George Parker only needed to sell the Brooklyn Bridge a couple of times to have enough money to be completely set for the rest of his life. However, he kept selling it, and selling it, and selling it. Moreover, that’s just the thing about scam artists: they only have to find one or two suckers to be bankrolling. The trick is to cast as big a net as possible and wait for just a couple of people to respond to the fraud. Obviously, email has made the process of casting a wide net easier, as one only needs a list of email addresses.
However, the practice has been going on since long before email. Scammers would send letters out via snail mail to try to find unsuspecting victims (have you ever gotten a postcard saying that you won a million dollars?). This method was possibly much more efficient for the scammer than sending out emails, as some still use snail mail to try to ensnare their victims. They also use the telephone (when is the last time someone called you to say that you won a million dollars?). Using snail mail and phone as a method of finding elderly victims is particularly common, as they tend to be more vulnerable due to various factors.
13. The Nigerian Prince Scam Has Been Around Since the French Revolution
During the French Revolution, when anyone who was remotely suspected of belonging to the old aristocracy was considered a traitor and sentenced to the guillotine, a scam began in which someone would send a letter, claiming to be a marquis or other nobleman. He would say that he lost a cache of jewels while escaping the guillotine and that his servant was imprisoned for trying to help him. The request was for bail money, and the promised reward was a share of the recovered jewels. Of course, the scheme was a complete hoax, and anyone who fell for it found themselves out of money.
By the time the Spanish-American War came around, the scam had crossed the Atlantic Ocean and evolved. Tricksters would send out letters en masse, claiming to need help freeing someone (usually a someone who was quite wealthy) who had become a prisoner of war. A lot of money was required upfront to help pay the person’s ransom. In return, the person was promised much money down the road. Of course, that money never came. All that to say that what we now know as the Nigerian prince scam is centuries old. And it probably won’t be going away anytime soon.
12. The First Nigerian Prince Scam Happened a Hundred Years Ago
At about the turn of the twentieth century, an ad appeared in newspapers all across the country: Prince Bil Morrison, from Nigeria, wanted some American pen pals. The request and wording in the ad were so moving and touching that many newspapers published it for free. “Prince Bil Morrison” soon received a flood of letters from Americans who wanted to correspond with someone in such an exotic location as Nigeria. It was in one of the farthest reaches of the entire world, and they could make a prince from that strange land their very own personal friend.
As the letters built up, the “prince” decided to ask the people who were corresponding with him to send him four dollars and an old pair of pants. In exchange, he would send them some worthless baubles – ivory tusks, emeralds, and diamonds. Lots of old pants and four-dollar donations poured in, but the donors didn’t receive anything in return. Authorities began an inquiry and discovered that Prince Bil Morrison was a 14-year-old kid in America. Due to his age, they couldn’t press charges and had to end the investigation. Nevertheless, he sparked a trend among con artists: trick Americans into thinking that they are helping someone in an exotic location, and they will take the whole bait, hook, line, and sinker.
11. The Scam Exploits Americans’ Lack of Understanding About Africa
For the Nigerian prince scam to be successful, people have to be convinced that they are helping someone on the other side of the world; a part that they know very little about and therefore will not think to question. The people who fall for the scam probably think of Africa as exotic, primitive, tribal, and unpolluted. The vast majority of people probably still live in small tribal villages, which are ruled by a wealthy chieftain who is dripping in jewels, honor, and traditional values. They would probably be very shocked to travel to Nigeria and see what the country is actually like.
In reality, parts of Nigeria are quite modern. Far from being technologically impoverished, about half of Nigerians have regular Internet access. Nigeria doesn’t even have a monarchy, and as such, there is no royal family. Instead, Nigeria has a democratic government that somewhat resembles that of the United States. It even has a voter turnout that rivals that of the United States. People who propagate the Nigerian prince scam hope that you aren’t aware of any of these things. They want you to believe that it is a developing country with a superabundance of royals.
To garner sympathy (and try to make themselves more believable to people who are unaware of the realities of life in Nigeria), the so-called “princes” frequently use poor grammar in the emails that they send out to try to get money. Think of it like this: if you get a letter that uses the level of English that a five-year-old might use, you are probably much more inclined to feel sympathy and want to help that person than if you get a letter that sounds like someone holding a doctorate wrote it.
What many people don’t realize is that English is one of the official languages of Nigeria, and many Nigerians speak it as their native language. People who are aware of how these hucksters are trying to play them will immediately delete the email without even reading beyond the first line (or put it in the trash before they even open it). Those who are already vulnerable – especially seniors, but other populations, as well – and are more likely to fall for the scam will feel sorry for the poor incompetent bloke whose email has so many typos, odd phrases, and basic grammatical mistakes that it is almost unreadable. When in doubt, delete that email.
9. A Career Criminal Systematically Cataloged the Scam
In the television series Dexter, a serial killer works for the Miami police department. The people that he works for aren’t aware that he works nights as a vigilante, killing people who prey upon innocent victims before butchering them and dumping their bodies into the ocean. He uses his own criminal mind as a serial killer to help solve mysteries that no one else might be able to answer. He had a lot in common with Eugene Francois Vidocq, someone who used the knowledge and understanding from his criminal past to become the world’s first private investigator.
To avoid serving a lengthy prison term, Vidocq offered to work for the criminal department in Paris. He argued that he had renounced his illegal ways and possessed unique expertise that he could put to good use. The authorities agreed, and he went on to make an important discovery: a persistent scam in which someone would ask for some money up front with the promise of massive rewards down the line. Vidocq found out that this type of fraud went at least as far back as the French Revolution. He was the first person to catalog this kind of scam systematically.
You may be thinking that nobody could fall for something as crude as an advance-fee scam. I mean, how obvious could it be? You shouldn’t ever send money to someone that you don’t know, even if that person does claim to be Nigerian royalty. Especially if that person claims to be Nigerian royalty! However, there is a perfect reason why people continue to send those scams out: they work. People do fall for them — many people. Also, when they do, they fall hard. In fact, the average person who falls for one of these scams loses $2,000!
To make matters worse, people tend to do more, not less, for someone that they have already done something for. For example, if you held the door open for someone, you are more, not less, likely to help that person out again. What this means in the Nigerian prince scam is that if someone has already “helped” a “prince,” he or she is more likely to send more “help” in the future. Averages in the United States and United Kingdoms put average yearly losses to scams anywhere between 100 million or as much as several billion. Throughout the 20th century, it seems inevitable that many billions have been lost worldwide to scammers. It is unknown how much was lost to scams like the Spanish Prisoner or Reign of Terror scams, but likely a great deal to the plausibility of the scam in those eras.
You might think that anyone who would fall for a Nigerian prince scam is a complete dunce. However, there are some scams out there that are even more outrageous. In one scam, the con artists offered capuchin monkeys, directly from Africa, for the low, low rate of only $600 per monkey. Of course, the promised monkeys never did arrive. In another scam, the con artist claimed that orcs – the fantastical, evil creatures from The Lord of the Rings – had killed her father, and she needed a bank account to deposit $25 million in gold. Another one offered magical services for a small fee (and for a limited time only).
As it turns out, people aren’t nearly as smart as they think that they are. We don’t make decisions based on something’s actual value but rather based on the emotional importance that we attach to it. We want to save the capuchin monkeys, so we are more than willing to send $600 to get our very own. And even after we realize that the thing might not be worth the money that we are pouring into it, we continue to throw the money away because we are buying feelings, not an object. This is known as the sunk-cost cognitive bias.
Just because someone claims to be a Nigerian prince doesn’t mean that that person is even from Nigeria. Again, consider the case of the 14-year-old American boy who claimed to be a Nigerian prince and literally scammed the pants off of people. In fact, only about 6% of Nigerian prince scams come from Nigeria. The vast majority originate in the United States, and the United Kingdom has its fair share, too. However, the email scam did originate in Nigeria, and the country now has a special task force to try to end it.
Why would law enforcement in Nigeria be so intent on ending a scam that brings so much money and notoriety to their country? Because Nigerians hate the fact that their country has become synonymous with the email scam. It is seen by many as a land of deposed princes, fraud, and email scams, rather than a beautiful country with a diverse culture and rich history. For many people who only know of Nigeria through the scam, the country is equated with the fraudulent activity. Nigerians who live in other countries, particularly where the scam is common (like the United States), frequently get irritated because people think the country is a hothouse of fraud.
There is absolutely nothing new about con artists. They have been around since time immemorial and have been scanning people ever since then by preying on weaknesses and vulnerabilities that we know as cognitive biases or fallacies. For example, the “foot in the door” cognitive bias says that once we have already helped someone once, we’re willing to help them, even more, the next time. The sunk-cost cognitive bias says that we are eager to continue investing more and more money into what we know is a lost cause because we aren’t willing to admit that that money is gone.
Con artists are good at the game that they play, but they’re not always good enough. There have been numerous reports of “counter scammers” who run the same (or a similar) scam on another con artist. After all, they are only human and are liable to fall for the same thing that they perpetrate. The difference nowadays is simply that running a scam is much easier. You don’t need to plant yourself at Brooklyn Bridge or pay thousands in postage to send a letter to a bunch of people. You need an email address and a list of addresses to message.
4. Most Nigerian Scammers Are Severely Impoverished
Of all the online scammers whose origins could be traced, 61% were found to reside in the United States. Only about one-tenth of that number – just six percent – live in Nigeria. In Nigeria, though, successful scam artists can make as much as $60,000 per year, an absolute fortune in a country that is so impoverished that the vast majority of the population lives on a mere two dollars per day. It should come as no surprise that a sizeable number of people – though by no means all – would resort to online fraud to try to improve a very, very tough situation.
When confronted with their actions, many scammers point to the corruption of the Nigerian government, which they believe prevents them from being able to get ahead in life. True, the governments in many African countries are unabashedly corrupt, causing millions of people to live in dire poverty. Scammers tend to claim that the government should be doing more to help the people, but since they are left to fend for themselves, they turn to online fraud. So if they can find just one or two suckers a year to fall for their scams, then they will be wealthy by Nigerian standards.
3. Email Scams Build on a Half-Truth Platform of Believable Fears
There is no such thing as a Nigerian prince, as there is no royal family in Nigeria, which has a democratic government and was previously controlled by the United Kingdom. However, the best lies have a kernel of honesty in them, and scammers are well-aware that if they play on that kernel of truth, they can take their victims to the cleaners. Consider the scam that began during the French Revolution, in which people claimed to be a marquis who escaped from prison just in time to avoid the guillotine, but sadly lost a chest of jewels during the escape. That very situation probably happened multiple times.
People living during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution were very much aware that a marquis probably would be arrested for the crime of having been an aristocrat. During wars, it is not at all uncommon for soldiers to be taken as prisoners and held for ransom. The problem arises when people exploit these situations, and the good intentions of well-meaning people, to try to squeeze as much money out of them as possible. They think that they will be able to partake of someone’s enormous wealth if only they can help that person out now with a gift of just a few hundred (or thousand) dollars.
The vast majority of people, upon seeing a scam email in their inboxes, immediately recognize it for what it is and delete it. Moreover, many email servers, like Gmail, automatically move those emails into a “spam” or another unwanted folder. Some people, however, try to get back at those who seek to dupe them out of their hard-earned money. Some hit back at the scammers by using the same tactics on them, getting them to pay money for an eventual reward. Others report the scams to online forums and law enforcement agencies to try to prevent other people from falling for them.
When a scammer finds that his or her dirty deeds have backfired, he or she can get into much trouble. Scammers may find themselves out of a lot of money or at the mercy of local law enforcement. They may even see that they have been lured into hostile areas or conflict zones, creating an imminently dangerous situation. More often than not, though, the only thing that the scammer has to do is switch to a new email address and unique IP address. He or she can continue with the scam as if nothing happened, finding plenty more suckers to con.
Airbnb cracked the code for growth hacking when it figured out how to automatically list properties on its website simultaneously on Craigslist. That way, if someone were searching Craigslist for a place to stay, they would come across Airbnb listings. Some scammers are also expert hackers; they have managed to gain access into people’s accounts to gain a wider audience. Some might hack into the email account of people who are selling something via Craigslist (or another website) and set up an automatic reply, saying something to the tune of, “Send $700 to this address, and I’ll send you the key.”
Other scammers might hack straight into Craigslist and take over an ad. Others – much less sophisticated – will post fake ads on a website listing homes for rent. They’ll post an ad for a lovely home that is quite reasonable for the location and quality, then request that you send them money before you view the property. To make sure that you never fall for an online scam, make sure that you never send anyone money before meeting that individual and verifying that this person does have the credentials to sell or lease whatever he or she claims to be offering.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources: