How does the Nigerian Scam Work?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

One of the most common email crimes committed today is called the Nigerian Scam, also known as the Nigerian Letter or 419 fraud. Although this scam derives its name from the country of Nigeria, forms of the Nigerian Scam have originated from other parts of Africa and Europe. Although the current form of the scam appears to have started in Nigeria during the 1970s, an early version called the "Spanish Prisoner Letter" has been around since the Middle Ages.

The so-called Nigerian scam is believed to have originated in the African nation in the 1970s.
The so-called Nigerian scam is believed to have originated in the African nation in the 1970s.

Essentially, the classic form of the Nigerian Scam centers around a letter, fax or email allegedly sent out by the family of a wealthy Nigerian political figure who is currently exiled, imprisoned or dead. The family cannot access a frozen account containing millions of dollars, but the money can be deposited into foreign bank accounts. The family must find foreigners willing to receive a portion of this money for safekeeping. In exchange for this 'white collar' crime, the recipient is entitled to keep up to 40% of the total investment.

Sometimes, a judge may have to be bribed in order to to legalize the proceedings involved with the Nigerian Scam.
Sometimes, a judge may have to be bribed in order to to legalize the proceedings involved with the Nigerian Scam.

Quite often, the Nigerian Scam email will contain legitimate information concerning a real political dissident's death or imprisonment. This may be enough verification for a skeptical recipient. The second part begins when a recipient agrees to send confidential financial information to the sender in order to receive the money. From this point on, the scam artist will either use this private information to clean out the victim's entire bank account or send a fake cashier's check as a partial payment.

Sometimes the victim will only provide personal contact information, correctly fearing a potential financial disaster. The original Nigerian Scam artist will turn over the con to a second criminal who specializes in hard sales tactics. This person will use psychological pressure and even physical intimidation in an effort to secure a good-faith loan from the victim. Once this money is received, the scam artists disappear quickly. Needless to say, there never was a family fortune or an inheritance that needed to be ferreted out of the country.

Variations on the Nigerian Scam involve other huge sums of money, such as an international lottery. Victims are informed through email that they have recently won a substantial amount of money in a previously unknown lottery. In order to claim their prize, however, the victims are often asked to submit 'security bonds' to ensure proper delivery. Sometimes, a judge may have to be bribed in order to legalize the proceedings. Again, the scammers soon disappear after receiving these illicit payments.

There have been cases reported world-wide of murders and other criminal acts as a direct result of Nigerian Scam variations. In 2006, a minister in Tennessee was shot by his wife, who feared exposure as a victim of an international lottery scam. Others report kidnapping threats, physical assaults and blackmail by participants in a Nigerian Scam operation. Law enforcement efforts are often hampered by the sophisticated electronic elements of the most modern scam variations. A scam can literally be operated from an Internet cafe connection anywhere in the world.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


I think there are a lot of American scammers at the moment. They seem very conversant with army regulations, etc.


Do the scammers actually carry out their threats?


You're right. Scammers are of every race and they're all around the world. Nigerians aren't the only ones in doing these scams.

Maybe they're blamed most because they're black, because there's a lot of white folks who are also scammers as well.

There's bad in all races and there is no perfect race, not in this system of things. I'm with you on this one. There are good people in all races. No matter who we are, tall and small, God loves us all!


It is funny how people can make generalizations. You condemn a whole nation because of a few 18 - 25 years old boys that cram themselves in one small city (Ikeja) in Lagos, Nigeria? It shows how narrow your mind is.


Wow, people calm down. It is just called the Nigerian scam because the e-mail claims to be from there. And if anything Nigerians are the worst scammers because everyone knows about this.


This particular scam earned its name because some unscrupulous people exploited Nigeria's public Internet access policies. It was never meant to be a slur against the entire nation or people of Nigeria. In a common form of the scam e-mail, the name of a deceased or incarcerated Nigerian public figure is often used to give the request more legitimacy. Other forms of the same scam use different people's identities from different countries.

At the time the Internet scam was first discovered and investigated, it was determined that many of the scammers used Nigerian-based public computer terminals. Therefore, the crime became known world-wide as the Nigerian Scam, or the 419 scam, referring to the specific Nigerian code for fraud.


I don't think it is right just to say Nigerians are the only scammers in the world. there are Russians, etc. I am Trinidian married to a Nigerian man. I love him very much and his people are great people for the most part. there is good and bad everywhere, not just Nigeria.


How can you people say that Nigerians are scammers? That is not good to be slandering a name of a country. What about other countries? Are they not like that? What about Asian countries? Other countries are even worse than Nigeria, but people do not understand what this means for Nigeria. That is why they used to say that.

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