Day 61: Send Me Your Money! (and other internet lies)

originally published March 1, 2012

Looking to make some extra money? Do I have a deal for you.

Welcome to the 419. No, I’m not referring to the area code for Toledo, Ohio (but great guess!), I’m talking about that rocket-road to regretless riches, the 419 scam. You’ve seen these before, and even if somehow your inbox has been immune, I’m certain you’re familiar with the infamous Nigerian Prince that desperately wants to send you a crap-ton of money for little to no effort on your part.

These scams began in the early 1980s when unemployed university students tried to bilk some money out of companies by interesting them in a shady Nigerian oil sector deal. The name ‘419 scam’ was born out of the article of the Nigerian Criminal Code that pertains to fraud.

Be wary of any African prince who spends an inordinate amount of time around Arsenio Hall.

In case you’ve remained somehow ignorant of this trickery, here’s the gist: you get an email from some official in Nigeria, insisting they need access to a bank account to deposit a huge sum of money, half of which they are willing to give to you if you help them out. They just need a few small fees covered by you first, then the transfer will take place and you will literally be lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills that you lit using other hundred-dollar bills.

You can trace the origins of this type of sneakery back to the 19th century, with something called the Spanish Prisoner scam. To pull this one off, you’d tell someone that you’ve been speaking with a big shot who has been imprisoned in Spain under a false identity. The prisoner can’t reveal who he is without serious repercussions.

If your target can put up just a little bit of money to bribe the guards, the big shot will be free, and he will reward your target handsomely. Of course the masters of this scammery would keep pressing their mark for just a little more money, upping the promises until the victim would finally refuse or run out of money. People are naturally trusting, but you don’t have to roll out this story to take advantage of them.

Want to prey upon the lovelorn? Set yourself up as a generic hottie on Match.com (or some such site), then hook yourself a desperate lonely soul who thinks you look like one of the dreamy women that married Larry and Balki in the last season of Perfect Strangers.

Once you have the guy hooked, you tell him one of the following:

  • You’d love to meet him, but he’s in Secaucus and you’re in Piedmont. Could he help with a little bit of money to fly you out there?
  • You’d love to meet him, and since he’s in Secaucus and you’re in Ronkonkoma, it can happen tonight. You’ll book the hotel and purchase some peanut butter, erotic-scented candles and a blind llama since that combination happens to be his fetish. You just need a bit of spending cash first.
  • You’d love to meet him, but he’s in Secaucus and you’re in the Ivory Coast, stricken with malaria. If he could just forward you a bit of money to fix you up, you’ll be steaming up his windows in three-to-five weeks.
Sorry Mr. Seacaucus. You’re going to be stuck finding love here.

Does that seem too low, to attack the lonely and desperate? (and freaks into peanuty blind-llama sex with sitcom actresses?) Okay, how about a lottery scam? You inform your victim that he/she has won a lottery, and they just have to forward you a teensy bit of cash to process the funds. The catch with this one is that you send them a check for part of their winnings. “How could this be fraud?” they’ll think. “I’ve got actual money in my hand!”

The check is bogus, of course.

But your victim has wired money to you before the bank clues in and puts a halt on the funds. If he/she has already put down a deposit on a brand new Saab, that’s just fate wagging its middle finger at them for being so damn gullible.

Craigslist is a haven for scammers. A handy little tweak to the fake-check scam involves sending more money than you were supposed to. You ask kindly for a refund to be wired back your way, and since the seller is generally an honest person, they’ll kindly oblige. Once the check gets yanked into the poop-vat by the bank, the seller is out whatever refund they sent you, as well as whatever they were selling.

Another easy ploy on Craigslist involves having an address outside the US. A lot of people request the item to be shipped, promising payment in exchange for the tracking number. This actually happens. It won’t net you any money, but it can snag you some stuff.

Here’s another one: go ahead and post an ad in the real estate section of Craigslist for a sweet suite at a killer rate, ideally near a college that people will be attending from out of town. A lot of these pads get booked through the interweb, so it should be easy to find someone to put money down to secure a place that doesn’t actually exist.

If you want to try something unbelievably obscure, there’s one other variation to the 419 scam. Write to someone and advise them that you are a hitman, and you have been hired to kill them. For a small fee, you’d be happy to drop the assignment. For a little more money, you’ll even rat out the person that put the hit on them. What a great person you are!

The point of all this is that the 419 scams have not dissolved into history simply because almost everyone knows about the phony Nigerian prince. There are always people who are out to screw you over, and you have to remain constantly aware of what you’re doing with your money and what the consequences may be. You don’t want to end up like Jiri Pasovsky.

Jiri was a 72-year-old living in the Czech Republic. He was smart enough to earn a fortune in his life, but not quite astute enough to keep from being scammed by the classic Nigerian prince gambit, to the tune of $600,000. He made his way to the Nigerian embassy in Prague and demanded his money. After they wouldn’t cough it up, Jiri opened fire and killed a guy.

Not a happy way to end the story, but what can I say? I’d be happy to turn it around and deliver a killer punch-line, but I’m running short of funds and need to bribe the guards to give me my malaria medication, which I also need to pay for. If you could help me out, I’d really appreciate it.

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