Saturday, August 9, 2008

ID Theft: What is a 419 Scam?

The term "419 scam" is synonymous with phishing and identity theft. I personally receive about a hundred million dollars' worth of these emails a day.

The variations are endless. The scams range from the baiting of the greedy and needy ("I AM THE FORMER CFO OF A LARGE BANK AND I HAVE 9.5 MILLION DOLLARS THAT I WISH TO SHARE WITH YOU") to out-and-out scare tactics ("SOMEONE HAS PAID ME $5,000 TO KILL YOU").

But what does "419" mean?

"419" refers to the name of the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code used to prosecute these crimes, when they are prosecuted. The section, one of several sections within Chapter 38 (Obtaining Property by false pretences; Cheating), reads as follows:

419. Any person who by any false pretence, and with intent to defraud, obtains from any other person anything capable of being stolen, or induces any other person to deliver to any person anything capable of being stolen, is guilty of a felony, and is liable to imprisonment for three years.

If the thing is of the value of one thousand naira or upwards [about seven $US], he is liable to imprisonment for seven years.

It is immaterial that the thing is obtained or its delivery is induced through the medium of a contract induced by the false pretence.
The offender cannot be arrested without warrant unless found committing the offence.

A quick read of a half dozen Nigerian newspapers today turned up very few stories involving the successful prosecution of 419 email scammers. Attempts to pass and prosecute a law in Nigeria targeting computer crime in general, such as the above, have mostly failed.

This inaction at the government level has reduced many intelligent and proud Nigerians to despair. One London-based Nigerian expat, tired of the association with Nigeria and email scams, blames lack of government investment in Nigeria's younger generation:

"What has the local, state or federal government done in the last 20 years for example to prepare for the future of this generation of internet rats? What have they done or what are they still doing other than stealing, looting and gallivanting like nonentities?"

Many other in-country commentators agree. About the only positive seems to be the fact that voices are at last being raised. Maybe change (and a decent law) is in the air.

Note to recipients of 419 scam emails: 419 scams are unbelievably easy to avoid. If you receive an email from anyone, claiming:

a) you won a lottery you didn't enter
b) you have the same last name as the heir to a fortune
c) you are targeted for murder (unless you pay up)
d) you will have "bad luck" if you don't pass on the email
e) you are otherwise in line for a windfall have just received a scam email of the variety commonly known as a 419 scam. Don't respond to strangers offering money by email. Don't get tricky and try and "scam the scammer" like some have attempted. Delete the email.

There is a much better chance you'll get five dollars in a card from your grandmother on your birthday that you'll see any money from one of these emails.

Note: I found a curious story tonight while researching this post. Rumor has it that Mary Winkler, the Tennessee woman convicted of shooting her 31 year old preacher husband in the back, owed $17,500 to the Nigerian "Yahoo Boys" (the local Nigerian lingo for 419 perps) at the time of the murder.

You can read more about this story, and others, here.

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