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.”