The Evolution of the “Nigerian Prince” Scam and Why It’s No Laughing Matter

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You may laugh that anyone would be gullible enough to fall for the infamous “Nigerian Prince” scam, but the reality is that these types of scams continue even today—although in a much more elaborate form.

In what the Washington Post called “a sophisticated and terrifying evolution of the Nigerian 419 scam,” web-savvy criminals are bilking U.S. citizens out of billions of dollars.

Origins of the Nigerian Prince Scam

In its early days, the Nigerian Prince scam usually began as a letter or email sent by a so-called Nigerian government official offering to share in a percentage of millions of dollars that the official needs to transfer out of Nigeria. It’s also known as the Nigerian letter scam or 419 fraud, after the Nigerian criminal code that the scam violates.

Once a victim is on the hook, the con artists ask for advance payment for various fees and taxes, and also requests that the victim send bank account information, their Social Security Number and other personal details. After making a series of payments to the scammers and sharing personal and financial information, the victim never sees their money again, and the con artists often do further damage by draining the victim’s bank accounts or stealing their identity.

The Better Business Bureau also reports that some victims of the Nigerian letter scam have even been lured to Nigeria and imprisoned against their will.

Fraud Rings in Nigeria Reach Celebrity Status

Perhaps falling for the Nigerian Prince scam does seem laughable, but in reality, it’s only one slice of a massive ring of email scammers with roots in Nigeria who operate all over the world to conduct their cons.

In a report released by Crowdstrike, it notes that there are believed to be five million online scammers in Lagos, Nigeria, and many younger cybercriminals, called Yahoo Boys, begin their scamming careers while attending university.

The infamy of Nigerian email scammers has now even become the topic of a movie funded by AT&T and Tribeca, and the Yahoo Boys have achieved their own fame thanks in part to Nigerian singer Olu Maintain and his YouTube video, “Yahooze.” 

Nigerian Email Scammers Are More Effective Than Ever

As Wired states, Nigerian email scammers are more effective than ever. These sophisticated scams go to great lengths to entice their victims, including phishing emails, official-looking letters, fake web sites, Skype video calls, and even romantic relationships. Some of the more recent scams include:

  • Beneficiary of a will – Victims receive official-looking letters, emails, or phone calls notifying them of a large inheritance that requires bank account information and personal details in order to make payment.
  • Bogus cashier checks – In an online transaction, a buyer from another country sends a fake cashier check for much more than the price of the online purchase and then asks the victim to wire them the excess money. The scammer receives the wire transfer before the victim and the victim’s bank are able to identify the fake cashier check.
  • Romance or online dating – Victims are convinced to transfer money on behalf of a scammer they met through an online dating site for an emergency or to pay a bill because the scammer is traveling out of the country. The victims can also be used as a “money mule” to unknowingly make fraudulent transfers.
  • Donation solicitations – Email requests ask for donations to fight an oppressive government or other crisis, and the scammer often wants bank account information in order to access the money urgently.
  • Fake web sites – Scammers create a fake banking web site to show proof of deposit of a large sum of money and ask the victim to pay transfer fees or taxes.
  • Business Email Compromise, or BEC – Scammers impersonate an executive to trick an employee into wiring money.

Ways You Can Better Protect Yourself from Email Scams

A healthy dose of skepticism can help you avoid falling prey to email scammers, and consider educating children and elderly relatives as well.

Plus, it’s important to report suspicious behavior. Send letters or messages you receive to the U.S. Secret Service or your local FBI office. And you can also register a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission’s Complaint Assistant.

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