Loose Wire — Calling All Suckers
By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 11 July 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
I wish people would stop being so cynical. Why do they assume that every spam e-mail they receive is a scam? Just because the pitch “Hi, friend! You’ve already won a trip to the moon!/Need toner? We’ve got toner coming out of our ears!/Find the dirt on anyone, including your mother!” isn’t reassuring, it doesn’t mean these people aren’t just trying to make an honest living.
At least, that was what was going through my mind when I decided to respond to one of a new wave of so-called 419ers. These missives, named after a clause in Nigeria’s penal code, used to arrive as mail. In the old days postal companies would intercept them — easy to spot with their fake stamps — and use them, literally, as landfill.
These days free e-mail accounts allow any aspiring fraudster with access to an Internet cafe to try their hand. Where they used to be from purported Nigerian officials with access to siphoned or missing funds, now you’re just as likely to get e-mails about unclaimed millions found by special forces in Afghan caves. All you, dear reader, have to do is give a bank account number and, er, the money is yours.
But, I reasoned, such e-mails couldn’t all be scams, surely? Okay, I’ve read of people being fleeced for thousands of dollars. Sure, the United States Secret Service receives 100 phone calls a day from potential victims, and estimates some $750 million is lost globally each year. Sure, Nigerian money-related fraud is the fastest growing on-line scam, according to the National Consumers League.
But, what the hell, I reasoned, I’ll give this one a shot. Besides, the addressee was none other than Dr. Maryam Abacha, the widow of Gen. Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s ruler from 1993-98. “Dr. Abacha,” I learned from the Internet, is a light-complexioned beauty of Shuwa Arab stock. She also popularized the Aso-Oke by wearing it to official functions, but I’m not quite sure what an Aso-Oke is. More relevantly, the Nigerian government in April said it had reached a deal where the Abacha family would hand over $1 billion, and keep $100 million, in return for an end to criminal proceedings into the embezzlement of government funds.
Given this, I was delighted to be approached by such a fine person, and was only slightly intimidated by Mrs. Abacha’s insistence on WRITING HER E-MAILS IN CAPITALS. All I had to do was help her smuggle $85 million into my bank account, and I would get 15% of the proceeds. That should make my bank manager happy, I thought. I immediately dashed off an offer of help, but to be on the safe side, used a pseudonym: “Thanks for your e-mail and I’m very excited to be able to help you and get absurdly rich as well,” I wrote. “Could you send a picture, so I know what you’re like? I’m single too, so maybe we could hang out. Yours, Egbert Dimple.”
My new penmate wasted no time, sending me a picture of Abacha in swaying gowns — it might have been the Aso-Oke — answering the phone. I was hooked. “I like the outfit. It must be hard to stay looking nice with all this trouble going on. I know this may sound odd, but do you think it would be possible for us to start dating at some point, with your husband no longer on this Earth?” This seemed to cause some surprise. “I really don’t know you so much to start talking about dating. And I can’t say for now if that could work or not,” she wrote.
Sensing an opening, I sent back a picture — not of myself, for modesty’s sake, but a random photo culled from a Google search of the keyword “hunk.” Mrs. Abacha, if it was she, was impressed. “You are a good-looking young man. But don’t you think that we are drifting away from our original objective? Can you come to Nigeria? I will really like to see you but that will be after we have completed this project so we can have enough money to spend.”
And so I’m confident that by the time you read this I will be flush with cash and living on a desert island, surrounded by bodyguards and people wearing the Aso-Oke. Of course, I’m aware that the risk is high: Many of those persuaded to visit Nigeria by such folk end up fleeced, murdered or missing. But I’m sure that won’t happen to me.