I expect that anyone reading this blog has had hundreds, if not thousands, of emails like this:
NIGERIAN NATIONAL PETROLEUM CORPORATION
FROM THE DESK OF: DR WALI AHMED .
Dear Sir/Madam ,
After due deliberation with my colleagues, I decided to forward this proposal. We want a reliable person who could assist us to transfer the sum of Thirty Million United States Dollars (US$30,000,000.00) into his/her account.
My father (Late) DR EDWARD HOSANNA the former Deputy Minister of Finance under the executive civilian president of Liberia, but was assasinated by the rebels during the civil war and properties destroyed, but I narrowly escaped with some very important documents of (US$7.5M) Seven Point Five Million U.S Dollars deposited by my late father in a high financial company here in Dakar-Senegal under my name as next of kin.
(picking two at random from my inbox).
Needless to say, it is a scam. Basically, they ask for a sum of money (e.g. to bribe an official) with the promise that you will get a much larger sum once the transaction is complete. But each payment results in a request for a larger payment, until you run out of money. It is often known as the ‘Nigerian 419 scam’, as many of these emails originate from Nigeria and they are an offence under article 419 of the Nigerian criminal code. It is a variant on the spanish prisoner scam, which dates back to the early 1900s. It is hard to believe anyone would fall for this scam, but they do in their thousands. Advance fee fraud (e.g. 419 scams) was estimated to cost at least £275 million in 2005 in the UK alone, with average individual loss to victims over £31,000. Greed and stupidity are indeed a dangerous combination.
So what can we do to hit back? Not a great deal. The governments of poor and corrupt countries probably don’t care that much about gullible and greedy westerners being cheated. In fact, the scam may be in their interests. We can report the scammer’s email to their ISP, in the hope that it will be shut down before they can con anyone. But they can easily get another. We can play along a bit and waste the scammer’s time (perhaps with highly entertaining results). But it wastes our time as well. However another idea occurred to me while listening to a BBC radio report from Nigeria.
Apparently many Nigerians are incredibly superstitious, even the highly educated ones. Rumours of penis stealing witches and killer phone numbers are taken very seriously. So now I occasionally respond to 419 emails with a curse email from a little used email account. My email starts with some impressive looking pig Latin. It then tells them that reading the above has activated a curse and that they will suffer increasingly bad headaches until they renounce their wicked ways. If they are sufficiently superstitious I figure this might be enough to start a headache, which will get worse the more they worry about it. Hopefully they will either find an honest way to make a living or a psychosomatic feedback loop will cause their head to explode like a scene from the film Scanners (warning: very gory). I have no idea if it works – but I think it is worth a try. I haven’t included the text of my email as I don’t want it to appear on Google. Make up your own curse. Be inventive.