Not Saussure

November 20, 2006

Nigerian Scams

Filed under: Chatham House, scams — notsaussure @ 10:17 pm

Chatham House has turned its attention to Nigeria-Related Financial Crime And Its Links With Britain. The report contains some alarming statistics; while the best known scams are the Advanced Fee frauds, familiar to all of us from those emails from generous bods who want our assistance in smuggling vast amounts of money out of the country, these are apparently dwarfed by more traditional types of fraud involving forged cheques, postal orders and financial instruments, fake passports and the like.


On a single day spot check at London’s Heathrow Airport in 2005, the British authorities found more than £20 million of forged cheques and other financial instruments in packages sent from Nigeria. This was lower than expected. The couriers had been warned in advance of the inspection, enabling them to be more rigorous about their own checks: customs officers said the weight of mail was much lower than on a typical day. Other, unannounced, interceptions have found that almost the entire weight of mail from Nigeria consisted of forged documents. The volume of fraudulent material has ‘overwhelmed’ both the courier companies and the British authorities involved, says one police officer. ‘I have always asked – what do you need to send from Lagos to London in a package that you can’t get here?’ he says. ‘Bushmeat is one thing. But what else?’ (p 9)

Nevertheless, the 419 scams are themselves pretty big business;

It has been estimated that Nigerian-style advance fee frauds cost the economy £150 million annually, with the average losses per victim a not insignificant £31,000. (p 5)

That sounds extraordinary, though it’s perhaps put into perspective by the sheer number of these scam letters and emails that go out;

Between 2000 and 2003, according to Cifas, a consumer credit industry body, the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) identified 78,000 Nigerian-style letters, faxes and e-mails in London alone

At £31 grand a time, that’s 4,840 suckers, so at an average of 26,000 different scam offers a year you only need to pick up one or two suckers for every 10 scams you dream up; considering they must send each scam to tens of thousands of email addresses a time, I suppose the law of averages does the rest.

Chatham House say

One question recurs time and again in conversations about some of the blunter and more obvious e-mail scams emanating from Nigeria: why on earth do people still fall for them?

The obvious answers – greed, naivety and a certain amorality when it comes to money – are undoubtedly often right. Toughened by circumstances, Nigerians are probably better equipped than most people to achieve the blend of creativity, charm and coercion needed to carry out a successful sting.

But there is also an intellectual underlay that is worth examining. Prominent in this is an enduring and profound ignorance in Europe and the US about African countries and what they are like. At its least offensive, this is a product of schoolday encounters with Heart of Darkness and similar books, which present Africa as a place where weird and inexplicable events are the norm. Frieda Springer-Beck, a German woman who lost hundreds of thousands of dollars to a scam and now works with the EFCC, admits the continent was ‘strange’ to her when she was approached by a Nigerian con man. It seemed entirely plausible that, as she was told, her late husband, who ran a paintbrush-making factory in Germany, also had large investments in a Nigerian power project.

At their worst, the argument goes, scam victims are led by a conscious or subconscious white Western sense of racial superiority. The fraudsters play on the enduring myth of African infantilism and simplemindedness: a European who believes in this might find it unremarkable that a Nigerian holding tens of millions of dollars would be clueless about what to do with it. In such circumstances, what could be more natural than to turn to the clever white person for help?

All this helps explain why some Nigerians, as well as expatriates who know the country a bit, have a sneaking admiration for the young men who turn the tables on their Western targets. As one British educated Nigerian lawyer says of many 419 victims: ‘They are racist bastards. What they don’t realize is our people are a lot smarter than they give us credit for.’

I’m not completely sure I buy that — I’d have thought that, if anything, the stereotype of Nigerians is that they’re all crooks rather than all simple souls who need bwana’s help to sort out their finances. But who knows.

I wonder if the Express or The Sun will feel up to spinning this ‘419 scam — Polish immigrant to blame’? Conrad’s works do, after all, show, in the words of the Wikipedia entry, ‘a fine sense of man’s capacity for self-deception’.

Actually, now I come to think of it, given the circulation figures of the Express, the Mail and the Scum we shouldn’t be that surprised, I suppose, that the scammers manage to find so many victims.

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