Scammers are business people, often overseas crime rings, and wouldn’t keep offering their product (the scam) if someone wasn’t buying it (falling for it). So, the next time you get an email with an unbelievable story about someone wanting to share a huge sum of money with you, have a good chuckle but realize someone may find the story believable.
The Nigerian Letter Scam got its name when crooks in Nigeria started perpetrating it on a massive scale in the 1980s, often claiming to be a Nigerian prince wanting help in getting money out of the country. But it dates back to the French Revolution when it was known as the Spanish Prisoner Scam and involved victims being asked to contribute money to get a nobleman imprisoned in Spain released in exchange for a share of his wealth.
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The crooks update their stories, often exploiting the headlines, to make them seem more believable. When Yasser Arafat, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, died in 2004, people received emails purportedly from his wife asking for help in getting billions of dollars he’d hidden away out of the country for the benefit of their kids.
Tom Crist offered to share money he won in the Canadian lottery. A fellow by that name really did win $40 million and gave much of it away.
I get one of these emails almost every week and it was inevitable that the crooks would exploit the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine to make their story more believable.
Bohdana Boguslaw emailed me that her husband was killed by the Russians and she needed my help getting 16 million Euros he’d stashed away out of the country. She didn’t tell me what my cut would be, but based on other offers I’ve received, I wouldn’t settle for less than 20 percent.
Another variation comes from an attorney or banker offering to share money left by a person with the same last name as the recipient of the communication. Humberto Morales, an attorney in Spain, did some genealogical research and determined I might be related to his late client Alexander Hutchinson who died without a will leaving an estate worth 6 million Euros.
Transferring the money to me would be “100% viable with no risk involved as according to existing financial Laws here in the Kingdom of Spain.”
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Nigerian Letter Scams prey on various human emotions – greed, ego, desperation, and/or the desire to be a hero. Ultimately the victim is conned into paying a fee for some reason (for example, to bribe a government official) or providing bank account and other personal information to receive the money.
The good news is losses to the Nigerian Letter Scam itself are relatively small. The bad news is the same crooks perpetrate other scams that take in billions of dollars annually, including romance scams that victimize lonely people and Business Email Compromise scams that target companies. Armen Najarian, the chief identity officer at Agari said, “that Nigerian prince has grown up, has gone to college, has learned a thing or two, and has found a new lucrative career.”
This column has been fun to write, but my advice is serious – don’t fall for a promise of big money from princes, dead relatives or anyone else.
Randy Hutchinson is the president of the Better Business Bureau of the Mid-South. Reach the BBB at 800-222-8754.
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: How Nigerian letter scams got their start and why they continue