in Nigeria.
If You Could Just Give Me Five Minutes...
In the original form of the scam, also known as the 'Spanish Prisoner' scam, the fraudster claimed contact with a wealthy prisoner (either incarcerated in, or a citizen of, Spain), who presently could not access his vast fortune. The scammer asked if you could be so kind as to forward some money to help secure the prisoner's freedom, then the prisoner would, upon his release, be only too pleased to display his gratitude in quite substantial fiscal terms. Authorities vary on how old this form of scam is - with estimates ranging from the early 20th Century back through to sometime in the midst of the Middle Ages.
You Just Need To Cover These Fees
More recently, the 419er will claim to be the son of a deceased government official, who, due to some legal complication, needs to get his dead father's wealth out of the country very quickly. He has heard that you are a trustworthy individual, and hopes you will let the money move through your bank account and out into the Western World. Frustratingly, he needs a small deposit in order to release the money, so if you could forward him a couple of hundred pounds, then you could cream a couple of million off the vast amount just about to pass through your bank account.
In another variation you receive news that you have won a lottery that you can't quite remember entering in the first place. Nevertheless, you have a massive prize waiting for you, so you aren't likely to turn it down. However, your access to the prize involves a small complication. The local rules and regulations necessitate you pay a small administration charge in order to release your prize money. It's a tiny amount in relation to the vast sum you will shortly receive, but for some annoying reason it can't be simply deducted from your win and must be paid up-front.
The variations of the scam vary wildly, but all maintain some thread of unbelievability to anyone taking a moment to consider the preposterousness of the situation and a little complication that necessitates the payment of a fee upfront. Whether a bank officer trying to share the multi-million-dollar content of a bank account of a deceased man who died alongside all of his next of kin; a cancer-riddled woman's dying wish to pass on her wealth to someone who might do something good with it, 'and to help the motherless, less privileged and also for the assistance of the widows'; or a lawyer representing the detainee of a tinpot dictatorship who requires your assistance in handling two large crates containing tens of millions in cash due to the 'appropriateness of your personality'. Each variant offers an awe-inspiring mountain of cash offered on the basis of some intuitive level of trust in the victim's good nature that beggars belief.
Take A Little Extra For Yourself
Where not asking for coverage of fees and costs, the scammers may choose to offer to send a large cheque from which you may extract a share, cover costs and purchases and send the remainder back. Many variants exist for the 'excess money' scam, relying on the fact that in the US banks must honour a cheque within one to five working days (even before the cheque has cleared). The victim cashes the cheque, passes back the excess and then faces the wrath of the bank when the cheque bounces hard. Variants include:
Online dating scams where would be love-interests seek to meet up, but need the victim to organise accommodation, travel and so forth, so they send more than enough money, requiring the victim send the excess back to cover travel taxes or bribes to allow the visit to happen.
Targeting of online auctions for high-value items, where the scammer sends too much money for the item and asks for the victim to return the excess funds.
Scams on landlords, where a would be tenant, new to the area, sends a deposit through for a property provided by his new employee. The payment includes an excess intended to allow the would be tenant to get new furniture, relocate and so forth, which the tenant asks the landlord to send back.
In all instances, the incentive to comply normally comes in the form of a percentage of the cashed funds, to thank the victim for his time and generosity in providing assistance.
If You Could Spare A Little More Time...
Or at least, that's how they start. The ways in which they develop can be numerous and troubling. There are reports of people losing thousands of pounds, because the scammer always seems to need that little bit more in order to clear another legal or bureaucratic hurdle. There are also reports of people turning up dead after agreeing to meet their scammer. While these 'lads' are just after your money, some will kill rather than risk the danger of exposure.
Interestingly, most of the above set-ups, and several others that the scammers use, entice you to commit fraud. You are not, sad to say, a world-famous trustworthy person. You did not enter the lottery that you appear to have won. By taking the 419er up on his offer, seeking to obtain money by false pretenses, you break section 419 of the Nigeria Criminal Code yourself. It is thought that a large amount of 419 scams go unreported because the victims believe they have become criminals themselves, and so don't want to report the crime for fear of prosecution. And that is how the 'Lads from Lagos' manage to make millions, even though a small number of people are taken in.
And Email Me Your Details...
Originally, these scams began in the form of letters to wealthier members of society - an expensive way to conduct a scam and one prone to failure due to suspicions raised by the Nigerian postmark on the envelope. However, with the proliferation of the Internet, scammers migrated their efforts to email, providing a cheaper way to set out their case with a means to hide the origin of the sender. Recently the 419ers have started using social networking sites, ever hopeful they might find a sucker willing to part with their money in the hopes of obtaining even more. Unfortunately (though not necessarily universally), in forms both past and present, the 419ers use of English remains resolutely awful - somewhat surprising considering Nigeria's official language is English.
Really it's not at all surprising that your fame as a trustworthy person has reached all the way to Nigeria. Given that you are such a well-respected and upstanding member of society, it really is to be expected that people want to give you millions of pounds. Now, if you could just send a few hundred pounds to...
Then I Can Show You Something You May Find Interesting
The The 419 Coalition seeks to educate, inform, and combat 419 fraud.
419eater, scambuster419 and 419baiter all engage in the growing 'sport' of scammer baiting. They appear to go along with the 419er for fun and/or information, then publish write-ups of the correspondence with the scammers online.