Advance Fee Inheritance (AKA “419”) Scams

Who Hasn’t Received Spam Mail from Nigeria by Now?

They’re always sent from Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo addresses, or from lesser known email warehouses. And they stereotypically begin with some sob story about someone, often with your own surname, dying suddenly in a traffic accident or unexpectedly dropped dead from a heart attack who left no living relatives. But he (and sometimes she) did leave a huge fortune – typically expressed in both numbers and letters, like, for example, “15,000,000.00 (fifteen million) U.S. Dollars.” Unfortunately, the narrative will continue, the money cannot be transferred out of Nigeria (or wherever) due to local restrictions, and the supposed lawyer handling the estate is searching for a cooperative partner abroad who will agree deposit the funds in his or her own foreign bank account and then split the proceeds with the attorney.

These sorts of schemes are known as 419 scams, since they violate section 419 of the Nigerian penal code.

As with many other scams, there are many variations on the theme. One version is that a hermit in some isolated coast finds a strongbox full of money but can’t do anything with it because there is no mail delivery, so he needs to find someone abroad to deposit it in his own bank (how a hermit is able to communicate his discovery to the outside world is left to your imagination). Another version will inform you about a missionary somewhere in the middle of a civil war who is holding a large amount of cash donated by his supporters for refugees. He finds himself isolated in the middle of a raging battle and needs desperately to find someone to deposit the funds safely abroad. This list goes on and on.

Should you respond to any one of these seemingly desperate pleas, you’ll be contacted by the purported attorney or someone else who says he’s working with him on the case. He’ll most likely tell you that he’ll need you to send him some money to cover administrative costs and make arrangements set the transfer into motion, since he has no authority to siphon off any cash from the “15,000,000.00 (fifteen million) U.S. Dollars” (or whatever) for that purpose. This is why these sorts of ploys are also known as “advance-fee scams.”

Should you send the money, you may never hear from him again, or maybe you will, in which case he’ll ask for more. He’ll tell you that he underestimated the costs or that the money was stolen. There actually have been cases in which the scammers have forged letters from the president of Nigeria, the president of the U.S. and the director of the FBI, warning that failure to continue to fork over money will result in some global catastrophe.

There have also been cases in which innocent victims of the scam have been lured into traveling to Nigeria, ostensibly to receive their “15,000,000.00 (fifteen million) U.S. Dollars” (or whatever), only to be kidnapped and held for ransom instead. The perpetrators of these scams are ruthless, not just a nuisance.

How to Respond

The FBI, therefore, recommends that American citizens forward these scammers’ emails to the U.S. Secret Service (which, apart from protecting the president and other political leaders is also responsible for investigating counterfeit U.S. currency, bank and financial institution fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, illicit financing, and major conspiracies), the Federal Trade Commission’s Complaint Assistant, or to the closest FBI regional office. In the event the scam was sent by letter and not by email, a complaint should also be filed with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

Residents of other countries should contact their own local law enforcement agencies.

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