Why 'Nigerian scammers' say they're from Nigeria

Short answer: They're looking for chumps

Almost every inbox has been plagued by them: Emails offering a chance at a share of millions of dollars (or pounds or euros). Someone works at a Department of Finance or Department of Oil or is terminally ill or for some other reason needs to shift a large chunk of money out of their country. And they need your help.

Just shoot through an email with a few personal details, and you'll end up with 5 per cent (or 10 per cent or 15) of some fabulous quantity of money. But then the transaction hits a hitch — you're going to need to send through a small amount of money to help facilitate the transfer. Nothing big and, after all, soon you'll have enough money to fill a swimming pool, and you'll finally be rid of the long hours and low pay of your day job (possibly as a poverty-stricken overworked tech writer). Then they need another small amount. Then a larger amount.

These email scams are typically dubbed 'Nigerian scams' or '419 scams' after a section in Nigeria's criminal code, but are more accurately known as 'advance fee fraud'. And, unfortunately for the country, it's these scams that many people probably think of when they hear Nigeria's name. There is a lot more variety in the scams in these days — you can help out someone trying to shift money out of Libya in the wake of Gaddafi's overthrow, for example — but my inbox still manages to attract a fair share of promises of West African wealth.

And, hard as it might be for a lot of people to believe, these scams can be fantastically successful. Two years ago a Nigerian man received a 12-year jail sentence after scamming US$1.3 million from victims.

Here's a small sample from one I received recently (though this time it's Malaysia, not an African nation):

I am Mr.Davies Abraham the director of Accounts & auditing dept (CIMB Bank Group Malaysia) With due respect, I have decided to contact you on a business transaction that will be beneficial to both of us and our family. At the bank's last accounts/auditing evaluations, my staffs came across an old account which was being maintained by a foreign client who we learn was among the deceased passengers of motor accident on (November 2003) the deceased was unable to run this account since his death.

The account has remained dormant without the knowledge of his family since it was put in a safe deposit account in the bank for future investment by the client and we have tried to contact the details of the next of the kin but our effort is in vain so CIMB Bank gathered that every body in the family died in the Accident.

The question many people have asked themselves after receiving an email like this is: Who would fall for this crap? The persistence of the scam also raises another question: Can't people come up with better worded, more creative forms of attack? Why, given the scam is relatively well known these days, would a scammer still purport from Nigeria or from another West African nation given the association of advance free fraud with the region?

In retrospect the answer to this question is obvious. According to Cormac Herley, principal researcher at Microsoft Research's Machine Learning Department, it's because scammers aren't necessarily interested in seeming believable: They are looking for the most gullible victims they can find, to maximise return on their effort.

A (maths heavy) paper produced by Herley, aptly titled Why do Nigerian Scammers Say They are from Nigeria? (PDF), argues: "In deciding who to attack true positives are targets successfully attacked, while false positives are those that are attacked but yield nothing.

"This allows us to view the attacker’s problem as a binary classification. The most profitable strategy requires accurately distinguishing viable from non-viable users, and balancing the relative costs of true and false positives…

"Far-fetched tales of West African riches strike most as comical. Our analysis suggests that is an advantage to the attacker, not a disadvantage. Since his attack has a low density of victims the Nigerian scammer has an over-riding need to reduce false positives. By sending an email that repels all but the most gullible the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select, and tilts the true to false positive ratio in his favor."

Herley notes that, contrary to what some people think, an advance fee scam is not free for the fraudster. "[E]ach respondent to a Nigerian 419 email requires a large amount of interaction, as does the Facebook 'stuck in London scam.'"

The cost of sending an email may be close to zero, but "emptying bank accounts requires recruiting and managing mules".

"The endgame of many attacks require per-target effort. Thus when cost is non-zero each potential target represents an investment decision to an attacker. He invests effort in the hopes of payoff, but this decision is never flawless."

He concludes: "[I]f the goal is to maximize response to the email campaign it would seem that mentioning 'Nigeria' (a country that to many has become synonymous with scams) is counter-productive. One could hardly choose a worse place to claim to be from if the goal is to lure the unwary into email communication…

"Since gullibility is unobservable, the best strategy is to get those who possess this quality to self-identify. An email with tales of fabulous amounts of money and West African corruption will strike all but the most gullible as bizarre. It will be recognized and ignored by anyone who has been using the Internet long enough to have seen it several times. It will be figured out by anyone savvy enough to use a search engine and follow up on the auto-complete suggestions [of search engines]. It won’t be pursued by anyone who consults sensible family or fiends, or who reads any of the advice banks and money transfer agencies make available. Those who remain are the scammers ideal targets. They represent a tiny subset of the overall population."

24 Comments

Bob

1

This analysis completely overlooks the fact that scammers want to appear to be witless and unsophisticated, thereby making the story more plausible and themselves seen as an easy mark for the unscrupulous.

Lloyd Dinma

2

Actually, this article attempts to answer a different question:"Why are Nigerian scams successful." The answer to the original question is easily understood when we realize that a lot of these scamemrs are not that educated or intellectually sophisticated to entertain the rigors of "true positives" and "false positives" etc.

If a stupid man stands on the street corners and tells every woman passing in a crude manner he wants to sleep with her, eventually he will run into one who obliges him.

Likewise, they probably say they are from Nigeria because some of them are too stupid to realize it should not work.... Keep in mind that the individuals who do these things represent a very very small percentage of the population. Sort of like the red necks from the south sending hate mail to Africa and Africans concluding that American are racist as a result. I am Nigerian!

James Carlson

3

The best part is section 4.2, which describes a fairly simple counter-attack.

Someone needs to write an Eliza-like script that automatically responds to messages like this, goading on the scammer. Then hook it up to thousands of dummy entries in your /etc/aliases file, and invite them into your tar pit. And then get all of your friends to do the same.

As unproductive results overwhelm real ones, you eventually (quickly, per this paper) make it unprofitable.

DeeAnn

4

Great article. As a mathematician, this makes total sense. I have always wondered why they use poor grammar, plus they sound like they're written with a thesaurus in one hand. After the initial response, it takes a lot of interaction to get the victim to trust you enough to scam them. To weed out those who can't be scammed would be a time saver.

PS I use these letters in my class to teach grammar and explain that it's a red flag with scams.

SweetPete

5

It is also important to mention that scammers will eventually ask you to send money to NIGERIA.... Therefore, coming forward with the future destination of your Western Union money transfer kinda makes sense... For them, at least.

LeahF

6

I just read the whole study and logged on to make the same point Bob made. I'm stunned that it clearly never occurred to the researchers that the scammers might be intentionally acting stupid, not in order to ensure that only the dumbest people respond to the e-mail, as claimed in the conclusion (which would make no sense whatsoever -- ask yourself for a moment whether the stupidest 2% of people in the city where you live happen to have US $10,000 in cash to send to a stranger by Western Union), but rather in order to entice the other (presumably smarter and wealthier) group of people above them who respond in the belief that they can easily take advantage of a person whom they imagine to be a gullible Nigerian moron with five million dollars.

P.S. to SweetPete: I think if you do a bit of follow-up research on that theory of yours, you will quickly see that almost none of the scammers are actually Nigerian, nor are they writing to you from the Nigerian city they claim they're writing from.

PPS. Or maybe you're just a very shrewd investor, Pete. Do you happen to have an e-mail address where I can send you some confidential investment tips? My partners and I are always looking for shrewd investors for our most promising projects. For example, we have a mine in Antarctica that looks really promising - we just don't have the capital. (And yes, you're right, Pete, this does mean that I must be writing this message from Antarctica right now. Nobody's going to put one over on you, bro.)

femo

7

truth is anyone can claim to be from africa.as long as you are gullible with as low as $10,you are the real target!

Most are NIgerian

8

In the seminars I have attended hosted by the Secret Service, Nigeria WAS and IS the source of most of these scams. The country is corrupt from top to bottom. How do you explain a country so rich in oil wealth, where the majority of the citizens are dirt poor? According to the Secret Service instructors, when oil prices spike, wire transfers of $ by the corrupt rulers to places like Switzerland increase in concert. A successful scammer buys his village a well or a leisure centre and becomes a hero. If you fall for one of these scams, you're stupid or dishonest. Can't fix stupid and if you're dishonest, you get what you deserve...

Chris

9

>ask yourself for a moment whether the stupidest 2% of people in the city where you live happen to have US $10,000 in cash to send to a stranger by Western Union)

Gullible and stupid are not necessarily the same. Imagine a 90 year-old-person, who was very successful in their career, but now has some marbles rolling around upstairs, and they see this email.

John

10

These work. When my neighbor dired shortly after his wife and her son inhearanted the house the son told me that the husband had fallen for this scam TWICE!

He sent them $5000 the first time and when he tried again the FBI called on him and tried to explain to him about sending money to Africa and the scam. (The bank must have called them when he tried to send the money a second time.)

He was just a normal retired neighbor who liked to talk about going up to Reno of the Bay Area to gamble.

hometruth

11

People comment as if there is only ONE reason why these "Nigeria"-labeled scams persist.

The scammers range from the stupid and desperate to the highly sophisticated.

So it could be simple stupidity, sheer desperation, or more sophisticated calculation that sustains the behavior.

Anyway, nice to know that the folks at MSFT Research are keeping really busy!

The Truth

12

I get a kick out of replying to these. I always point out how illiterate they are, and I point out that if they even made it a little believable they might get someone to fall for there scam.

The other day I replied to "all" on one of these scams and pointed out that with his talents he would not even be able to get a job at McDonalds . After about 1000 reply's from the other recipients that were on the original email, which they were all calling this guy a moron, he wrote back to me apologizing for the email he sent, and for trying to scam people out of there money. In the email he was the president of the National bank of Nigeria. His Yahoo account was also a Nigerian account.

5JimBob

13

@LeahF

You must be writing, not from Antarctica but from Heaven, since you're perfect.

Terry Slogenhoff

14

Huh, I just figured it was white guilt.

Rex Remes

15

@Pete (#5) and @LeahF (#6)

I agree witih Pete. If the scammer said they were from France, but then asked for money to be wired to Nigeria, it would be another red-flag obstacle to overcome.

So LeahF, have you done any research to find out that these Nigerian scammers want you to send money to Bulgaria?

PS - another reason the scammers choose Nigeria (or some other 3rd world country) is that it almost seems possible that someone is trying to get money out of that country. Whereas, why would some German person/bank be trying to pull off this illegal transfer (and hope to get away with it)?

mark

16

I never get these emails but I would like to string a few along just for fun, So I created an email account for this purpose. Since most of the programmes that trawl the net looking for email adresses are automated I will post the email address here and see how long it takes for the first to arrive !

ballycarron@gmail.com
ballycarron@gmail.com
ballycarron@gmail.com

gpt

17

Lot of "academics" to simply say what was said more colorfully so long ago: people rob banks because that's where the money is. This paper earns a Ph.D in confirming the "obvious."

gpt

K. Chong

18

Don't send money in advance to a stranger except a well-established company like McDonald's.
Don't expect easy money, that's to say, money that you didn't earn. You'll outsmart yourself.
I almost fell for it twice. The first time was a document saying
Coca-Cola giving out prizes. But when he asked for money in advance, I got suspicious.
The second time, a document saying Standard Chartered Bank
had on deposit $1 million for me. Again, the request for advanced money turned me off.

David M. Sherman

19

For a detailed description by a Tax Court of Canada judge of a Calgary lawyer falling for this scam, read the case of Ruff v. The Queen: http://canlii.ca/t/fqw8t

It's quite a story. The lawyer advanced $369,119, which of course disappeared. The Tax Court disallowed his claim for this amount as business expenses from his law practice, on the basis that the expenses were unreasonable.

(The funds were alleged to be in the Ivory Coast, not Nigeria)

David M Sherman, Tax Lawyer & Author
www.davidsherman.ca

Baggy

20

There's a sucker born every minute. Scams propagate because of human stupidity and ignorance. They've always been around and always will be.

HowSmartAreWeReally

21

Anyone ever entered a competition by SMS?

Paid a dollar upfront (via your phone bill) to win big.

Nigerians just want the same chanceto take your money as the lottery companies.

jojo

22

I agree with Lloyd. Here in Brooklyn, we have a syaing "If you throw enogh s**t against a wall, some of it will stick." True positives, false positives ? So overanalyzed. Bottom line is greed and gullibility

CW

23

Lloyd is not correct in fact he's the perfect example of whats wrong with security today. You see these emails and scams and your brain automaticly filters them out becuase reason tells you to.

You also downplay the problem becuase your reason tells you that anyone dumb enough to fall for it gets what they deserve. And the complancency of poeple like you is what enables these intelligent and dedicated scammers to continue targeting and exploiting poeple who dont have the natural instinct to be skeptical.

Its a natural law when selecting your prey. Nevermind the fat ones, just go for slow ones. But in your need to feel superior you seem to be suggesting that these scammers are hauling in millions of dollars per year...by accident?

ayotunde

24

I am a Nigerian. I have lived with scammers for years. They always believe 'mugu' will respond. Mugu is the pidgin English word for FOOL. Every person ever scammed was a greedy fool. Stop blaming the hardworking scammers. I don't like the scams, the scammers or the scammed especially if it is in the loser's quest for quick wealth.
Please forget about all the analysis.

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