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"419" Scam – Observations and Trivia

The following is a list idiosyncracies that I noticed while observing 419 scams.

Trouble with names
Nigerian criminals are confused by Western names. This is probably because the tradional Nigerian order of surname and first name is the opposite of English usage (something they have in common with Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai and many other cultures). Maybe as a result some of the writers are not sure what is supposed to be a first name or a surname. Especially confusing to them are Western surnames derived from first names by appending an 's' (originally meaning "so-and-so's son"), which they mistake for first names. Instead of composing names from first names and surnames, they often will construct a fake name consisting of two first names or two surnames or they get them back to front:

  • Mr. Davis Rogers
  • Smith Andrew (C.E.O)
  • Dr Paker Estrada
  • Mr. Martins Parkers
Another common mistake is to confuse male and female first names.

Their use of fake names is rather sloppy: Inconsistent spelling of the chosen fake names is a scam giveaway. People are very unlikely to misspell their own name because they are emotionally attached to it. Also quite often the "From:" line in a 419 email lists one name and the signature at the bottom lists another. The scammers changed the name used in the message body, but didn't create a new email account that matches the name or vice versa.

Reverends, doctors and barristers
Scammers use titles because they think they will impress people. They assume roles to impress victims abroad by picking titles that impress fellow Nigerians. Nigerian culture tends to be very conservative and religious, hence priests enjoy a high status, but it's bizarre when a fake lottery agent uses the title "reverend", claiming to be a priest.

  • Rev.Pius I.Mutz
I have come across one scammer who recommended a church as a good front for illegal businesses. Many scams, particularly the "dying widow" type of scam, use strong "Christian" language, liberally sprinkled with biblical references. Though this may impress some evangelical Christians, it will spook most rather secular Europeans and many Americans.

European integration and globalisation is much more advanced in the world of 419 scams than in the real world. Nigerian scammers treat European countries as if they were part of a Federal Republic (such as the Federal Republic of Nigeria). In the real world it is unthinkable that if you win a lottery prize from a lottery in one country you would be told to contact anyone in a different country, such as an office in Madrid or Amsterdam for a UK lottery. You would never have a bank in Nigeria or Indonesia handle payout for a lottery in Canada or the Netherlands. Also there is no single European authority regulating national lotteries as is often claimed in lottery scams.

Nigerian scammers show their weak geography skills when they treat the Irish republic as a part of the UK or Canada as a part of the USA: No, Irish lotteries do not award prizes in Sterlings, they pay out in Euros. They do not use British +44 numbers, but Irish numbers (+353). No Canadian government official will ever use a (free) email address. Canadian lottery prizes or immigration charges will never be denominated in US$.

Nigerian scammers also often export domestic institutions to other countries. Neither Benin, nor Togo, nor Senegal nor the UK has a "Federal High Court" (only Nigeria and Germany do). Neither Benin nor Mauritius (to name two examples) are "Federal Republics".

What is it with fake security company and financial company websites created for 419 scams that they often offer "haulage" (trucking) as one of their services?

These greeting formulas seem to be very common in Nigeria, though you don't read much in email correspondence from other countries.

Patriotic colours
It's no coincidence that some many fake websites (banks, security companies, etc.) in Nigerian scams are predominantly green and white: These happen to be the colours of the Nigerian national flag.

"You will be required to come down to the United Kingdom..."
A common device in lottery scams is to present "winners" with the fake choice between picking up their winnings in person or have a check mailed / funds wired by a bank / the prize notarized on their behalf by a lawyer for an outrageous fee. It is curious that they then use the phrase "come down" to the UK, where they claim to operate. Normally people use this expression when they either talk to someone who lives at a higher altitude (up the river from them) or further North (higher up on the map). Considering that most of the population of Canada lives closer to the equator than Londoners, this expression makes little sense except when to talking to someone in the North of England or in Scotland. It makes perfect sense of course when you live close to the equator in Nigeria, where it would be natural to say "come down to Nigeria" to a person living in North America or Europe.

Typing text in all capitals (LIKE THIS) is considered the equivalent of shouting in real life. Nevertheless, all-caps text is considered a common marker for the classic Nigerian scams. Why do the "lads from Lagos" seem to love caps lock (also called "ladlock" by some scambaiters)? No one is quite sure, but there are several theories.

While some people take the lack of proper capitalisation as an indication of the scammers being stupid, that is not really plausible. 419 scams did not become a million dollar industry through lack of intelligence on behalf of the criminals. Whatever you think of some of the spammers and catcher account handlers at the first stages of the scam, the scam emails are usually based on templates written by more experienced scammers, some of whom are quite smart and well educated.

A simple explantion is that "ladlock" works. The scammers test different variations of their formats and stick with what brings in the most cash. Scam letters written in capslock make the writer look uneducated or stupid. If victims feel superior to the scammers they may be easier to hook into dodgy business proposals because they don't expect to lose money to a stupid person. It's interesting that other scams run by largely the same people, such as fake lottery scams, do use proper capitalisation. Maybe a victim would deal with a not very bright bank employee proposing a share of a dodgy inheritance, but when it comes to supposedly legitimate lottery prizes you expect qualified employees.

Capslock may even have historic reasons. Before classic Nigerian scams (inheritance scams, unpaid contractor scam, former dictator scam, etc.) crossed over into email they were perpetrated mostly by fax. It could be that capslock text was considered more readable on low quality fax copies and therefore all the templates from those days ended up being typed in capslock. Later scam formats that were only created when email was the medium of choice tend to use proper capitalisation.

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