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Nigeria’s 419 scammers

How did an African country become the internet fraud capital of the world?
Chinwuba Iyizoba | 24 March 2011

Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. Photo: Speigel / Thomas Grabka

If you were a decent sort of person, the last thing you would do is forward to anyone an email from a distant country offering a fortune in return for a small administration fee. However, the millions of Britons who receive scam letters and emails every year are now being encouraged to forward them -- to the National Fraud Authority -- the BBC reported recently.

At least 3000 people are scammed in the UK yearly and most of these letters come from certain African countries where confidence tricks and business frauds are rife. From the Feymen, a Cameroun group of international swindlers, to the fraudster schemes in Nigeria called “419s”, which became prominent in the early 1990’s, these scams have common features.

They begin with a letter asking from unsuspecting victims an “advance fee” for goods or services. Once the fees are paid, more is demanded until the scheme blows open and the scammers disappear. Most Nigerians first became aware of 419s -- named after the section in Nigeria's criminal code outlawing them -- in 1993, when a Germany lady, Frieda Springer-Beck , went public because she had been duped. According to her, two years after her husband died in an auto accident she received a letter from a Nigerian lawyer addressed to her deceased husband and informing him of $26m profit from his investment in power plants in Nigeria. She contacted the lawyer who assured her that the money now belonged to her but that she was required to make an advance payment of a few of dollars for the “processing” of some matters with the government before the money would be released.

Well, she paid; a little at first, but the demands kept up until at the end she had given over $350,000 belonging to friends and family to the fraudsters. Frustrated and disgraced, she moved to Lagos to trace the scammers and was almost killed. But in the end, she managed to bring the crooks to justice. But her life had been ruined. Left with nothing and a string of broken relations and hurt feelings back home in Germany, Frieda relocated to Lagos to commit her life to helping other victims bring scammers to justice.

Her task gets more difficult, however, as the number of 419-type scammers are increasing rather than decreasing; and the playing field moves to the internet. Today, hundreds of young Nigerians emulating this “lawyer” spend days in cybercafés searching the internet and sending tons of scam letters, leaving in their wake hundreds of foreign victims and staining the name of Nigerians all over the world. The 419 scam has become so successful over the last 20 years that campaigners say it is now one of the African country's biggest exports after oil, natural gas and cocoa. One only has to check the internet to see a growing list of people duped of their monies throughout the world.

What accounts for the growth of 419ers in Nigeria? Some say it is simply a failure of government in its duty to check these dishonest people; also, despite billions of dollars of oil income, mismanagement and corruption destroyed the government’s ability to provide basic infrastructure like electricity and water. This has forced many of the brightest Nigerians to flee the country for Europe and America, while those left behind are engaged in a Darwinian struggle for survival. Money in the hand provides what the government will not or cannot provide: security, justice and many other social amenities so necessary in urban area.

In the past, the close knit nature of African villages helped the villagers organize basic security and other services for themselves. But migration to urban areas destroyed or at least weakened the forces that united them in providing for themselves; the mix of different peoples with no bonds makes cooperation difficult, impossible at times. Individuals have to provide for themselves all of these, with hard currencies. This contributes to the pressure to get rich quick, driving the less virtuous to cut corners.

But it is difficult to make money legitimately in an environment where basic services have collapsed, where many companies, especially startups, often buckle and collapse for lack of basic infrastructure; spilling a large army of unemployed young people into the streets where they fall prey to the most dishonest schemes flying around. In these environments with a sharpened instinct for survival, dishonest ideas catch on and, left unchecked, get entrenched quickly and become "normal", so to speak.

"In the absence of central leadership, everyone must become a leader", says Pat Utomi, a presidential aspirant and an entrepreneur. "In that way, each one would create a circle of good environment around him".

In most cases the exercise of good leadership, this insistence on the right thing, has to be carried out in the local setting, in community meetings and secondary schools, for instance. Here is an anecdote about how one father, Mr X, challenged other parents on the issue of cheating.

Students at the school his son attended were consistently achieving lower grades than other secondary schools in the district -- a circumstance that parents attributed to cheating and purchase of exam questions by the other schools. “If we can’t beat them, we had better join them,” reasoned some parents at a school meeting. When Mr X heard this he was shocked and objected strongly. Raising his voice he asked his fellow parents:

'Are you seriously considering buying exam answers for your wards?”

"Yes we are,” the other parents echoed in unison.

“Now tell me, after you have done that, what next? Are you going to buy them a place in the university, and after that, a job?

To these questions the astonished parents had no answers and they quietly dismissed the idea of buying answer scripts for their wards. Such is the effect one man can have who sticks to his principles.

Two decades ago in Nigeria, if a 25-year-old man, without any verifiable source of income, bought a car, friends and relations would ostracize him if he could not prove that the source of income was legitimate. Today things are different. Now, no one asks any questions, people celebrate with him and parents even point him out as a role model to their children. This loss of moral sense is made worse by the absence of good moral education in schools.

Extreme hopelessness among youths with even good university degrees but no job drives them into internet scams. A friend who graduated with an upper credit from the University of Jos was shortlisted for a job interview in Port-Harcourt. He reported that, when the interview was held, there were over two thousand candidates competing for three vacancies.

This is not to excuse scammers. They only make things worse for honest Nigerians, who constitute the majority of citizens but are derided by citizens of other nations as crooks. I once sent an email to a company in Italy, and on the reply email, there was a warning sign in bold letters: “This email has the word ‘Nigeria’, please be aware that it might be a scam!”

But the fault does not lie entirely with the Nigerian scammers, who, after all, could hardly succeed without a corresponding weakness in western culture.

While dire economic difficulties pull young Africans onto crooked paths, avarice lures many people in the West into lions’ dens. Against the advice of relations and friends, and driven by dreams of riches, Frieda Springer-Beck took money from her company -- perhaps with the intention of paying it back come payday -- and gave to the gangsters. Saddled with huge mortgages and debts from a “buy now pay latter" culture, many westerners have lost their good sense and in their desperation become sitting ducks for fraudsters.

"The letters are so cleverly written, that you think oh this is my salvation," says Peggy, a British woman who lost thousands of pounds to fraudsters. The sad fact is that spectacular successes such as that perpetrated on Frieda Springer Beck emboldens old scammers and encourages many more youths to cross the crooked line.

Chinwuba Iyizoba is an electrical engineer in Enugu, Nigeria

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | fraud, internet, Nigeria
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