Nigerian Scams 101: The Origin of The Scam and Its Newer Forms

We really think that everyone over 20 years old is familiar with the old Nigerian prince scam. There’s no way you could have graduated from high school in those sweet early 2000s and not have received the email about the Nigerian prince who really needs your help. After all, everyone was getting it and many people continue to find it in their inboxes from time to time to this day.


But Nigerian scams are about much more than the old letter about the prince. In fact, sadly, a significant proportion of the young generation in Nigeria is making a living from online scams. Several types of scams are carried out, besides the old prince trope. Let’s explore the world of Nigerian scams together to learn about the most common ones and about how the system works.


The Nigerian Prince Scam: Initial Prototype


First thing’s first: in order to understand more about Nigerian scams we have to start with the grand scam which started it all: the Nigerian prince.


The Nigerian prince scam is considered one of the initial prototypes of spam email. There was nothing at all sophisticated about this scam from a technical point of view. It was just a plain text email about a Nigerian prince which was getting sent en masse to as many email addresses as possible.


Almost everyone received at least one version of the Nigerian prince scam email at one point or another. Weirdly enough, it’s almost a nostalgic thing to associate with the beginning of the internet as we know it and the early 2000s.


So, what did the Nigerian prince scam email look like?


Well, it was conceived to look as authentic as possible, like an honest plea coming from a sincere person. This person told you it is reaching out to you because they are out of options and that they are a Nigerian prince being forced out of power by the brutal political changes.


The so-called prince is planning to leave his country while he is still able to, but he’s not allowed to take his considerable wealth with him. In order to avoid the new political usurpers from getting their hands on his fortune, he is willing to share a part of it with you if you can help him out.


Initially, the Nigerian prince scam only mentions that you have to be willing to receive the massive fortune of the prince in your bank accounts, as fast as possible, while he is still able to transfer it. Then, you need to return it to him after he flees the country, and you will be generously rewarded. If you did proceed with the scam, however, you would soon find out that because his accounts are frozen, you first have to send him some money for his transfer commission fees.


Surprisingly, although this seems to be a scam as old as the internet itself, it still works. That’s exactly why it’s being still sent out, albeit in slightly different forms. We’ve seen it pop up in emails as recently as last month. According to the CNBC, the Nigerian prince scam still makes upwards of 700,000 dollars per year.


How come the scam still works?


Firs of all, no matter how overly known we all think the Nigerian prince scam is, there are still a few people online who haven’t heard of it. That’s one of the main reasons for which the scam still has a chance to be successful.


Second of all, people still need to believe in fairytales in spite of living in a digital and mostly disenchanted age. It’s very tempting to think a financial boon which can turn your life around will fall from the sky, especially with the help of a generous prince.


Thirdly, the success of the Nigerian prince scam can also be explained, in part, by the Western tendency to look down on countries outside its sphere. With a bit of a superiority complex and a zeal to get involved in helping, Western citizens are often educated to assume the situation in the rest of the world is much more barbaric than it actually is. It’s therefore very easy for the average Western citizen to believe in drastic regime changes and a political instability so high as to warrant these kind of escape schemes from a former royal.


Did the Nigerian prince scam really start in Nigeria?


Yes, the initial scam was really tied to Nigerian soil, although the idea was copied and can now come from scammers residing in other areas of the world as well. In fact, Nigerian prince scams are also knowns as ‘419 scams’, in reference to the law article which criminalizes them in Nigeria (article 419).


In spite of the unlawfulness of online scams, this activity is still notoriously difficult to prosecute, both for Nigerian authorities and for foreign ones. One of the reasons is the victim’s own reluctance to pursue prosecuting. Shame, guilt for being duped so easily, or simply feeling sorry for the scammer are the most common emotions preventing the victim from prosecuting.


Other Types of Nigerian Scams


Even though the Nigerian prince scam still works today, the scammers have diversified their repertoire. It’s not just about the Nigerian prince anymore. Let’s take a look at some other types of Nigerian scams which are employed to relieve people on the internet of their money.


#1. Variations on the Nigerian prince scam


First, there are plenty of variations using the same trope as the original Nigerian prince scam. Here are a few common ones to pay attention to, just in case they arrive in your inbox next:


    • They are not from a Nigerian prince, but from Syrian officials looking for help because of the Syrian civil war;


    • They are from wealthy orphans claiming they need an adult tutor for the sake of the law;


    • The emails are from lottery winners claiming that the country they live in is forcing them to share their wealth with others;


  • They are from rich kids inheriting a fortune, but who need help because their inheritance is trapped in banks due to yet another civil war.


In all these variations on the Nigerian prince scam, you will be asked so send your bank account and credit card info in order to receive the transfer, or to provide a small fee for assistance with the transfer.


#2. Romantic scams


Sadly, it’s not all about promising the possibility of great wealth. It can be about promising the possibility of happiness and companionship, too. In romantic scams, Nigerian students are targeting western widowers or divorced people aged 45 to 75. They know that these are the people most likely to feel lonely and to have enough money to part with.


They target them through social networks, mostly match-making sites for people who are already looking for love. Sometimes though, they can approach their targets through other networks, outside of the dating tech scene (even places such as LinkedIn, meant solely for professional networking).


In any case, the Nigerian scammers pretend to be a person of a similar age and background as their target, but from a different Western country, so they can keep conversing in English. They make promises of commitment and genuinely try to form a connection to the people they are targeting. Considering how shallow and sad the dating landscape can be in the West, this approach comes off as genuine and precious to the victims, who get attached faster to the scammer’s persona.


After a bond is made and plans to see each other soon for starting a life together are established, the scammer claims something drastic has happened and they need the victim to send them money. Either a bank account freezing issue or something more serious, like a terrible accident.


It’s true that this approach takes much more time on behalf of the scammer, but it also has a higher chance to pay off, since the request for money comes at a time when the victim feels connected to the scammer and trusts them.


Who are the Nigerian scammers?


Many Nigerian students and people from low-income backgrounds resort to scamming as a full-time job. They gather in hubs and work together at desks, sometimes switching to phone conversations when needed and so on. Wherever the scam journey takes them.


Since a massive number of emails is dished out daily, even if just a very small number of people respond and even fewer send out money, it’s enough to help them support themselves through this shady business.


In the past few years, especially through romantic scams and match-making sites, the work of Nigerian scamming is becoming more targeted. It’s not so much about targeting lots of email addresses with a mass scam email, but about researching individual people and sending them custom messages to win their hearts and wallets.


A Documentaries about the World of Nigerian Scams


There are several documentaries about Nigerian scammers and their rather sad living conditions. Once you watch one of these, perhaps you will be less inclined to simply condemn the practice. The truth is that in many cases, the living and economic conditions of the scammers in Nigeria are so poor that scamming seems to be their only option.


#1. 419: The Nigerian Scam (2008)


This Canadian documentary provides a rather classic view on Nigerian scams, centered on the victim, a man who nearly lost a considerable amount of money to the scammers. The film aims to paint a more detailed portrait of how the scam works and how come a sane, average person could fall for it.


#2. The Sakawa Boys (2019)


The Sakawa Boys is a documentary which takes us to the other side of the Nigerian scam world. Made by a man born in Nigeria and raised in the West, the film explores the social environment of scammers, portraying them as regular people who feel that they don’t have any other options to support themselves.


What’s even more interesting is that they are victims of scams themselves: voodoo priests are selling them expensive charms and spells (called Sakawa, hence the name of the documentary), in order to boost their chances of success with online scams. In this fascinating blend of folk belief and digitalization, what makes viewers sympathize with the scammers even more is the fact that most of them quit the activity when and if they have the chance.


Positive Media Coverage of Nigerian Scammers


Speaking of a positive portrayal of Nigerian scammers, there are also several stories gaining traction in the media lately. Here are just a few of them.


Maria Grette is a Swedish woman duped with a Nigerian romance scam


She thought she is conversing with a Danish man around the same age, believed his accident story and sent him money a few times but finally realized something is not right. When confronting her online romantic partner, she eventually found out that he is a Nigerian scammer in his early 20s and that he is genuinely sorry for what he did and the worry he put her through.


Instead of getting mad or reporting him, the widow decided to try to help her scammer and the youth of Nigeria so that they have a chance for a better life. Now, the boy managed to finish university studies abroad, and Maria’s friends are constantly visiting Nigeria and doing charity work as well as art teaching programs in order to provide the young Nigerians with alternatives.


A man sponsored his Nigerian would-be scammer to give up scamming and become a filmmaker


In another social positive move, a man chose not to report someone who was trying to scam him and instead pay him for small photography assignments. In the end, the young scammer showed real promise and became better and better at photography and film-making. This story also goes to show the difference that a kinder attitude can make, and that perhaps it takes more than criminalization and finger-pointing to change the landscape of Nigerian scamming.


Amar Basic
Amar Basic


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