The Nigerian advance fee fraud

If someone decides to write the history of fraud in all levels of human activities, it is certain that he would never be able to finish his work. For thousands of years, brilliant, but still unscrupulous people have devised and used incredible ways in order to persuade people into giving away their money, usually with the expectation of earning more. Read More

One of the most recent and still growing schemes has become known as the Nigerian Advance Fee or "4-1-9" Fraud. Keep on reading, because maybe you have already been "invited" to join.

The principle in all "advance fee" frauds is to persuade somebody to pay or proceed to actions in the expectation of a significant amount of money that will be earned for doing practically nothing. Most people are quite skeptical when receiving such offers, but still there are those that are either too easily-convinced, or too desperate, or even adventurous enough to be lured into "pay a few, do nothing, earn a lot" schemes.

But lets concentrate on the most recent scheme that has attracted victims from around the world, using, what else, the internet free highways. Since 1990, Nigerian Advance Fee Fraud, known internationally as 4-1-9 after a section of the Nigerian criminal code, has emerged as one of the most lucrative fraudulent activities perpetrated by organized criminal elements within the Nigerian community. It is believed that the fraud involves a group of people, mainly expatriated Nigerians, operating from cells in USA, UK, Canada, Australia, Japan and maybe other countries.

Initiation

What exactly is this scheme? People from all around the world have received e-mails like this one ð.

The general concept of the letters is:

  • convince the recipient that he has been selected because of some special recommendation (result of his business, integrity or other positive characteristic)
  • establish a kind of authority, since most e-mails are supposed to be from well respected and highly placed officials of the previous regime in Nigeria
  • provide a well based explanation for the existence of a huge amount of money (10-100 million USD) and a logical reason to why the recipient's assistance is required (usually the money are the result of over invoiced transactions, or other assets acquired during the previous regime and are not allowed to be carried outside the country by the current government)
  • offer a significant amount (up to 30%) as a commission for the recipient's aid in getting the money out of Nigeria
  • insist on secrecy on the basis of their personal danger
  • request of some harmless information (at the beginning)

So the potential victim is being lured at what seems as an extraordinary opportunity (of those that happen once in a lifetime).

Phase 2

The second phase of the scheme begins when somebody decides to reply to the initial offer. At this point everything seems to be in order, official looking documents from the Bank of Nigeria, and the victim starts to believe that he is only days away to becoming a millionaire. Victims are often convinced of the authenticity of Advance Fee Fraud schemes by the forged or false documents bearing apparently official Nigerian government letterhead, seals, as well as false letters of credit, payment schedules and bank drafts.

Once the trap has been set, an alleged problem concerning the deal will suddenly arise. An unforeseen tax or fee payable to the government of Nigeria will have to be paid before the money can be transferred. These can include licensing or incorporation fees, or various forms of taxes and attorney fees. Each fee paid is described as the very last fee required. Invariably, errors and oversights are discovered by the Nigerians, necessitating additional payments and allowing the scheme to be stretched out over many months. The foreign partner will then be provided with a bank account into which these fees should be transferred. There are people that still keep on believing on the sincerity of the offer but in any case even if someone wants to back up he may find himself in trouble if he refuses to pay the fees, since there have been reports that at this point victims have been subjected to to acts of intimidation and threats of violence, unless they cooperate.

Victims are almost always requested to travel to Nigeria or a border country to complete a transaction. Individuals are often told that a visa will not be necessary to enter the country. The Nigerian con artists may then bribe airport officials to pass the victims through Immigration and Customs. Because it is a serious offense in Nigeria to enter without a valid visa, the victim's illegal entry may be used by the fraudsters as leverage to coerce the victims into releasing funds. Violence and threats of physical harm may be employed to further pressure victims. Since 1992, 17 people killed in Nigeria, either trying to recover their funds, or even still pursuing the "easy money" scheme.

Indications are that Advance Fee Fraud grosses hundreds of millions of dollars annually and the losses are continuing to escalate. And these numbers do not include those are victims who do not report their losses to authorities due to either fear or embarrassment.

Our experience

It has been established that more than 10.000.000 internet users have received e-mails concerning such transfers, 5% of those people (500.000 people that is) are believed to have replied to those mails. Some of those people were actually lured and others just wanted to see how the story would go, or just for fun. We have done so ourselves. We received one of those mails and replied in order to see how things would proceed. We have asked skeptical questions, such as "why did you choose me", or "allow me to have proof of the existence of the money", or even "ok lets do it, send me a check payable in a domestic bank". In all these questions the fraud group has provided answers that could be mistaken as sincere. The sure thing is that since we replied the specific e-mail account started receiving initiation e-mails, with different senders and a different story each time. In two months we received more than 25 such mails.

The funny thing is that when we made a sum of the money to be transferred from all these mails we came up with almost 4 billion dollars and a commission for us of more than a billion dollars!!!

Conclusions

The use of internet services has undoubtedly shortened distances for people and businesses and has made incredible amounts of information available to almost everybody. But as it happens with every evolution it has also provided criminals with new means of promoting and pursuing their goals. The concept of advance fee frauds is not a new one, but the dissemination of letters via e-mail, has enlarged the scope of people available to be victimized.

Additionally, from a psychological point of view, the internet world creates two illusions that significantly affect the decisions of people who fall for scams like this one.

Illusion 1: I can go anywhere, I can do everything, I can exploit opportunities more easily than in the "real" world (internet euphoria syndrome)

Illusion 2: I am anonymous and thus no one can hurt me and I can do whatever I want.

A first impression would be that those 2 illusions are irrelevant to our subject, but they do compose a psychological situation that subconsciously alters the normal route of decision-making.

Finally, one has to take into account that the amounts we are talking about are large enough to intrigue everybody's imagination and ignite, even to the most skeptical the "what if its for real" sparkle.

These 4 points, "pay a few, do nothing, earn a lot", the 2 internet illusions and"weight" of the amounts mentioned, create an explosive psychological  cocktail that actually answers the question that you have been wondering about right from the first paragraph of this article "are there people who actually take these offers seriously?".

References & Links:
- Australian Institute of Criminology 1999, "Nigerian Advance Fee Fraud"
- London Times 1998, "Abacha's loot returned"
- United States Secret Service 2001, Public Announcement
 
- Examples of mails sent to people: mail 1 mail 2 mail 3

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