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The British Origins of Nigerian 419 Scams

By Farooq A. Kperogi A few weeks ago, a British journalist and documentarian called me from London. He was researching so-called Nigerian 4...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

A few weeks ago, a British journalist and documentarian called me from London. He was researching so-called Nigerian 419 scams and wanted to confirm a piece of information he stumbled on the Internet which was attributed to me.

As he was surfing the Net for his documentary, he told me, he came across an article that quoted me as saying that 419 scams actually constitute less five percent of all online fraud and that Americans and Britons, not Nigerians, make up the bulk of the world’s online scammers. Someone obviously quoted my July 4 2009 article titled, “American Ponzi Schemes versus Nigerian 419 Scams” where I stated, among other things, that “Nigerians are not the worst perpetrators of Internet fraud in the world. That dubious honor, interestingly, belongs to Americans, according to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Center, the two U.S. agencies that monitor Internet crime…

“The statistics on the Web site of the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) show that between 87 percent and 76 percent of all Internet fraud reported in the world between 2001 and 2008 was committed by Americans.

“In 2008, for instance, only 7.8 percent of Internet frauds were perpetrated from Nigeria. Compare this to America's 66.1 percent and the UK's 10.1 percent.”

My interviewer wanted to confirm the authenticity of these claims, which I obliged him during our more than two-hour phone chat. But he got more than he bargained for. After giving him the Web links to the Internet Crime Complaint Center where I got my statistics from, I asked if he knew that so-called Nigerian 419 scams actually came to Nigeria from Spain by way of Britain.

I could almost “touch” the discomfort and anxiety that welled up in him. Not only had I just shown him that the British, his people, commit more cyber crimes than Nigerians do, in spite of appearances and popular narratives to the contrary, but that the Nigerian 419 scam he was investigating came to our country by way of his country.

“What’s your evidence?” he asked defensively. Well, several well-regarded scholars have provided the evidence, I told him.

For instance, writing in the Canadian Journal of African Studies in 2005 in an article titled "The Nigerian 419 Advance Fee Scams: Prank or Peril?" Harvey Glickman, a Harvard-educated, Jewish-American professor emeritus of political science who studies Africa, wrote that Nigerian advance fee frauds (more popularly known as 419 scams) have roots that go deep into sixteenth-century Spain. In this article, he also reproduced a 1914 letter to British colonial officers in Nigeria from the then British ambassador to Spain that conclusively links the emergence of 419 scams in Nigeria to Britons.

Originally known as the "Spanish Prisoner Letter," the scam has been historically perpetrated through ordinary postal mail. In its original form, affluent businessmen were contacted by an unknown person who usually falsely asserted to be a prison chaplain. The scammer would claim to be part of an effort to save the sheltered but endangered child of an estate-owning, incarcerated family member who was reputedly dying as a result of the harsh conditions of a Spanish prison.

 The senders of the letters would solicit the financial assistance of the recipient of the letter to free the child or the parent in return for a financial reward several fold their initial investment, and an additional promise of the marriage of the distressed wealthy prisoner’s beautiful daughter after the deal was done.  It was often claimed that the putative rich prisoner could not disclose his identity without grim consequences, and was therefore relying on the sender of the mail to raise money to arrange for his escape from the prison.
Compassion and greed—and, in some cases, lust— would usually strangely intermix to sustain the interest of the victims in the deal. Invariably, the first rescue attempt usually failed. What was initially an innocent, modest financial request for help in a “charitable” cause would morph into a more elaborate scheme that would require the businessman to travel to Spain.  As soon as the dupe made the initial deposit, he would be told that unforeseen snags had arisen that required more money to fix, until the dupe was rendered bankrupt and the game ended. There are many mutations of the scam, which bear so many uncanny resemblances to contemporary manifestations of 419 scams.
Now, here is the British angle to the scam. The “Spanish Prisoner Letter” was so pervasive that in 1914, the year Nigeria in its present form was formally born, the British ambassador to Spain wrote to British colonial officers in Nigeria to be wary of the swindle, and to warn the people of Nigeria to keep their guard against it. 

Professor Glickman found a letter in the Nigerian Customs and Trade Journal of April 1914 by the British ambassador to Spain, Arthur Hardinge, calling attention to “the Spanish Prisoner swindle… established in Madrid and other Spanish towns…ASSISTED BY ACCOMPLICES IN ENGLAND [my emphasis]” The letter added: “It appears that perpetrators of this fraud are still endeavouring to victimise residents of the British Colonies and it is considered advisable that the public in Nigeria should be warned to be upon their guard.”

 It seems perfectly reasonable to assume that the “accomplices in England” that the ambassador referred to in the letter somehow finally found their way to Nigeria but chose not to “victimize” us; instead, they recruited and trained Nigerian accomplices. Three considerations justify this assumption.

First, in 1914, almost no Nigerian had any contact with Spain both on account of geographic distance and language barriers. So it is inconceivable that the scam came to Nigeria directly from Spain. It had to have come through those wily “accomplices in England.”

 Second, in 1914, the only Europeans who related to Nigerians on a sustained basis were the British. They were, after all, Nigeria’s colonial overloads and had untrammeled access to the country. Plus, no visas were required of British citizens to travel to any British colony.

 Third, the fact that the British ambassador to Spain had a need to single out the emergent nation of Nigeria to send this warning was indicative of the fact that he knew his compatriots were indeed making determined efforts to get into Nigeria. I don’t imagine that there were enough rich Nigerians in 1914 for the Spanish and British scammers to fleece. Interestingly, there is no record of the ambassador sending similar letters to any other British colony at the time.  Of course, at the time the letter was written, no Nigerian was aware of, much less involved in, the Spanish Prisoner swindle, which has now mutated to 419 scams. So it makes perfect sense to attribute the emergence of 419 scams to the British. It’s part of our British colonial heritage.

What is not clear, however, is why the British scammers chose Nigeria as a recruiting ground. Why not India or Uganda or Sudan or some other British colony? Well, a good guess is that Nigeria was attractive at the time because, after the merger of the then southern and northern protectorates to form what became known as Nigeria in 1914, Nigeria became the single largest British colony in Africa (except for Sudan, which had always been bigger than Nigeria in size but not in population).

It is also possible that by 1914 the rhetorical armory and appeal of the Spanish Prisoner scam had become exhausted and was in need of a radical makeover. It is entirely imaginable that one of the ways the British accomplices of the scam wanted to sustain it was by introducing novel dimensions that had the potential to win the credulity of their victims. A letter from a black man in Africa, who was constructed in popular European narratives as congenitally daft and guileless, promising princely sums to would-be European targets for all kinds of things would be irresistible. That’s probably how 419 scams came to our shores.

After the conversation, my British interlocutor was crestfallen. He couldn’t hide it. He said he would get back to me in a few days’ time. It’s been three weeks now. I am still waiting to hear from him.

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