A Glimpse at Nigerian 419 Spammers

Spam comes in a multitude of forms: from pleas to enlarge one’s penis immediately, to ones that let you stock up on perfectly legal prescription meds (because there are no active ingredients) sans prescription; from urgent requests by banks with which you have no affiliation, to PayPal requests to verify one’s personal information; and from international lottery commissions which want to shower you with funds, to government taxation agencies which shed their cold-blooded tendencies long enough to contact you via e-mail with news of an unexpected windfall. All fun and perfectly laughable in their own right, none has quite the stuff of urban legend like the ever-present 419 spam.

The 419 spam, so named because of a section of the Nigerian Criminal Code, pertains specifically to fraud, and anyone with an inbox has, at one time or another, been the recipient of the fraudulent efforts of an imaginary prince or lawyer from another country who has access to massive amounts of money, if only they could get it out of said country. Enter you, chosen for your strength of character and commitment to doing the right thing, let alone your unprecedented gullibility. All you have to do is agree to cover the taxes and half of this enormous treasure will be yours.

So how could one possibly refuse such a beneficent request? Well, fortunately, most of us live on this dimensional plane and therefore use our gray matter for things other than rearranging furniture through telekinesis. Furthermore, most of us became privy to this spam scam when it first began to appear, in the primeval days of the Internet, back in the mid-1990’s. Most likely, it was one of the first spam e-mails you ever received – along with the “Bill Gates wants to give you a million dollars!” scam that invaded Hotmail in the early days, the 419 spam has the particular distinction of being one of the first true examples of how the con artist morphed into the spam artist.

While still ubiquitous, the 419 spam seems like a holdover from the good ol’ days, and it’s practically inconceivable that anyone a) hasn’t seen this one many times before and b) actually gets taken by the scam. Nevertheless, the 419 spam has a place in Internet lore and is sure to bring an ironic smile to one’s face every time it graces an inbox.

While it has a special place in Internet history, it’s quite rare and unprecedented to actually get a glimpse into the perpetrators of 419 spam. NewScientist.com has published a very interesting article about the subject. Back in 2011, journalist Sarah Lacy was able to speak with these men, and thanks to Dr. Joshua Oyeniyi Aransiola, PhD, and Suraj Olalekan Asindemade, MSc, today we are able to get an even more comprehensive look. Aransiola, a professor of sociology at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile–Ife, Nigeria, co-authored a paper with Asindemade, and the results are a fascinating account of the heretofore anonymous 419 spammer.

In fact, Aransiola and his colleague spent six months earning the trust of 40 Nigerians who count themselves as being 419 spammers. Locally referred to as ‘Yahoo Boys’ (because of their preference to use Yahoo e-mail accounts), today’s Nigerian spam artist is typically a young male between the ages of 20 and 30 years and well educated. In fact, since their ‘trade’ requires knowledge of the tool of their trade – the computer – most of them have undergraduate educations. They also have a taste for the finer things in life: “They are also showy, noted for driving flashy cars, playing loud music and wearing expensive clothes.”

They’re quite wily, as might be expected, taking advantage of Nigeria’s corruption to enact their scams. According to NewScientist:

“Bribes are even paid to members of the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC), which is tasked by the Nigerian government with stamping out 419 scams.”

In fact, the corruption goes a long way to ensuring that the Yahoo Boys get to finance their expensive tastes. According to one interview:

“Police, EFCC…bank officials and postal and courier agents in this part of Nigeria are all aiding us. In Lagos, one might find it difficult, especially with the EFCC. But it all boils down to settlement with money.”

Surprisingly, they are even given to the craft of voodoo, the study finds:

“The Voodoo thing exists for real, I have used it but I have stopped because of the fear of repercussion. With the aid of Voodoo the money comes faster.”

Written by Malcolm James


  1. Marvin Winters · March 1, 2012

    The biggest shock here is that what we tend to perceive as poorly cognitive, greasy loners trying to steal our money are actually portraying themselves as legitimate(if the word can be used) organized criminals.

    The smallest shock? The association they’ve earned with Yahoo. You know they’re not going to enjoy this bad publicity, and the way they’ve treated their user activity screening, I can’t help but feel it’s entirely deserved.

  2. Ulyses R. Paul · March 2, 2012

    Nigerian scams are so old news. Most online scammers are now from neighboring countries. Recently, I got an offer from someone in Cameroon, Nigeria’s neighbor in the east. I know she’s from Cameroon because the forum I’m in traced her IP from that country. She said she’s from the United States but her English is so broken that I can hear cracked glasses everywhere. LOL.

    But I guess all these types of malicious online activities are now labelled as “Nigerian 419″ spams / scams no matter where it originated. I also read somewhere that the countries of Chad and Republic of Benin have some sort of variant to the Nigerian 419. Let’s all be careful out there especially if the offer is too good to be true.

  3. Matt Moore · March 5, 2012

    When I was in college, one of our feasibility case studies was with Nigeria-based online scams. The main reason why this so-called Nigerian 419 scams / spams is so prevalent in this country is that they lack a governing body that could monitor this type of malicious act. The country is also too bureaucratic – you have to go to several offices and departments just to file a complaint or process a business permit. And because of this, corruption almost always tend to arise.

    Not like in the United States, Canada and other developed nations, Nigeria also lacks the IT infrastructure to combat spams and scam coming from their country. However, the government is really trying very hard to combat this because their country has been synonymous with online scams.

  4. Bolanle D. · March 5, 2012

    I was born, grew up, raised and schooled (elementary to college) in Nigeria until 1995. I’m now here working in the United States since then. Most government agencies, departments, bureaus, and offices in Nigeria back then is corrupt. When I came back last year for a family event, I expected the situation would ease up, but I was disappointed. It did not ease up even by a bit. Nigeria is still corrupt. In fact, the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) is one of the most corrupt government offices in the country. And I’m not surprised. Handling the task of killing the dreaded 419 scam is a big shoe to fill in. It’s a multi-million (perhaps even billion) dollar industry. At the most, two to three departments should handle this task to effectively eradicate the 419 scam.

  5. Jason Rogers · March 6, 2012

    Hahaha – if the Nigerian spam gets extinct, which I don’t believe will ever happen, I might even miss it. :) The emails they were sending were so ridiculously funny that I couldn’t help but enjoy reading them. We’ve got to admit that the Nigerian spam is a classic.

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