The Henna Page Tech Pages
"The 411 on 419"
Avoiding the "Advance Fee Fraud" Scam

by Roy Jones © 2007

The Problem

Almost as soon as e-mail became a common means of worldwide communication, people with bad intent began exploiting the system and user’s willingness to trust it. One of the oldest continuing species of e-mail based Internet scam is the “advance fee fraud” exploit also known as the 419 scam. “419” refers to the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code that forbids mail fraud. Nigeria is the country best known as a source of advance fee fraud activity and has held that distinction since the 1980s, but the scam is an old one, dating back to the 16th century when it was known as the “Spanish Prisoner Letter.”

By now, practically anyone with an e-mail account is familiar with the basic story in the typical 419 message. It is sent by someone claiming to be a relative of a deposed head of state or an official of a deposed government who has millions of dollars in an overseas bank account and needs the recipient of the message to act as a go-between to retrieve the funds. For this service, the go-between is promised a considerable percentage of the money. All that is required is some information and perhaps a cash deposit to show “good faith.” The people who have been gullible enough to respond invariably lose any advance payment and might find that the information they supplied led to their bank accounts being cleaned out.

Over the years scammers have used a number of variations on this message, including offers to buy large quantities of goods from small-time Web retailers and attractive although spurious free-lance job offers. Both of these scams have passed through the online henna community within the past few years. The offer-to-buy message is a prelude to requests to make all sorts of questionable shipments that could leave anyone foolish enough to cooperate not only thousands of dollars poorer but in serious legal trouble for violating import and export laws.

These fraud schemes succeed in spite of the often poor writing and spelling of the messages, the preposterous circumstances (a representative of the family of a powerful and wealthy former state official contacting an unknown recipient through a “Yahoo” mail account) and the demand for cash in advance. The success of the 419 scam shows that the lure of “something for nothing” (or at least for very little) remains strong as ever. The scammers also get away with their fraud because many of their victims don’t report the crime because they are so humiliated by having been taken in by what on reflection is a transparently phony scheme.

Individual losses in the tens of thousands of dollars are common. Some people are said to have lost millions to 419 and related scams and worldwide losses are estimated in excess of US$19 billion over the past 25 years. The criminal gangs that lie at the heart of these operations earn a major part of their income from mail fraud and they don’t take interference lightly. Victims who agreed to meet with the fraudsters but refused to cooperate with their demands for more money have been assaulted and even killed.

What to do about it

If you receive an “advance fee” message don’t answer it. The fraudsters got your name from one of the multitude of e-mail address lists that are bought and sold daily on the Internet. They don’t know who you are or if you really exist and they don’t care. They’re only interested in who answers, and if you send back some finger-wagging message in response, you’ve just marked yourself as a “live” address. Do you really want to continue hearing from these people?

Although you can’t shut down the scammers’ operation, you can put a “speed bump” in their way if you report the message to the abuse section at their ISP. This can lead to the scammer’s e-mail account being closed. These messages typically have forged headers. Headers are the preamble information that precedes every e-mail message. You can make the headers visible by finding and clicking the “view source” menu option in your e-mail program. Copy the headers of the message and paste them into the textbox at The SpamCop site will respond with the real source of the message and the addresses to use to report it. One giveway that the message headers are possibly bogus is that the source address is different from the address the sender asks you to use as a return.

If you or someone you know have been taken in by e-mail scammers, report the fraud to the relevant law enforcement organization. In the US, the US Secret Service is the primary agency dealing with 419 fraud.

Above all, be careful in how you conduct all your communications over the Internet. E-mail is one of the most popular means of spreading malware and conducting fraud because it’s so widely used and inherently insecure. Always be wary of unexpected e-mail messages from people you don’t know, use SpamCop or other verification tools to check questionable messages and never answer any message that appears dodgy.

“419” Scam Links

London Metropolitan Police

Nigerian Scam (419) News Articles

Crimes of Persuasion: Nigerian Scams

US Secret Service

You can e-mail specific computer questions to Roy Jones at

Back to The Henna Page Tech Pages Index

Can't find what you want here?  Try The Henna Page Main Index.