Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Greed, lies, and rampant stupidity

I've got pretty good spam filters in place: a white list, a Bayesian filter, and (most importantly) enough common sense to ignore the few spam emails that do get through. I go through the spam bucket every month or so, to make sure there weren't any false positives (which has been happening less and less as I get the spam filtering system dialed in). Invariably, when I look through the spam bucket, nestled amongst the offers for cheap viagra and the secrets of length extension will be a few specimens of a tired old scam known as the Nigerian 'Advance Fee Fraud', also known as '4-1-9 scams' after the section of the Nigerian penal code that deals with such fraud.

A 4-1-9 scam is a confidence scam which usually looks something like this: an 'official' of some sort contacts you for your help... millions of dollars (usually attributed to some noble and moral person who was screwed over by a corrupt government) are tied up in bureaucratic red tape, but if only someone outside the system would step up to claim the money (usually with the aid of the person making the offer, who is invariably either a person of power or a close friend of one), the local corrupt government would have no choice but to turn over the money. The person writing the email would of course only be too happy to reward you generously for your help...

Of course, if you are foolish enough to buy into the scheme, what happens next is very tightly scripted: unforeseen problems keep popping up, problems so severe that if an infusion of money is not immediately forthcoming, the whole plan will be for naught: the corrupt government will keep the millions, the noble-yet-unfortunate instigator of the offer will be destitute, and you will have missed out on the wondrous opportunity to make a few million by simply doing a good deed.

Often the scammer will show that they too are struggling with the same concerns: they will say that $20K is needed to secure an important document, but that they only have $15K, so would you be able to come up with the other $5K? They will appeal to a sense of Christian brotherhood, telling the scamee (somehow 'victim' just doesn't seem appropriate; it seems too forgiving of the persons culpability) that surely the hand of God is responsible for leading them to the one kind person who can resolve their difficulties. And they will continually reinforce the sense that your own kindness and generosity are so overwhelming that the only way they can balance the scales is to reward you with millions of dollars.

This scam is old... I remember these emails appearing in the mid 80s. I thought this one had faded away, that everyone knew about it, and I hoped that people were at least savvy enough to just delete the email.

Just another bit of misguided optimism on my part.

Just yesterday it was reported that a Florida retiree unwittingly donated his entire life savings to what has become the 4th or 5th largest industry in Nigeria. Despite numerous sites that have been set up documenting these scams, reported cases alone show that *hundreds of millions* of dollars each year have been sent to Nigeria as part of these scams. A number of murders have been committed in connection with these scams, as well, when some sucker decides that he'll accompany his money to Nigeria to make sure everything goes smoothly. The Financial Crimes Division of the US Secret Service receives approximately 100 telephone calls and 300-500 pieces of correspondence each day from 'victims' or potential 'victims'.

This scam does not remain widespread because of the corruption of the Nigerians. It remains widespread because of the greed of Westerners, so intense that it blinds people to common sense. In American culture, there is a strong sense of entitlement ('I want my stuff... where is my stuff?') without a similarly strong sense of personal responsiblity. The success of scams such as the Nigerian 4-1-9 is a function of how strongly people desire unmerited gains, whether it be large sums of money, the feeling of having done something helpful, or the feeling that they are striking a blow against corruption. It is pretty difficult to feel any sorrow for people who lose money in search of such hollow victories... to even get to that point, they had to have lost many things of more value than mere cash.