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419 Scam

Got message number 419
This lucky day is mine, all mine

The advance fee fraud, or the 419 scam after section 419 of the Nigerian criminal code, is a form of internet fraud commonly associated with nationals of the Nigerian state.

It typically takes the form of someone under a false identity contacting a member of the public and asking them in suspiciously shaky English for assistance in moving a large sum of money via their bank accounts or by presenting themselves as legal heirs to it. The reason given for the contact varies, but typically the money is in a sealed account, locked trust fund, and so on, which the sender of the email cannot retrieve directly. The mark is promised a substantial share (usually 10% or more) of the millions in the account once the money is liberated. Another variant is to claim the victim has won a lottery they never participated in.

Once a potential victim swallows the bait, they will soon find out (if it's not already mentioned in the initial email) that they will be required to send some of their own money to complete the transaction; trivial initial payments (at first) to bribe an official, apply processing fees, create new authorization documents — any reason the scammer can think of. There is of course no account with millions waiting to be delivered to the mark: the scammer will stall until the mark refuses to send more funds, at which point the scammer will promptly cut contact. The funds previously sent are all but irretrievable since scammers prefer wire transfers like Western Union, which can be sent anonymously and allow no recovery.

What tends to hook the mark is the initial surge of greed. When this dies down, what keeps them in it is often the Sunk Cost Fallacy — the sense that having invested so much in the game already, they can't afford to stop now — anger, or a desire to outwit or dupe the "ignorant foreigner." Since they have been playing a game with less than laudable motives, victims seldom go to the police even when they begin to suspect they are being played. After all, if the con is true, then they are committing bank fraud. Victims may also fail to report to authorities out of embarrassment at falling for the scam, so reported losses to the Nigerian scam are likely lower than the actual total.

It has become increasingly common (starting in 2008 or earlier) for scam messages to be sent out that purport to be sent by an agency (such as the FBI) that can help the victim recover the money lost in a 419 scam or even promise the original imaginary millions can still be reached. For whatever reason, these are characterised by the use of the phrase "Attention: Beneficiary" to address the potential victim. Taking this trend even further, at least one message has been spotted addressed to people who had already been scammed by the promise of money in the first place and then of recovering the money in the second place, promising to set both right. This seems not to have caught on, so there may be a limit to human gullibility after all.

Despite being relatively straightforward and often a case of Name's the Same, not to mention usually being filled with Rouge Angles of Satin, Wanton Cruelty to the Common Comma, and Delusions of Eloquence, hundreds of thousands of people around the world have fallen victim to such scams. (In fact the poor use of language is a deliberate tactic to lull the recipient into a sense of superiority.) As a result, Nigeria has a very dire reputation amongst some countries and investors. The problem is so bad that it is seriously affecting investment opportunities within Nigeria. The Nigerian government has countered with the statement that it is not just Nigerian nationals who are responsible for such 419 scams, but rather, people masquerading as Nigerians due to its terrible reputation with other countries abroad (why a scammer would pretend to come from a known scammer hideout would need some explanation; one motive evoked is to weed out suspicious people so only the most gullible will answer, reducing risk for the scammer).

The prevalence of the 419 scam has provided juicy opportunities for "scam baiters," who purposefully pretend to fall for the scam and then force the scammer to do time-wasting/embarrassing things, (hopefully) distracting them from actual victims.

A variation of the scam involves the target being baited to the scammer's country to finish the operation, then kidnapping and ransoming them.

Compare the Spanish Prisoner scam; the 419 Scam is similar, but it is rarely used to drive the plot of a work like the Spanish Prisoner scam is, and is always facilitated by The Internet.

The "Nigerian" variant is not quite a Dead Horse Trope yet; if revelations on scambaiter and British football forums are anything to go by, as a measure of public opinion. Recently, the 419 scam has been spotted with Syria as the country of origin, which is unfortunately plausible as the current war between the Assad regime and the Syrian people continues. Stereotypes regarding the Middle East (oil, sheiks, etc.) and reports of defectors from the Assad regime may lure the already-susceptible even faster. Also, bizarrely, the United Kingdom and The United States are also responsible for this scam.

And no, Nigeria does not actually have a prince. (It does have some powerless-if-prominent remnants of former monarchies, however).

References in media

    open/close all folders 

    Comic Books 

    Fan Fic 

  • Manages to reach Equestria in Dear Friend, within the Triptych Continuum. Spike fires off a series of ersatz scrolls after ingesting some "griffon-made canned lunch meat", one of which is clearly based on a classic 419. It involves the previously-unsuspected son of Sombra, twenty million bits deposited in Ponyville, and a request to help free the money so it can be used for retaking the homeland after the actions of the maniacal Preencess Celestia and the knownownown insane killer unicorn, Twilight Sparkle. (The scroll is filled with similar errors, including 'horsepital' and 'proponysal'.) And just to top it off, it's signed "Sucker Bet".

    Film 
  • Parodied in Freeloaders It turns out the Nigerian prince that asked Benny for money is 100% legit and shows up at the end of the movie as a Deus ex Machina handing Benny his share of the inheritance $38 million, thus allowing Benny to buy the mansion that he and his friends were crashing at instead of being forced onto the streets thus resolving the plot.
  • There is a direct-to-DVD film called EZ Money that is based around this - the tagline of the film is "The Nigerian e-mail scam gets scammed."

    Literature 
  • In the introduction of Dave Barry's Money Secrets, Dave Barry claims to have received the promised $47 million from a Nigerian businessman after sending him two $5,000 "advance fee" checks. Less gullible readers may be able to tell that he was making this up.
  • In The Onion: Our Dumb World, the first page on Nigeria is taken up by a scam letter. A sidebar illustrates the educational system which teaches Nigerians how to send mass e-mail in the "Computers 419" course.
  • In "Our Man in Geneva Wins a Million Euros" by Petina Gappah, the protagonist falls for one of these scams. Less usually, both the victim and the scammer are people of African origin living in Europe.
  • In Monster Hunter Vendetta, this and other internet scams are mentioned as being sent by real trolls, as in the mythical creatures otherwise known for harassing goats trying to cross bridges.
  • The protagonist of Zoo City creates these scams to pay off her remaining debts from her junkie days. When she's finally out of debt, she informs all her remaining victims that it's a fraud, then falsely implicates her ex-boyfriend (whom she despises) in running the scam.
  • The epilogue of Halting State features an apparant 419 Scam email addressed to the book's villain. Given what we know at the end of the book, the email could be taken at face value, indicating that the villain stashed his ill-gotten gains in a Nigerian bank.
  • A book called Delete This At Your Peril in which Bob Servant baits internet scammers, including a few attempted 419s from Africa. After getting an offer from to assist in transfering money from a dead African tribal chief in return for a share of the monkey, Servant haggles for payment with talking lions and singing leopards.
  • Bob Howard of the Laundry recalls in a footnote the one time he decided to respond to one of the innumerable 419 messages he gets in his inbox. He doesn't go into much detail, aside from noting that Laundry Internal Security were less than amused, and made him give back their bank.

    Live Action TV 
  • The Veronica Mars episode "The Wrath of Con" features two college students pulling off a scam based on this one in order to raise money for the video game they're making. The "sealed account" is the students' trust fund.
  • In an early episode of 30 Rock, Tracy Jordan asks his entourage if they remembered the Nigerian prince who needed his help. He then nonchalantly informs them he recently received the money . . .
  • In Season 2, Episode 2 of Flight of the Conchords, Murray invests the band's last remaining emergency funds with with a Nigerian man named Nigel Seladu, who contacted him by e-mail. While Bret and Jermaine are confident it's a scam, it turns out to be legitimate, and the band uses the money to pay their rent and bail themselves out of jail for prostitution.
  • A sketch on That Mitchell and Webb Look had three wealthy brothers phoning up members of the public to give them a free "massive yacht," provided they paid off a few legal fees. Naturally they were quite confused that nobody was interested in their free yachts despite their "warm and reassuring" voices and the insignificance of the legal fees when compared to the value of a massive yacht.
  • On Leverage, it is not directly mentioned, but is implied during the pilot when Nate chooses to set up representatives of Nigeria as a part of their con. In reality, they are really Nigerians and their purpose was for the mark to assume that they were not
  • Michael Scott on The Office has been mentioned to support "about twenty Nigerian princesses".
  • The Belgian series Basta had an episode in which a bunch of (real) 419 scammers were extensively trolled.
  • One episode of Castle had a con artist as the Body of the Week. While investigating his background the team discovered that he had received an e-mail for a 419 Scam and proceeded to scam the scammer out of ten grand.
  • Played with in Community. Abed's internet friend Toby is a banker who works in Nigeria. He had financial difficulties so Abed sent him 700 pounds and a plane ticket. Britta is about to break the news to Abed that he was scammed when Toby shows up and gives Abed back his money. He then complains that of all the people he contacted, only Abed was willing to help him.
  • In The Big Bang Theory when Sheldon gets all his items hijacked from his World of Warcraft account by a hacker, Raj finds someone online "from Nigeria" who tells Raj that he can retrieve all the items "for a fee."
  • In A Thousand Ways To Die a Nigerian con artist scams a poor schmuck into giving him his whole life savings. When the victim ultimately realizes he was scammed, he angrily tracks down the con artist and ends up accidentally killing him by driving a door hook into the con artist's eye.
  • Dr. Phil has had people who fell for these scams on the show. One example included a woman who fell in love with a Nigerian scam artist who asked her for thousands of dollars. The man claimed to be a veteran and fed her all kinds of information that turned out to be false.
  • Person of Interest turned this into a multi level Mugging the Monster. Some gangsters tried to pull this on Leon Tao. However, since he's a very skilled Forensics Accountant, he was able to steal from them. They were unamused and showed up to kill him, and to his immense surprise were actually Nigerian. Unfortunately for them, he's a (recurring number) on Team Machine, so Reeese shows up to save him.

    Music 
  • I Go Chop Your Dollar is a taunting song from the perspective of the perpetrator of such a scam, and even includes the line "419 is just a game".
    • Just to clarify, a "dollarchop" is a term used by scammers to describe the practice of scammer #1 picking up the money a victim had sent sent to scammer #2, without #1 being in on the deal. In other words, that song is actually a scammer taunting other scammers.
  • The song by MC Frontalot in the page quote. See also there.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • Used in a FoxTrot strip. Andy is wise to the scam, Roger not so much.
  • Ratbert fell for one in a Dilbert strip. Of course, since the banking information he provided was "My bank is a tube sock that fell behind the dryer", the man on the other end of the scheme couldn't steal any money from him.

    Video Games 
  • The game Re Prince Of Nigeria is mainly about a girl who does not get that she was being scammed and even ended up falling in love with this supposed "Prince", played for laughs.
  • Since Mass Effect 2 gave Shepard an email account it was inevitable that one of these would drop into his/her inbox eventually. Apparently in the Mass Effect verse the standard spiel involves Prothean artefacts and Ilos.
  • Hawke in Dragon Age II gets one as well, in the form of an actual letter which is ostensibly from the Seneschal serving Starkhaven's recently-overthrown Vael family. He promises a sum of 10,000 sovereigns if Hawke were to open a bank account in Antiva with 100 sovereigns deposited to make the account viable. Incidentally, the last son of said Vael family is a (Downloadable Content) party member.
  • You can find some in computer mailboxes in Deus Ex: Human Revolution (but apparently, antispam technology progressed, since you NEVER find them in office computers, only home PCs).
    • If you look around in Upper Hengsha, you can actually find one on one of the computers. Another computer contains an email lamenting the fact that an employee was stupid enough to give out a corporate email to scammers, and that now the network admin has to go through and change all the security protocols to prevent any kind of spyware intrusion.
    • Hilariously, the spam email shows up all over the game, even in places that it really should not, including the top secret Omega Ranch. The Belltower commander of Omega Ranch is partly enraged that their security was breached by a Nigerian scammer and partly confused that such a thing is even possible. Some easily missed information leads to the conclusion that the Nigerian scam email is actually a self-propagating data collection program, explaining how it ends up everywhere.
  • In Crusader Kings 2, you can be contacted by someone claiming to represent an Abyssinian prince. If you have the "Scholar" trait, you can reply by pointing out that the names in the message aren't Abyssinian.

    Webcomics 
  • Penny Arcade here.
  • This strip of the webcomic The Joy Of Tech.
  • Irregular Webcomic!:
    • There is, of course, the "Nigerian Finance Minister" theme, which places the actual guy in charge of Nigerian finance in the position these letters tend to spell out. He's genuinely looking to get his money transferred, but his honest plea naturally ends up looking just like the classic scam pitch and getting about the same response. Even when he hires William Shakespeare to write them.
    • There was also a completely separate "Nigerian Prince" scam that tried to pin everything on totally-not-Steve-Irwin. Fortunately Jane Goodall was able to prove in court that not only was he not king of Nigeria, but Nigeria is a republic with no royal family.
  • In this Achewood Story Arc, Ray gets a Nigerian scam email that turns out to be an actual plea for help getting money out of the country.
  • A strip from Real Life Comics has Greg Dean looking through his email which is full of these scams. The email is asking for a monetary donation because the daughter (or other relation) of the sender is suffering from terminal illness. Except with each scam email he reads, the sickness gets progressively less severe and the asking amount for the donation progressively more, with the last one asking for a $100 donation for a cold.
  • Sluggy Freelance: Sam is too clever for the scammers: "Aw! Just another scam from some dude claiming to be the Prime Minister of Abscondia trying to drain my bank account! That lame-o doesn't know my account was already drained by the Princess of Scamrobi. But that's OK because she was probably hot."
  • Least I Could Do: Rayne gets an e-mail with this sort of scam in this strip and decides to go to Nigeria to meet his princess and claim his inheritance.
  • User Friendly: Pitr receives a 419 scam e-mail. He uses his wits and his hacking skills to screw the scammer over.
  • Wally and Osborne briefly references this here.
  • Rusty and Co. in its usual Dungeon Punk style had Calamitus scammed by one such letter in Critical Missives after he began to look like a genuine threat rather than a comically incompetent goofball.

    Web Original 
  • Referenced in the Red vs. Blue PSA "Real Life vs. The Internet", comparing getting mail from a mailbox vs. e-mail.
    Simmons: Pardon me, my friend, but I am Nigerian royalty, and I need you to send me money. Please ignore the fact that I can not spell "Nigerian" or "royalty".
  • Something Awful's Rich Kyanka did his own bit of scam baiting once (apparently genuine), just because it's the kind of thing he does when he gets stupid emails.
  • College Humor did a sketch with the twist being that the Nigerian prince funds really were legit, only for the email to be deleted by a jaded college student.
  • The Drabblecast hosts the annual Nigerian Scam Spam Contest, the winning one gets emailed out to unsuspecting members of the general public.
  • Practically every scam-baiting site out there with a publishing section counts as this:
  • SF Debris loves to talk about how stupid the Kazon, and particularly Culluh, are on Star Trek: Voyager. It reached a zenith of hilarity in the "Basics" review when he mentioned that Culluh is getting frustrated, as he has not heard back from that bank manager in Nigeria.
  • In the episode Cherry Bomb of Friendshipis Witchcraft, Applejack goes out of town to retrieve two free iPod nanos offered through a popup window. As her train is leaving, Pinkie reminds her to "say hi to the Nigerian prince." As everypony turns to her in confusion, she says "What? He owes me money."

    Western Animation 
  • The first Futurama feature film, Bender's Big Score, centres on a group of scammers who con the Planet Express business and then use that as a base to scam the whole of Earth. Hermes is onto them from the start, but just about every other character falls for it at least once. Eventually the scammers are defeated by Bender, who claims he's been working the long con all along.
    • Possibly inverted with Dr. Zoidberg, who by half way through that film appears to have actually received what he was promised from the Nigerian government.
  • In The Venture Bros., Sgt. Hatred hints that falling for one of these might have been the final straw causing his wife to leave him.
  • Doug has the Ponzi Puzzle Sweepstakes, which is an advance fee fraud variant despite the name. Lured with an enormous (alleged) payout, contestants are given ever-harder puzzles in exchange for ever-increasing entry fees at each level. Doug finally gives up after seeing an entire cart of entries (at a level that sounded really really exclusive and close to the end) at the post office.


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alternative title(s): Four Nineteen Scam; Advance Fee Fraud
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