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The Nigerian 1/419" Advance Fee Scams:

Prank or Peril?

Harvey Glickman

Une enquete preliminaiIe sur la nature et 1'etendue des escroqueries par
l'intermediaiIe de courriels venus d'Afrique, et qui auraient debute au
Nigeria reve1e des effets plus importants que Ie multipostage electronique
excessif. Ces messages appeles "quatre-un-neuf" - comme la clause juri-
dique du Code criminel nigerian - sont refus par. des millions de
personnes essentiellement en Amerique du Nord et en Europe, creant
ainsi une economie clandestine considerable. Des offres frauduleuses de
partager des millions de dollars avec des beneficiaiIes depoUIVUs de la
moindre mefiance ont affecte des millions de gens qui avaient repondu
aux lettres, aux telecopies et courriels depuis les annees 1980, avec pour
consequence des pertes individuelles de sommes d' argent, des sommes a
payer pour se battre en justice, la subversion de l'activite economique
legitime et une contribution importante a une culture de corruption, pas
necessaiIement limitee au Nigeria. Nous enquetons sur l'identite des
expediteurs, sur 1'organisation de l'entreprise, sur la mamere dont les
reponses sont gerees, sur les contre-mesures prises par les personnes char-

I gratefully acknowledge the research assistance of Gabriel Neri, Haverford

College, and the comments of Andrew Apter and Marion Doro, my part-
ners in a Round Table discussion of 419 Scams at the Annual Meeting of
the African Studies Association in Boston, 1 November 2003. The gener-
ous support of the Haverford College Faculty Research Fund and Faculty
Travel Fund, summer and fall, 2003, enabled the research. Thanks also to
Charles Abbott and Iruka Okeke for enlightening comments, as well as to
the anonymous referees / evaluators for the Canadian TournaI of African
Studies for thoughtful and useful observations. An inquiry of the H-Africa
Listserve in early 2003 yielded many helpful leads, and I thank all my List
correspondents, along with numerous other friends, who indulged my
interest. Space limitations also preclude the inclusion of appendices, to
which reference is made in the discussion. Interested readers will find
them on my website http://www.haverford.edu/pols/faculty/glickman/
Glickman: The Nigerian "419" Advance Fee Scams

gees de faue respecter la loi et sur la gravite des consequences, surtout en

Afrique et pour les Africains.

Introduction: "Why Worry~"

Former Secretary of State of the United States, Colin Powell, has
referred to Nigeria as "a nation of scammers" Iquoted in French
2004, 351 in reaction to the proliferation of the infamous "419
scams." The so-called "four-one-nines" - named after the
numbered provision in the Nigerian Criminal Code against imper-
sonating officials for financial gain - are e-mails and letters that
reveal a very large sum of money stuck in an African lusually
Nigerian, but lately in other West African countries I bank account
or safety deposit location. In their present form, they originate with
e-mails to all sorts of people, usually from business and academic
lists, claiming that millions of dollars reside in an overlooked
account for shipment of some goods into or out of an African coun-
try. The sender asks for a person's help in transferring the money to
a legitimate bank account outside Africa and will share a percent-
age of the frozen funds with the recipient of the message. The
owner of the account is invariably dead. The offer is to share the
millions with the unsuspecting e-mail recipient if the recipient
will send his / her bank account number and perhaps later some
earnest money, ostensibly to facilitate the eventual transfer.
These scams have flowered in the past thirty years, and while
most everybody now ignores them, they have trapped an occasional
minor celebrity, such as Ed Mezvinsky, former American
Congressman from Kansas, now in jail for looting his mother-in-
law's account IBrady 2003, 13; "Former Congressman to Spend Six
Years in Jail" I. This article inquires into the nature of the 419 scams,
investigating why they persist in the face of what appears to be
universal disdain. It attempts to discern their processes, their reach,
and their significance for Africans and relations with Africa. lAs ille-
gal activity, perhaps similar to Mafia enterprises, it is difficult to say
we are ever able to uncover all the facts. I Examples will be offered of
typical scams run today. Who are the 41gers? How are 419 rings
organized? Why do seemingly ordinary people fall for these
schemes? Why have they apparently originated in Nigeria? Why
does Africa continue to play such an important role as putative
point of origin? What actions are being taken to reduce the spread?
Is the danger limited to the gullible, or are bigger stakes at play?
CJAS / RCEA 39: 3 2005

Legitimate Nigerian business people, already affected by drug

traffic through the country, encounter difficulty in transacting
their affairs. African, especially Nigerian, politicians, who are
tainted by corruption, are also suspect scammers when they
attempt to attract legal investment to African countries.
Influential academic commentators place the 419 scams in the
context of a growing "criminalization of the African state" (Bayart
1999, 114-16; see also Hibou 1999, 70-113.)
More broadly, in terms of relations between Africa and Europe
/ North America, 419 scams may be the reversal of contemporary
collaboration to essentially loot African resources by opportunistic
Westerners and corrupt local officials. 1 Going even further, these
scams may reflect a peculiar cultural trend that undermines the
growth of markets and legitimate institutions in circumstances of
severe economic and social change. One informed observer argues
that 419 scams reflect a damaging cultural force,
... a dislocation of value: ... based on cultural idioms of money
magic, whereby human blood and body parts are stolen and
used to conjure illicit wealth, the 419 represents nefarious
trade, draining victims of their goods and cash through forged
documents and staged performances ... the 419 has migrated to
the internet, where it has proliferated and shifted through digi-
tal "cloning" from the circuits of oil to the information high-
way ... [a] return to tropes of hidden bullion taken out of
circulation and buried beneath the ground (Apter 2003).

Dimensions of the Present Analysis

This article addresses the 419 scams at four levels of analysis. On
the surface, these cascading e-mails amuse most of us and some-
times attract the unwary into Ponzi-type schemes. Such schemes
have bilked thousands of people over hundreds of years. They are
the "noise" and nefarious excess of expanding commercial capital-
ism, today the flotsam of global marketeering. One examiner,
perhaps a stand-in for some - rather patronizing - recipients,
comments on the idiomatic language and range of human failings
exposed, observing that some people may even be attracted by a
lyrical "prose style that is as awkward and archaic as it is enchant-
ing" (Cruickshank 2001). A few playfully adventurous internetters
have turned "counterscammers," engaging in extended correspon-
dence in games of revenge or entrapment.
Glickman: The Nigerian "419" Advance Fee Scams

On a second level, that of law and order, of fraud and victims,

the 419s attract a combination of the curious, the naIve, and the
sympathetic, into a vortex of ill fortune and money loss that is
sometimes life-threatening. The schemes today exploit greed and
insouciance that capitalize on the news of human dislocation and
civil war. On this level, the schemes are viewed as a problem in
racketeering and the need to crack African, and indeed global,
crime syndicates.
On a third, and, indeed, social science level, 419 schemes are
reflections of cultural and social dysfunctionality. On the one hand,
they can be described as part of the now familiar excesses accom-
panying the drastic and rapid alteration of economic systems,
exemplified by Russia in the past two decades. Since independence
in 1960, the Nigerian economy, for example, has passed through at
least three major development phases: attempts at balanced
growth, foreign-assisted industrialization, and petroleum-financed
"Dutch disease" distortions (Wright 1998). On the other hand, 419
schemes reflect a political and cultural success syndrome, revolv-
ing around wealth, corruption, political patronage, and even
elements of witchcraft that make for "Big Man" leadership (Wright
1998; Price 1975). Several observers have subsumed 419 schemes
within the progression of politically supported corruption to an
African criminal state: "from kleptocracy to the felonious state"
(Bayart, Ellis and Hibou 1999, 1-31). This approach raises broad
issues of development and political legitimacy.
Finally, on a fourth level, reflecting the global policy implica-
tion of the three previous levels, is a shadowy link to drug and arms
traffic. In the post September 11 [2001] world, who can predict what
links might materialize to cash and small arms to warlords and
terrorists? At this level, exposing and combating 419s becomes a
tertiary element in a global police effort, affecting us all (see
Canadian Press Service 2003).

Anatomyof419 "Come-ons"
People who actually take the time to read these e-mails would
observe that initial contacts trade on contemporary events but
always appeal to greed in rehearsing a variation on a familiar tall
tale. Nevertheless, a uniform thread infiltrates these solicitations.
Perpetrators seek to forge a bond beyond greed between themselves
and the reader, recently reflected in the vocabulary of piety and
CJAS / ReEA 39: 3 2005

pity. Details of recent real events are provided. Most egregiously, in

2000, a number of 419 scam letters used the actual names of
victims in the crash of the Kenya Airways A31O, including links to
news websites (Catan and Peel 2003, 21). Some part of the initial
allure of the stories may be in the poor grammar or awkward word
choice and phrasing. While it may seem strange to enter into a
multi-million dollar transaction with someone who communi-
cates obliquely, scammers are, in fact, playing upon a racist stereo-
type: that Africans are childlike, intellectually unsophisticated,
innocent in business ways, and probably corrupt. In their latest
incarnation, scams play upon the readers' heartstrings - a whole
family has been tragically killed. Even the cliches of honor, pity,
and secrecy seem part of a deliberate attempt to lure the unsus-
pecting recipient into a false belief that the sender is desperate, as
well as naive.
To deal systematically with all four suggested dimensions of
analysis, we would, ideally, need to spend some time in the field-
Nigeria and, lately, South Africa - perhaps as a participant-
observer in the society of scammers. Although I have logged
considerable time in Africa, Nigeria is not part of that field experi-
ence. Few victims ever actually meet their partners, without injury
or worse. Interviewing scammers resembles infiltrating the Mafia,
not part of the training of social scientists. The preliminary analy-
sis, here, is based on 294 e-mails collected in eight months of 2003.
(The total collection has swelled to 376 in mid-2004 and continues
to grow.)2 To characterize them within this brief period, the scam
examples oscillated between sob stories and brisk business propos-
als. Curiously, within this sample and time period, dollar amounts
seem to have decreased, perhaps a parallel move toward the realism
of connecting to current events or an attempt to reach more ordi-
nary people who cannot afford big figure sums.
Claiming to be the relative of a late African political figure
remains a popular choice. But other well-known political figures
have been invoked. Three years ago, a police officer responded to an
e-mail, supposedly from the wife of the late former president,
Joseph Estrada, in the Philippines. He was asked to meet several
Filipinos in London: "they" turned out to be a lone African
(Stephen 2001). Purely African stories and obviously African names
may now raise suspicions. Recently, scammers have claimed to be
relatives of September 11 victims or former Iraqi officials (Lin-
Glickman: The Nigerian "419" Advance Fee Scams

Fisher 2002; "Feedback"). Scammers have also ventured into

American domestic affairs. One scammer said he was a stock
broker under investigation by the United States Internal Revenue
Service who needed help to get at his millions in frozen assets.
Another claimed to be inside the US government, saying they had
over-invoiced companies for taxes on dividends, stating "We wish
to reimburse these payments to the accounts of trustworthy,
wealthy retirees like yourself." He offered reimbursement of
proportional entitlement of $396 billion over ten years (Hill 2003,
25; see also Haliechek 1994, AI). An interesting variation in the US
is for touring Africans to offer to buy a property on the spot for cash,
if the property owner helps to "clean" a suitcase of $3 million of
smuggled currency (Slobozian 2004, B3).
Among received solicitations, as an empirical foray, I chose six
deemed typical of spelling and punctuation. I replied to five (full
texts available in Appendix One on my website http://www.haver-
ford.edu/pols/faculty/glickman/index.html), in order to elicit a
path toward some sort of transaction. The first one, from a "Mrs.
M. Sese seko," exhibits several ubiquitous features. It is written in
broken but understandable English, probably designed to elicit a
condescending response, perhaps sympathy or perhaps confidence
in the naivete of the sender. It stays close to actual facts about
President Mobutu, his foreign mansions, and his stashed loot
outside the Congo. It comes from a woman, which is relatively new
in scam history, possibly to elicit kindness, as well as display
vulnerability. Subsequently, I was handed off to a II son," Dennis
Kongolo, mentioned in the initial e-mail, with whom I corre-
A second contact, also supposedly from a woman, also claimed
a relationship to a real person recently killed, and went further in
asking for help for several reasons, including furthering her educa-
tion. (Due to a mix-up of noms de plumes, I did not reply to this
one.) It attempted to convince us that we are participating in an act
of charity, in addition to receiving a commission for a business deal.
The sum of $8 million was offered, maybe more believable than a
larger figure, although the percentage of thirty percent seemed
designed to attract high rollers. It asked for no concrete information
from the investor at the start. While this seems to waste time in
applying a hook, it reflects an application of a learning curve; a
personal bond is helpful.
CJAS / ReEA 39: 3 2005

A third communication hinted at bank scam. It contains more

than usual obvious misspellings, again perhaps to instill a sense of
superiority in the recipient; it purports to come from a manager of
a bank (nonexistent as far as I could telll in Benin; it trades on news
of an airplane crash, not an infrequent event in Africa; and it boldly
asks for a bank account and other personal information straight-
away, referring to the legal formality of an II application as next of
A fourth radiated clandestinity, as it is from an admittedly
corrupt official, who has come across a large amount of money that
can be discretely siphoned out of the country. He seems either fool-
ish or bold enough to offer twenty percent or about $7 million for
assistance. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation is the
national oil agency. The company name creates some credibility as
many outsiders know Nigeria is rich in oil. Stressing confidential-
ity is a gesture toward building some bond with the victim. Asking
for the recipient's company name, address, and phone number
yields information that might be useful in draining funds later on,
but, at the outset, it is more likely that he is trying to gauge the
recipient's level of interest.
A fifth example begins with a personal touch: he found the
receiving address in a business directory. This is one of the more
complex and sophisticated letters. It admits corruption and decep-
tion on the part of his famous II father," Sani Abacha, the late mili-
tary ruler of Nigeria. It suggests a double deception: the owners of
the vault-depository for the skimmed funds think the loot is
jewelry, not cash. It invokes honour among thieves as the writer
suggests he is under oath not to reveal the secret workings of a
diplomatic courier service. It openly suggests travel to Europe -
right away, since storage charges are mounting - and it requires a
power of attorney and future investment of other funds in the USA.
Finally, in suggesting secrecy, it also hints at the issue of safety,
perhaps a slight dash of danger to go with the frisson of illegality
that the writer is betting will attract the recipient.
A sixth and final example makes use of the Sierra Leone civil
war. This traces familiar ground; it seems plausible, invokes a reli-
gious blessing, and asks for 110 confidential information at the
outset. Indeed. it trades on the vanity of the recipient, requesting
help in locating a conservative investment in the US.
Glickman: The Nigerian "419" Advance Fee Scams

Beyond Spam: Responding to Scammers

I pursued five offers, setting up a separate e-mail account under an
assumed name and pursuing questions and requests as far as possi-
ble, without actually giving up personal private information or
traveling to Africa.3 The object was to learn as much as possible
about the process of the scam, short of a material commitment,
risking life and treasure. The first responses generated three quick
and eager replies. They requested that I make a phone call, to either
the solicitor him / herself or that of a third party, either a lawyer or
a security company, where the money resided. A vague second
probe from my end elicited diverse replies. One provided more
details, such as proof of deposit in the fake security company and,
later, a photo of what he claimed to be himself and his now
deceased father. (They were both obviously African, and one looked
rather fierce.) A second refused to give any concrete information
until I offered more from my end. Replies came within a day or two
as they tried to accelerate the process. When my responses were
slow, they complained and questioned this - one obviously getting
angry. My refusal to make a commitment (to send specific personal
information or agree to fly to Nigeria or elsewhere) led to their loss
of interest after several further exchanges.
In the literature, one can piece together what happens when
matters progress beyond conversation via e-mail.BrianWizard.an
American freelance journalist and novelist, not only replied to
several e-mails, but also spoke to scammers on the telephone and
actually traveled to London and Amsterdam, where he met with a
number of Africans liE-mail Scam Costs Victims Thousands 2002,
B04). Wizard (2000) sent $750 as start-up funds, but he refused to
advance the thousands requested. In 2004, a newspaper writer
chronicled the exploits of II an ad hoc militia of counterscammers
on several continents" (Schiesel2004, GI, G7). These online vigi-
lantes pursue a strategy of extended engagement, utilizing the same
tactics as the scammers sometimes receiving enough information
to pass on to law enforcement and gain arrests.
Getting to the advance fee segment of the scam in a serious
way seems to involve moving to phone conversations. Although
revealing a bank name or account number is certainly a risk, expe-
rienced scammers realize that the big money does not come from
the first part of the exchange (MacDougall and Lamkin 1994, 68).
CJAS / ReEA 39: 3 2005

Sending such information indicates that the individual is a willing

"mark." Banking security is now tighter than several years ago, and
outsiders cannot easily get to one's money with simply a name,
account number, and bank name (Marr 20031. The greater risk is
that one's bank account information permits application for credit
cards, the forging of cheques, or engagement in" crossfires" - cash-
ing forged checks and then withdrawing the money before the
banks discover the fakes (Revill 20021. Solicitation of advance fees
surfaces strongly when the mark begins to feel he / she is close to
the money, having learned of details of how to extract it from a
bank; a government account; or a depository in Amsterdam,
London, Liechtenstein, or an African country (Hill 2003, 251. The
next stage reveals information that the money, if it is actual
currency, has been altered to spirit it out of the country or has iden-
tifying marks upon it (McKinlay and Bell 2002, 11. Everyone in on
the plot now knows this is an illegal operation. Scammers count on
the sense of illegality exciting the mark; paradoxically, it now
makes more sense than the claim that liberating this money serves
a good cause and can be done smoothly, as the scammers disingen-
uously suggested at first. More important, it deters the mark from
going to the authorities during the early stage.
Some victims are strung along for months and spend thousands
of dollars, unwilling to believe they have been taken. A scam
requires smart miscreants, but it is also needs believers. "It's like
being a gambler, who throws good money after bad - the deeper
you get in the more reluctance you have to back out," says James
Caldwell, a supervisor in the financial crimes division of the US
Secret Service. "It's not unusual that we have seen victims lose
more than $1 million." A US Department of Commerce official
Once people get hooked, my experience is they become more
and more resistant to accepting that it's a scam, because they
become vested in the deal. It's almost like ... denial, they don't
want to believe that it's not true.
Many times, a family member or friend of a victim will ask author-
ities for help. When officials receive the information, they try to
talk the person out of becoming victimized. Caldwell says:
We've done that quite a bit, where we've talked people off a
ledge, so to speak, and got them to come around and believe
they're victims .... We've gone so far in the past to actually pull
Glickman: The Nigerian "419" Advance Fee Scams

people off airplanes .... We've gotten to these people and pulled
them out of potentially either harmful or certainly cash sensi-
tive situations and gotten them out. We're really quite proud of
that .... Clearly some people never ever come to the realization
that they've been a victim to a fraud, and think that one more
payment and their windfall is going to happen (Ruppe 2000; see
also Rose 2003).
Victims in denial then receive demands for about $10 000 to
buy expensive chemicals needed to remove the identifying marks,
to "clean the currency." Another excuse for an advance fee is the .
necessity for a lawyer to do the proper paperwork to transfer the
funds. Sometimes, the scammer offers to incorporate a fake
company on behalf of the foreigner, as a conduit for the money
(Murnaghan 2002). Another ploy requires a bribe for an official,
who is holding up the process. Forwarding one fee usually yields a
second, adding to already sunken funds, merely increasing the
"deposit" on a giant windfall.
A late segment of the scam, and the most dangerous, is the
request for the mark to travel abroad to meet in person, to insure
the confidence of the people releasing the money. My own experi-
ment resulted in such a request within two weeks. Usually, an
intermediary, a "disinterested" third party in a European country,
is suggested, one in which a foreigner might feel more comfortable
than in Africa. The Netherlands (multi-ethnic, officially tolerant,
and an international entrepot) has served as this nominated coun-
try in several published accounts. There, the mark would meet
with well-tailored individuals with fancy cars at a five-star hotel or
in some official looking venue. More money is required, for one
reason or another, but the big money is right down the street in the
depository company. Again, already sunken costs dictate one more
donation. If this does not work, the scam can take a dark turn.
The final stage of the scam involves intimidation. Threats to
detain the mark unless another, larger sum of money is forthcom-
ing have been reported. Several foreigners have disappeared over
several years while participating in these scams (Lin-Fisher 2002).
In 1995, an American was murdered in Lagos; one American was
ransomed in Johannesburg and another in Lagos, both in 2002 (Dey
2002; Roberts 2002). In addition, a Briton was tortured and beaten
by his "partners" in Nigeria in 2003 (Brady 2003, 13). Wizard
reports a particularly grisly denouement in Lagos. One victim was
470 CJAS / RCEA 39: 3 2005

dismembered, despite a paid ransom, and then set ablaze (Wizard

One of my own correspondents invited me to Nigeria rather
soon in the relationship. Reports on such Nigerian travel adven-
tures indicate that scammers offer assurances that everything is
taken care ofj one does not even need a passport or visa to enter the
country, they claim. Incredibly, people have accepted these termsj
on arrival, the mark is informed that it is a crime to enter the coun-
try without a passport. The victim is threatened with exposure
unless a large bribe (about $50 0001 is forthcoming (Marr 20031.
A growing byproduct of 419 scams is bank fraud. This takes
exceptional technical know-how, coordination of a large number of
people, and infiltration of the banking system. 419 scammers, who
operate within a sophisticated network of criminal connections
worldwide, are well-positioned to branch out (Smith, Holmes and
Kaufmann 19991. Reporters and police informants believe that a
Nigerian crime syndicate exists today, which coordinates drug
smuggling, arms traffic, money laundering, bank fraud, and 419
scams. Information about bank names, addresses, and accounts are
traded. Concurrently, crime cells are increasingly recruiting indi-
viduals to infiltrate bank workers or bribe employees. Tony
Thomas, ChieHnspector of the City of London Police, stated:
We are seeing an increasing [number] of people who are getting
into banks and feeding details to outsiders. It is probably the
most significant trend at the moment (Catan and Peel 2003,
South African banks were urged by their government to exer-
cise caution when appointing new staff members, especially
temporaries (Joffe 20031. Information on fat new accounts is trans-
mitted and counterfeit money orders are instigated, yielding, in
today's parlance, "an E-bay scam./1 This works as follows: someone
is selling something on E-bay for $10 000. A buyer overseas wants
to pUrchase the item and contacts the seller. The buyer says he has
a friend nearby who owes him $15 000, and he is going to pick up
the merchandise. The friend arrives at the seller's house with a
cheque for $15 000, and the seller says, "But it is only $10 000./1 The
friend suggests that the seller write him a check for $5 000 and
everyone will be happy. As one might suspect, the $15 000 check
turns out to be counterfeitj the seller gave up $5 000 and lost
$10 000 worth of merchandise in the bargain. 4
Glickman: The Nigerian "419" Advance Fee Scams 471
In an interview in Washington, DC, Brian Marr, who follows
these matters for the us Secret Service, described working on
another case, where the victim brought a cheque received from a
419 correspondent to her bank, but suspected something was
wrong. Twice, the bank told her that the cheque was good. Over a
week later, the bank discovered that the cheque was counterfeit.
Banks apparently are not automatically liable in these instances.
Banks can claim that an inexperienced teller had no way of know-
ing the cheque was counterfeit. No law or insurance deals with a
bank's liability in dealing with fraudulent cheques, which some-
times can take them more than a week to identify when drawn on
a foreign bank. 419 scammers know this. Losses due to fraud, such
as 419s, are rolled into the same numbers as bad debt. Such losses
are written off and can yield tax breaks in the USA. Currently, the
United Kingdom is working on legislation to makes banks liable for
not identifying fraudulent cheques in a timely fashion (Marr 2003;
see also Catan and Peel 2003, 21).
419 scams are also preying on banks and individuals via inter-
net insecurity. Recently, 419 scammers have set up websites that
resemble legitimate banking sites. A mark is directed to such a fake
website, as well as mock law firm sites ("Scam of Scams"; Singh
2002). One logs in with a username and is asked for personal infor-
mation: bank account numbers, social security number, name, and
address. Since the sites look authentic, people comply. The only
misidentifying characteristics of the best examples are unknown
international telephone area codes. (Citibank, as it occasionally
reminds its customers, remains a prime target, impersonated at site
addresses that include Citibank.com.) The occasional internet
user, often ripe for 419s, becomes easy prey.
Highly publicized was a case in which someone put up a fake
website resembling South Africa's central bank and used it to swin-
dle a British businessman out of £130 000. The South African
government declared the incident a "national priority crime"
(Catan and Peel, 2003, 21). Scammers have used intercepted or ille-
gally obtained bank customer information to telephone clients,
posing as bank security officials to "reconfirm" personal security
matters, such as a PIN. In some cases, actual bank premises have
been used to perpetrate frauds. Scammers posing as bank officials
have set up shop in bank lobbies. The Citibank lobby in Aldwych,
London, for example, was used to defraud a German industrialist of
472 CJAS / ReBA 39: 3 200 5

£1 million. 419 scammers also get involved in installing fake fronts

on ATM machines, which grab credit cards. An II out of order l l sign
on a legitimate ATM directs customers to the altered one.
Apparently, there is a market for discarded cash dispensers for this
purpose (Catan and Peel 2003, 21). Perhaps the most audacious ploy
consisted in establishing a fake South African embassy in
Amsterdam, in which a Saudi victim lost $100 000 (SchieseI2004,

A Brief History of 419s

II Advance fee frauds" have been around, reputedly, since the
sixteenth century. During England's war with Spain, it surfaced as
lithe Spanish Prisoner" scheme. (It has recurred regularly, most
recently in a 1998 film of the same name, scripted by David
Mamet.) In April 1914, a letter was reprinted in the Nigerian
Customs and Trade Journal from Arthur Hardinge, British
Ambassador to Spain, calling attention to lithe Spanish Prisoner
swindle ... established in Madrid and other Spanish towns ...
Assisted by accomplices in England.... " Added to the letter was the
note: lilt appears that perpetrators of this fraud are still endeavoring
to victimize Residents of the British Colonies and it is considered
advisable that the public in Nigeria should be warned to be upon
their guard."s
In its original form, wealthy merchants would be contacted by
a stranger, claiming to be part of an attempt to smuggle the
sequestered child of an imprisoned family member out of a Spanish
prison. The target would earn a share of the reward for freeing the
child or the imprisoned parent in return for helping finance a rescue
of one or the other. (Spanish prisons, historically, have been imag-
ined as particularly brutal.) Pity for the child joins avarice in keep-
ing the target interested. The first rescue attempt would fail, as
would a second, even more elaborate effort. One sees where this is
heading. A convincing story would draw the victim into traveling
to meet intermediaries and into increasingly bigger payments.
While the story to entice people has changed, the basic principles
of the scam have not.
The 419 mail scams seem to have originated in Nigeria in the
1970s and early 1980s (Tive 2002, 47; Wizard 2000, 157). Today,
however, they emanate from other countries outside Africa, such
as Singapore, Russia, China (Hong Kong), and several places in the
Glickman: The Nigerian "419" Advance Fee Scams 473

Caribbean ("psst, Want to Make a Few Million?j Oldenberg 2002,

C12 j se also Robson 2003 j Perry 20031. They started as unsolicited
letters and later faxes, asking for assistance in transferring frozen or
hidden funds, always secretly or illegally obtained, out of a West
African country. Despite many promises, no case has been recorded
where a foreign "investor" ever profited a single dollar although
there are two reports of partial refunds (Nigerian 419 Coalition
website 20021.
Some people still retain the early 1980s letters from the
Nigerian "central bank" or the Nigerian "national petroleum
company" as souvenirs (Lohr 1992, D11.1n the 1990s, the Nigerian
government took advertisements in major newspapers in the US,
warning of fraud via requests on fake stationery (Chen 1998, B1,71.
With the invention of fax machines, perpetrators were able to reach
many more people at a much faster pace. Moreover, by using a rela-
tively new technology, schemers could emphasize the need for
speed in responding to new "opportunities. II Faxes allowed the
most desirable targets, business folk, to be reached. Faxes in their
early years also seemed more official, as well as urgent.
The invention and spread of the internet and e-mail have trans-
formed the effort into a globe-girdling blizzard of instantaneous
importunings. The US Secret Service received ten times the
number of scam complaints in 2002 as in 2001 (Marr 20031, while
the US Federal Trade Commission said such offers have reached
"epidemic proportions" (Catan and Peel 2003, 211. 6 In addition to
communicating instantaneously, the internet allows connection to
a new worldwide group: ordinary people, newly drawn to comput-
ers and e-mail, inexperienced in the ways of international
commerce, but sometimes eager to participate in it. E-mail -
direct, seemingly personal, and instantaneously answerable - can
now reach thousands of people a day.

Scope of 4198
To ordinary folk, these typical e-mails represent II delete" fodder, on
a par with the mailbox spam that peddles sex performance stimu-
lants, cheap Rolex watches, discount pharmaceuticals, dirty
pictures, and a variety of mortgage re-financings. Although most
recipients trash these items robotically, to law enforcement, they
represent the iceberg tips of illegal activity of global dimensions.
Up to now, only a relative handful of the people actually send-
474 crAS / ReEA 39: 3 200 5

ing these e-mails have been identified, much less apprehended,

although they steal millions of dollars annually from unsuspecting
victims (Mann 2002). The full scope of the problem they pose
remains comparatively uninvestigated by law enforcement author-
ities in North America, Europe, and Africa, as well as by the mass
media, the general public, and the Africanist academic community.
Since a handful of persons have been maimed or killed while coop-
erating, non-official fieldwork remains a distinct risk.
Estimates of money losses vary wildly: some speculate that
Americans alone lost at least $100 million in 2000 - roughly what
the US sent to Nigeria in foreign aid that year (Ruppe 2000). Others
conjecture that Advance Fee Fraud grosses hundreds of millions of
dollars annually (US Secret Service Advance Fee Advisory 2002, 3),
perhaps more than $100 million annually worldwide in 2004 (Rian
Visser, Inspector South African Police in Schiesel 2004, G7).
Finally, still others argue that victims worldwide may have lost an
incredible $8 billion in one year (200 I) via such fraud and theft ("E-
mail Scam" 2002). According to the US Secret Service, in the US
alone, losses have hit at least a million dollars annually for several
years (Catan and Peel 2003, 21). In Britain, the National Criminal
Intelligence Service revealed that in 2002, 150 Britons lost 8.4
million Pounds to 419 scams (Brady 2003, 13). One reporter calcu-
lated that the" average victim" worldwide loses $342 000 (Lazarus
2003, G1l, whereas counterscammers say that most victims lose
about $3 000 (Schiesel2004, G7j.
Aside from concern for losses to legitimate economic activity
in Africa and elsewhere, and sympathy for victims, these scams
have elicited attention to the growing connection between the ill-
gotten gains and more deadly illegal, international activity, such as
arms and drug smuggling (Irish and Quobosheane, 84-93). Even
more troubling is the allegation that these scams are not only toler-
ated, but also promoted by elements in the Nigerian government
since it is the third to fifth largest industry in the country - "the
elites from which successive Governments of Nigeria have been
drawn ARE the Scammers" (Nigeria 419 Coalition website 2002, 1;
see also Nigeria Fraud 2003).

Identifying 419 Scammers

The craft of executing the contact in a 419 is said to be passed on in
small groups and taught on a one-to-one basis (Marr 2003). The profit
Glickman: The Nigerian "419" Advance Fee Scams 475

potential make 419 cohorts targets for organized crime. Amateur

small groups may try their luck - this is a business with easy entry
and exit ~ but the biggest, most sophisticated, and most profitable
419 scams are run by what the US Justice Department dubs "the
Nigerian Crime Enterprises." These are loosely organized syndi-
cates, supposedly connected by "tribal" (Nigerians say this is code
for Igbo) ties. But law enforcement authorities note these alliances
are not firm, and groups materialize where profits are attractive.
While the term "Mafia-like" has been applied, a hierarchy or struc-
ture remains unrevealed, making investigation extremely difficult
although US law enforcement imputes tentacles in a number of
nefarious enterprises (Buchanan and Grant 2001, 39-48).
4-1-9 is a common epithet in Nigeria today, when a person
claims someone is cheating. Many ordinary people believe that
deception and corruption are required to achieve wealth and influ-
ence. A historical and cultural connection has been attributed by
observers to the admired trickster, the con man, sometimes called
"the feyman," who is also able to draw upon magic and witchcraft
(Smith 2001, 803-26).
Aside from ambivalence about rapid acquisition of wealth but
acknowledged corruption, ordinary Nigerians may silently feel
pride in taking so many Westerners "to the cleaners." Although
from a poor country by global standards, Nigerians are world class
at racketeering, as evidenced by so much attention (see French
2004, 26, 31). Nigeria has been the capital of 419 fraud, although
other nationals and countries clearly are now involved. Singling
out Nigeria does not make it a peculiarly Nigerian crime despite
the fact that the scam letters of thirty years ago were sufficiently
numerous and effective for the Nigerian government to warn
foreigners through newspaper advertisements. Africa's largest
country by population (116.9 million, median age 17.3 years),
suddenly enriched by oil and gas exploitation, Nigeria experienced
the rise of an energy boom elite in the 1970s. Decades of misrule, a
distorted economy, and rampant corruption wiped out the middle
class, producing enormous disparities between the well-off and the
rest of the population (Apter 1999).
The [Nigerian] government spends over eighty percent of the
budget running its own incompetent and corrupt bureaucracy.
When not asleep at their desks, civil servants openly and cheerfully
ask visitors to their offices for cash. Higher up the ladder, govern-
476 CJAS / RCEA 39: 3 200 5

ment procurement officers inflate contracts for anything from

paper clips to luxury cars. Mr. Obasanjo uses several presidential
planes and moves around town in a convoy of over 50 cars
(Economist 2003,46).
Millions of educated, English-speaking, but jobless youth
cannot find decent jobs at home, and most cannot emigrate to
South Africa, the UK, or North America. Amidst persistent and
manifold economic ills (Nigeria's annual per capita income is
$3 000; GDP per head $350; [The Economist Pocket World in
Figures 2004, 176-77, 238]), financial fraud flourishes. A corrupt
and inefficient court system, along with a government lacking
effective authority, does not help. Advance fee fraud scams could
not operate without political connections. According to an investi-
gation reported in Money magazine, 419 scams in Nigeria are the
second largest industry after oil (quoting Leon Wynter, Rapporteur,
International Conference on Advance Fee [419] Fraud 2002, Nigeria
419 Coalition website, 2002). Based on his "diplomatic sources in
Nigeria," Wizard (2000, ii) claims that 419s are the third to fifth
largest industry in Nigeria. The underground economy reportedly
accounts for seventy-seven percent of the GDP, one of the highest
percentages of any country in the world (Statesman's Year Book
2003, 1228). Nigeria's rackets reflect the growth of "cowboy capi-
talism," namely, unruly entrepreneurialism flourishing within a
lawless environment. Enforcement of rules merely competes with,
and does not overcome, force and fraud.
Finally, there is Western complicity. One cannot rule out the
demonstration effect of Westerners extracting millions of dollars
from Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa via bribes and dominant part-
ner arrangements. Nigeria, probably more than other African coun-
tries, provides numerous examples of big Western companies
paying bribes to win contracts. To most Africans, international
commerce means draining Africa of natural resources in unequal
partnerships with foreign governments and multinational corpora-
tions. It takes little imagination to believe that capitalist enterprise
means a big hustle, where all gains are ill-gotten, and where the
little guy gets ahead only by imitating the big guys (Adogame 2003).

Combatting 419
Increasing wariness regarding Nigerian entrepreneurs caused the US
Department of Justice, during a brief period in mid-2002, to secure a
Glickman: The Nigerian "419" Advance Fee Scams 477

court order to open every piece of mail from Nigeria passing through
JFK airport in New York. Almost seventy percent of the mail
involved scam offers (Weber 2002). Four Nigerians and two other
African companions were arrested in Atlanta in 2002 for e-mail
fraud and drug trafficking. Seized with them were drugs, computer
equipment, and false identification papers (Husted 2002).
Furthermore, two Canadians in 2002 were arrested for fronting for
Nigerians in recruiting nearly fifty cohorts to defraud others via 419
scams (Perreaux 2002, A4). In addition, two "godfathers" of 419
frauds from Nigeria, F.e. The and J.O. Onugoagu, were arrested in
England in 2002 (Penman and Greenwood 2002, 26). Finally, the
Royal Canadian Mounted Police announced the dismantlement of a
Nigeria-based phone scam, using a Toronto "boiler room" that had
claimed three hundred victims in 2001 (Canada News Wire 2001).
The US Secret Service, since 1995, has worked with the US
Department of Commerce, as well as with Nigerian and other
foreign authorities, to counter such operations. In 1996, the US
Secret Service, in cooperation with the Nigerian Federal
Investigation and Intelligence Bureau, arrested forty-three persons
in sixteen Nigerian locations, along with much evidence of fraudu-
lent practices ("Operation 4-1-9," 1996; see also Africa News
Service 2000). Stating that seventeen persons had been killed in
Nigeria as a result of 419 scams, US Congressman Edward Markey
(1998) of Massachusetts introduced, in 1998, the Nigerian Advance
Fee Fraud Prevention Bill. The bill did not pass, but it did cause a
brief flurry of discussion. Moreover, in August 2000, the US Secret
Service opened an office in Lagos to share information, technical
expertise, and some resources to help Nigerian authorities battle
advanced fee fraud and other Nigerian criminal activity, such as
money laundering and counterfeiting.
Scammers today are moving into South Africa, as evidenced by
recent arrests there of several supposed kingpins of 419 fraud - A.
Odonoko, his wife, and fifteen others carrying Nigerian passports
(BBC Worldwide Monitoring Africa 2002; Africa News Service
2002). One authoritative observer calls South Africa" Africa's capi-
tal of organized crime" (Ellis 1999, 50). Aside from the cosmopoli-
tan attraction of South Africa, the largest and most dynamic
economy on the continent, foreigners have been increasingly wary
of "Nigerian" e-mails. The economic and communications infra-
structure in South Africa makes all sorts of business easier and
478 CJAS / ReEA 39: 3 200 5

cheaper. South Africa's borders remain porous, while its economy

is a magnet for illegal immigrants from elsewhere in Africa.
Recently, observers have seen South Africa replacing Nigeria as
"the 419 capital of the world" (Africa News 2003aJ. A comprehen-
sive report observes that advance fee fraud scams operating out of
South Africa now take many forms: transfer of funds linked to over-
invoiced contracts; contract fraud; conversion of currency, "black
dollars" (the old money-washing scheme); the sale of diamonds and
other precious items at below market value; fraudulent purchase of
real estate; fraudulent disbursement of money from estates; extor-
tion; and clearinghouse scams (Irish and Quobosheane, 86-87J. Yet
the move to South Africa is double-edged. The South African
government and its police are better equipped to combat 419 fraud,
which, ironically, further disperses 419 gangs to almost anywhere
there is an internet cafe.
Any government's effort to combat 419 fraud is contingent
upon foreign official partners also addressing the problem. Over the
years, pressure on the Nigerian government has produced some
results. With the Advance Fee Fraud and Other Related Offences
Decree of 1993 (African News Service 2001aJ, General Sani Abacha,
Nigeria's then military ruler, appointed a ministerial task force to
combat drugs and fraud networks, which he believed to be
connected. By 1995, Nigerian authorities claimed investigation
and arrest of twelve hundred suspects but, apparently, convicted
none. Most visible of the arrests was Fred Ajudua, who aspired to
be the black Robin Hood. The frauds, he alleged, were compensa-
tion from white men for slavery and colonialism ("The Great
Nigerian Scam"; see also Africa News 2003J. Nigeria's current pres-
ident, Olasegun Obasanjo, inaugurated in 1999, identified 419s as
"one of the priority issues for resolution, having been noted as one
of the principal causes of loss of life, property and investment"
(Africa News Service 200lacJ. Nigerian officials talk a good deal
about combatting 419 fraud. A deputy governor of the Central Bank
of Nigeria [CBNj, Dr. Samsudeen Usman, said at a conference on
419 fraud in New York in September 2002 that the apex bank [CBNj
has intensified enforcement of relevant laws requiring banks to
prevent the use of their facility to perpetrate 419 or the laundering
of money. If a bank were found to have been careless in allowing a
criminal to defraud another person, it would be forced to refund the
money involved. He said the Central Bank had already caused a
Glickman: The Nigerian "419" Advance Fee Scams 479

commercial bank to refund $400 000 to a defrauded American

(Report of the International Conference on Advance Fee [4191
Fraud, 2002). CBN has established a task force on economic crime
and extended its surveillance of 419 activities to other financial
institutions such as money exchanges, mortgage institutions, and
others. The conference on economic crimes, organized first in 2000
by CBN, is supposed to occur annually.
Yet performance in combating 419 fraud remains flaccid; in
August 2001, the Financial Action Task Force of the International
Monetary Fund listed Nigeria as a non-cooperating country (Africa
News Service 2001b). African governments, aside from lacking
resources, do not view 419 scams as a priority crime; it seems like
targeting pickpocketing as a serious pursuit. Some people - not
only Africans - believe that if some Westerners are dumb enough
to fall for the scam, it is their own fault.
Nevertheless, arrests continue. South Africa has mandated
their elite police unit, "the Scorpions," to seek 419 networks. In
2003, after a twenty-month investigation, the Scorpions netted a
titan of 419 fraud, Phil Okafor, legal advisor to the South African
branch of Nigeria's ruling People's Democratic Pa~ty. In addition to
the high profile arrest of Okafor, South Africa has placed three
thousand Nigerians in detention, many in connection to 419 frauds
(Africa News 2003b). In March 2004, Rian Visser, inspector and
electronic fraud investigator for the South African Police Service,
established an unofficial website, www.419Iegal.org, as a clearing
house for advance fee fraud information (Schiesel2004, G7). The
US Secret Service, in conjunction with British National Criminal
Intelligence Service and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, have
been working to aid the Scorpions in South Africa (BBC Worldwide
Monitoring Africa 2002). All these parties cooperated in 2001 in the
major bust of a Toronto area fraud ring that had claimed three
hundred victims, with individual losses ranging from $52 000 to
over $5 million (Canada Newswire 2001). The US Department of
Justice has fashioned tools to investigate and prosecute 419s,
including undercover operations using targeted businesses and the
employment of statutes dealing with mail, wire, fax, and phone
fraud (see BiNational Working Group on Cross-Border Mass-
Marketing Fraud 2003).
Yet 419 fraudsters remain elusive. Police report that operations
shut down and move quickly. Global internet connections with
CJAS / ReEA 39: 3 200 5

today's technology make the origin of e-mails extremely difficult to

trace without a major mobilization of investigatory resources. 7
Tracing an e-mail means working laboriously backwards - a time-
consuming process that involves subpoeniug an internet server,
such as Yahoo, and requiring much technical cooperation. E-mails
can now bounce from one server to another, disguising their origin
(see Schwartz 2003, C4-SI. Scammers who claim to be in Lagos or
Abidjan could be sitting in an internet cafe in Hong Kong or
Amsterdam. In addition, 419 scams remain an underreported
crime. Victims are embarrassed about coming forward, but they
also fear they might have done something illegal. Police cannot
legally pursue individuals on the basis of e-mails alone. A non-
threatening e-mail is deemed commerce or free speech. A monetary
loss must occur. By the time a server might be found, the scammers
have scrammed.
419 frauds themselves create more damage than personal £l.nan-
ciallosses. The prevalence of their advertisements in the popular
experience, especially among Western professionals and business
people, undermines legitimate African, and especially Nigerian,
business. The effects of 419s are also damaging at the human rela-
tions level: for instance, during the World Cup competition almost
a decade ago, many Nigerian soccer players wanted to move out of
their training site in Texas because the local police had warned the
community against accepting credit cards from the players (Shiner
19941. E-bay now has warnings on the website, not specifically
targeting Africans, but apparently in response to the 419 scams.
So why do these scams persist and such offers continue to
grow? The obvious answer is greed, suckerdom, and low cost prof-
its. It is estimated that the scammers need only a one percent
success rate to make a profit (Brady 2003, 131. One person, using
whole lists, could send out anywhere from one thousand to one
hundred thousand scams a day. If twenty thousand messages are
sent out daily and one percent responds, that is two hundred people
to work with. If ten people in one location are sending e-mails, that
is possibly two thousand responses every day. If the average loss per
victim, as some have previously estimated, tops $300 000 and one
percent of two hundred people are conned, that could amount to
potentially $600 000 a day. The internet is adding new users every
day at an exponential rate, nine hundred per cent in the one year
2000, according to Jonathan Rusch, US Department of Justice
Glickman: The Nigerian "419" Advance Fee Scams

(Report of the International Conference on Advance Fee Fraud

Should we worry about 419 fraud? There are two compelling
reasons for serious concern. First, 419s may be so embedded in the
Nigerian economy and society that they are now a permanent
poison drip. Anecdotal evidence now exists of "reverse 419s:"
Nigerians in Europe preying on Nigerians at home, demanding
money to clear certain goods supposedly waiting to be shipped outj
and Nigerians in Europe and North America targeted by a "physi-
cian" at home, who seems to know the family's name, and who
needs funds to aid a relative supposedly involved in an accident. A
"criminalized state" in Nigeria, as well as the expansion of crimi-
nal activity in South Africa - the two most influential states in
black Africa - represents a gathering threat to legitimate
commerce, as well as to social bonds over the whole continent. For
most ordinary North Americans and Europeans on the internet,
419s are probably the only contact they have with Africa. Second,
the money earned in 419 fraud may be being used to support other
types of more violent and deadly crimes. Global crime enterprises,
which include 419 operations, lead to connections to drug traffick-
ing, arms dealing, and assassinations. 8 Travelers and researchers in
Nigeria report rumours that Igbo Nigerians dominate the retail
trade in crack cocaine. An authoritative report confirms that
"Nigerian networks are centrally involved in bringing significant
amounts of cocaine into South Africa and many have direct links to
the source countries in Latin America" (Irish and Quobosheane
2003, 88). UK and US officials have thus far played down a possible
terrorism connection although they admit that Nigerian gangs are
active in the heroin trade, which would bring them into business
relations with clandestine elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan
(Catan and Peel 2003, 21).
In December 2003, both legislative houses of the US Congress
passed conforming bills to reduce and regulate unsolicited e-mail,
which President Bush later signed. It remains unclear how a "spam
busting" law in the USA will affect advance fee schemes and scam-
mers, especially those located outside the country (Tanaka 2003,
C1,3 j seeAndrewsandHansell2003,A1, C14 j Lee 2003, C3). So far,
the fraudsters have proved sufficiently resourceful to continue to
find new ways to discover new victims.
CJAS / RCEA 39: 3 200 5

1 A recent example is a report that the US Security and Exchange
Commission, the Nigerian government, and a French magistrate are
formally investigating allegations that Kellogg, Brown & Root, a subsidiary
of Halliburton Company, was involved in paying bribes of $180 million to
acquire a natural gas project in Nigeria (Associated Press 2004, C2; Romero
2004, Cl,7).
2 Appendix One on my website presents collated information on 196 e-mails
received within a three-month period in summer 2003.
3 For another recent correspondence, see Roberts 2003, WK 7; for an earlier
correspondence that included meetings, see Wizard (2000).
4 This principle has been applied in 419 scams. For example, Eileen Parczen,
single mother of three, a Montreal resident, was told she would receive
twenty percent (or $ 7 million of Stephen Bedie's family fortune) if she helped
Bedie (then supposedly in Togo) move it out of the wartorn country of Cote
d'Ivoire. She received a bank draft of more than $65 000, drawn on a
Canadian bank in New York. As a self-employed seamstress, she possessed
just over $15 000 from her husband's life insurance policy in the account into
which she deposited the bank draft. Over the next ten days, she wired a total
of $16 000 to Togo before hearing from the Bank of Montreal (her own bank)
that the deposited cheque was counterfeit. Distraught after a meeting with
bank officials, she signed over the $15 000 in her account and added another
$1 000 in cash. Parczen then sued the Bank of Montreal, claiming it coerced
her into signing over her funds and acted negligently in forwarding funds to
Togo before the original bank draft had cleared (Rusne1l2002, Bl).
S Nigerian Customs and Trade Journal (1914, 189). I am indebted to Professor
Alan Frishman, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, for bringing this to my
attention. In the 1914 report, the prisoner is dying and wishes to provide for
the education of his daughter. The prison chaplain received the advance fees
and escorted the child to England.
6 A Pittsburgh newsperson in 2002 compiled 346 000 "419" e-mails received,
ten times the number of the previous year ("African E-Mail Scam").
7 In a top priority investigation, in the international spotlight, police are able
track down the sources of e-mails; see the story of finding the kidnappers of
Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, Mariane Pearl with Sarah Crichton (2003, 153-58).
8 A new, rare, and more sinister variant, primarily in Europe, is the "Threat
Scam." Victims are sent "notifications of assassination" from letter writers
purporting to be from an international security service that has received
information that the letter's recipient is about to be kidnapped and
murdered. How does one get these mystery murderers off one's back? Pay
thousands to the security service, and they will take care of it. So far,
however, there is no evidence the threats have ever been carried out (US
Department of State 1997, 24).
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