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Internet scams are not, in and of themselves, odd. The insolitologist's field of study does not really include such mundane things as chain letters, commercial fraud, Make Money Fast emails, and so on. The only thing odd about them is perhaps why so many people believe them.
There is, however, a small category of scams which are part of the insolitologist's field of study. The most proeminent amongst those is the Nigerian scam, also called 419 scam. What is that, you ask ? It consists of mass mailings from Nigeria or a neighbouring country, offering you wealth in exchange for helping them getting money out of their country.
Here is an example of a Nigerian scam letters, which are sent by email or fax :
This is certainly one of the most coherent Nigerian scam letters - most of them are either 1. written in all caps or 2. riddled with more mistakes than a Special Ed kid's essay. The letters usually revolve around one of three basic themes :
In all cases, a percentage of the money is offered, usually between 10 and 20%. Enough to make people salivate, given that the scams talk about dozens of millions of dollars. In all cases there is a convenient excuse for the person not to take the money himself (would attract too much attention, can't have foreign accounts, need a stooge to make the whole thing credible, etc). They are also invariably from someone important. This can lead to ridiculous cases, such as children of the late General who are found not to exist.
As you may have noticed, the alleged operation taking place is always illegal to begin with. You are always asked to defraud the bank or the government in some kind of secret, confidential operation. This has the double effect of inciting the person not to tell anyone else, and to make one think that if he tells the police, he may also be arrested.
The claim is often made that they got your name from a local Chamber of Commerce or somesuch. The most obvious question becomes, why me ? Why contact a person from America or Europe, far removed from the troubles of Nigeria (or a neighbouring country), to move this money ? Why not entrust it to someone from another African country, or at least do business with someone having more power and money than you do ? Of course, this all assumes that they could get your name in the first place at all, which seems improbable.
From what we know, Nigerian scams are a big-time operation, one of the biggest industries of Nigeria. We also know that the scam operators are not alone in managing these transactions. Separate people handle the initial mass mailings, play the role of "the bank", and make the fake official-looking forms which are often sent to the unsuspecting victims. See our baiting of "Dr. Okafor" for some form examples.
Does anyone get caught in these scams ? Unfortunately, yes. According to various news sources, they have been running since 1989 and now bring in about 400 millions a year to Nigeria - a quarter of that total comes from the United States. According to a Smartmoney.com article, the scam has risen to the fourth place of top Web swindles.
They scam money by asking for advance fees in a bait-and-switch technique. That is, to get the money, you are required to give them more and more money in order to help the transaction progress. It ends only when you realize you have been had, or, in the rare cases who go to Nigeria to finalize the transaction, are kidnapped for ransom.
Here are some of the advance fees asked by scammers :
Who are these scammers ? High governmment officials are said to be part of these scams, but most are ordinary folks. Here are some examples :
(images from "Scam Joke Page", listed below)
How did we get these pictures, you wonder ? They come from a new digital pasttime, Nigerian Scamer Baiting. Scam Baiting in general has developed around the efficiency and relative anonymity of email. In the case of Nigerian scams, the sport is even more interesting because it exploits the scammers' dedication to get your money. They are ready to put up with a lot, because the stakes are high if they succeed.
The Nigerian Letters
No doubt the most entertaining of all in terms of sheer humour. He has already concluded 11 baitings, with more in progress. Side-splitting humour as Nigerian scammers try to get money from Kris Kringle, harlot Ronda Vu, and Lady Juanita Kanobe-Vader (with her husband Lord Vador).
Scam Joke Page
The most skillful baiter (or more exactly, baiters), with not only 14 baitings but a number of pictures and voice mails. They take the name "David Lee Roth", owner of "Finest Incense of Smegma Holdings Inc." - their motto : "Wow, that Smegma Smells Sweet!".
"Alexander Kerensky" specializes in an unusual variant of scammer baiting : he tries to capture them on public web cams. It definitively has charm, but very difficult to pull off.
email from colonel zuba
Not only does this page contain a large number of scammers (although the exchanges are usually short), but this guy actually hacks into scammers' Yahoo accounts, and tells us of the exchanges taking place.
Nigerian Baiting page
Our own little page of scammer baiting.
Marked Currency / Defaced Black Currency / Black Dollar Nigerian Scams
This page details the usual bait-and-switch scam that is set in motion when you go visit your Nigerian friends. You are presented with defaced money and asked to provide the resources to restore it into good condition. Then, unusual accidents happen.
Dead Bank Customers
Scamorama's page which lists all the "bank customers" who die in fictional Nigerian scam stories, usually on planes. The moral of the story : don't take Nigerian planes.
While they are of tremendous interest, Nigerian scams are not the only scams of interest to insolitologists. Street scams are not only amusing but interesting from psychological point of view.
The most unusual is called the "White Van Speaker Scam". There is a franchise operation, done all over the world, which buys cheap but impressive-looking speakers and then tries to get people on the street to buy them at high prices.
The cover story of the young men using this pressure sell method is invariable : they were installing speakers at some place and they have two extras which they are trying to sell to make a quick buck. The victim is shown impressive ads and documents, and is pressured to pay from 200$ to over 1000$ for miserable and badly-made speakers worth 100$ at best.
Scams Involving Speakers Sold From White Vans
Description, humourous explanations, and testimonies about the "White Van Speaker Scam", from crimes-of-persuasion.com.
review written by Franc, 08/2002.