Anyone with email must have seen the forward fee fraud emails, promising you a large win in an email lottery – if only you’d pay these fees. They’ve become known as “Nigerian scams” or sometimes “419 scams” after the part of the Nigerian penal code that covers this fraud.

The format of the scam has a long and dishonorable history, starting well before the internet with a version known as the Spanish Prisoner.

The emails are typically poorly written, and most people ignore them. But not all – and in 2009 (the most recent credible report I can find) the estimated total amount of money defrauded was 9,387,810,000. That’s the low estimate. It’s equivalent to 2.9% of Nigeria’s GNP for the same year. It’s more than Apple’s revenue in 2009 – and they had significantly higher costs of operation.

So if the emails are so bad, in some cases laughably bad, who falls for it? Only the most gullible.

In fact the we’re asking this the wrong way around, it turns out that the scammers are deliberately creating emails that act as filters. The scammers are targetting those who are gullible and who have limited experience online, they therefore create emails that people with online experience will ignore. Even indicating the nationality “Nigerian” is done deliberately – to warn the non-gullible off. Which makes sense, if you’re a criminal on the internet lying about your name, some lottery or inheritance and producing fake documents showing the money in an account, telling the truth about your nationality has to serve some purpose.

image online fraud /Ivers McGraw CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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