From the Actrix Online Informer July 2008

Scam of the Month #1 the 419 Scam

The Internet can be a scary place if you're not careful. it's not just viruses and spyware. The truth is there are also real people out there who may try and take advantage of you in a more personal way. Just like the real world, the Internet has its share of baddies out to steal your cash (not to mention your pride) by combining new technology with age-old confidence tricks.

Being conned online actually isn't all that common, but it does happen, and it does happen here in New Zealand. How much may be a little uncertain as a lot of it goes unreported because people are embarrassed and don't want others to know they've been silly enough to have been conned. However, most people who are conned aren't really all that silly. Sometimes they're at a low point in their lives, or desperate in some way, and when someone offers them something, their judgement becomes clouded in a way it might not have otherwise. Sometimes people are just too trusting or too good natured. But vulnerable, trusting good natured people have been the con-man's targets since Adam wore short trousers.

The net is no different. Over the next few Actrix Online Informers, we'll have a look at some scams old and new.

419 Scam

The 419 scam is my favourite. It's been around a long time and the perpetrators just keep churning them out with endless variations. Originally, most of these scams were sent from within Nigeria, and a large proportion of them still are. The number "419" refers to the article of the Nigerian Criminal Code dealing with this type of fraud.

The 419 scam is also known as the "advance fee" fraud one of the oldest tricks in the book. You're promised something, but have to pay some fees in advance before you can get your windfall. It was originally known centuries ago as the "Spanish prisoner" fraud. Victims were encouraged to hand over money to bribe prison guards so that rich prisoners could be freed in exchange for handsome rewards.

There are a lots of examples of the types of email you might get designed to lure you into this scheme and separate you from your money. You can click here for an example I received recently from "Laarni, a filippino woman with 20 million US dollars she needs to unload".

Other examples might be:

  • Some local righteous African politician is fleeing his corrupt government and needs to get out of the country fast. He or she needs someone in the west to transfer their incredible amount of money to.
  • The wife of a deposed politician needs to smuggle money out of the country.
  • Someone has died with a large inheritance but has left no will. You look like you might be a relative, so you can have the money. Even if you're not a relative, they need to give it to someone, so they may just offer to share the money.
  • A soldier in Iraq has stumbled across millions of dollars in cash or some gold bullion, and needs help getting it out of Iraq.

The 419 scam almost always involves tens of millions of dollars. You might be offered the lot, depending on the nature of the lie, or a large share such as 40%. Often thanks are given to God who has led them to you so you can help, and greetings are given in Jesus' name. This is because 419 scammers like to pose as Christians to make themselves more appealing and apparently trustworthy to westerners. Often the person needing help poses as a woman to appeal to a desire some western men might have to be a knight in shining armour rescuing a maiden in distress. She'll usually be single and there may even be a hint of possible romance thrown in to add a little interest. All conmen worth their salt will maximise the potential vulnerabilities to exploit in their victims.

The 419 scammers are usually very well organised. Many have offices with personnel and working phone and fax numbers. If you research the background of the offer you will often find that all pieces fit perfectly together and names of real people are used, often without their knowledge or consent.

If the victim indicates agreement to be part of the deal and accept the loot, the scammers will send one or more false documents bearing official-looking government stamps and seals as well as photographs of themselves to make things more personal and reassure you of their trustworthiness.

But then, of course, some unavoidable delay occurs some monetary hurdle that prevents the deal from occurring as planned. They may email and say something like "In order to transmit the money, we need to bribe a bank official. Could you help us with a loan?" or "In order for you to be allowed to be a party to the transaction, you need to have holdings at a Nigerian bank of $100,000 or more" or similar. Can you transfer some money over temporarily?"

Of course the idea is that you need to advance them some money first the advance fee. If you do, there will be more unfortunate delays and more additional costs added, while the promise of an imminent large transfer is kept alive. They'll remind you that the money you are currently paying will be covered many times over by the payoff.

Sometimes psychological pressure is added by claims from the scammers' side. In order to pay certain fees they had to sell all their belongings and borrow money on their house, or they will point out the different salary scale and living conditions in Africa compared to the West. Much of the time, however, the needed psychological comes from the victims themselves; once they have put money in toward the payoff, they feel they have a vested interest in seeing the "deal" through and keep on paying in the hope that this will be the last hurdle.

The essential fact in all advance fee fraud operations, whether online or not, is that the promised money transfer never happens because the money or gold does not exist. The perpetrators rely on the fact that, by the time the victim realises this he or she may have sent thousands of dollars of their own money. At which time the scammers simply disappear. That will happen as soon as they decide they've pushed you as far as possible and have gotten all the advance fees from you that they can.

It can get worse. Sometimes victims are invited to the scammer's country to meet real or fake government officials who are assisting with the deal. Some victims who do travel are instead held for ransom, robbed or even killed.

Related scams:

The lottery scam involves fake notices of lottery wins. We've probably all received these. Click here for an example. You've won an overseas lottery! However, in order to release the funds, some small fee (insurance, registration, or shipping) is required. Once the fee has been sent, the scammer will invent another series of fees and attempt to collect them from you for as long as possible.

In The Hitman Scam an e-mail is sent to the victim supposedly from a hitman who has been hired by a "close friend" of the recipient to kill him or her. The good news is the assassin will call off the hit in exchange for a large sum of money. If you're willing to pay enough, he'll even kill your "close friend" instead! This is usually backed up with a warning not to contact the police or the hitman will be forced to go through with the original plan and kill you. Actually, this is less an advance fee fraud and more outright extortion, but I thought I'd include it anyway.

Scam baiting

Scam baiting is the practice of pretending to be interested in a fraudulent scheme in order to manipulate a scammer. The purpose of scam baiting might be to waste the scammers' time, embarrass him or her, cause him or her to reveal information which can be passed on to legal authorities, or simply to amuse the baiter.

One thing scam baiters do is request a photo of the scammer in an embarrassing situation in order to "prove" that the scammer is real. I've heard all sorts of stories about how this is achieved. One scam-baiter said, "We tell them that in western countries, sending a photograph with a sign is a symbol of trustworthiness, because a camera does not lie. Some are so greedy they will do anything to restore the confidence of their intended victim, including pose with a fish on their head or have milk poured over them while holding a sign with a silly message." These sorts of photographs are call trophies, and lots of scam baiter websites have online trophy pages full of them.

Another scam baiting technique is to get the scammer to travel long distances, or go to awkward lengths to pick up some fictitious money you say you've sent. Another is to get them to meet you somewhere. Of course you don't turn up, but the place they come to is in full view of a web camera.

Scam baiting may be amusing, but we certainly don't recommend it. Good scam baiters know how to hide themselves behind proxy servers so they're not easily found. As we mentioned before, scammers can be violent and even murderous. Google scam baiting if you'd like to find out more, but don't go mess with them yourself.

We recommend deleting their emails and forgetting about them. They don't know anything about you and you haven't been targeted just because you've received one of their emails. They've sent out literally millions of baits in the hopes of catching a small number of lucrative suckers.

Next month: Phishing, spear-phishing and the mule scam.


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