Nigerian scams are so called because the majority of them originate from Nigeria, and they use the same tactic. Below is a brief summary on what it is, why it works, and how large the problem is.
A victim received an email (or sometimes an old fashioned letter) from someone posing as a lawyer. The text contains a story about a large amount of money locked up in a bank account, which gets the reader’s attention, and asks for help in retrieving it. In exchange the pretend lawyer promises a large reward.
The email can contain a statement such as “…In the discharge of my duty, I stumbled on this domiciliary account that has remained dormant for three years now with eight million, five hundred thousand United States dollars ($8.5M) in it…. That my purpose of contacting you is because the deceased has the same name with you…”
What happens next is an exchange of correspondence, with the scammer and victim writing to each other. The story usually becomes emotional and touching, keeping the victim’s attention. Then the victim is asked to hand over some money to help with legal fees. The scammer often sends the victim a cheque as a token of good faith that the money is there. Unfortunately the cheque is fake and the victim’s bank won’t accept it. This is often where the victim realises what’s happened.
This scam has apparently been in use for many years, even before emails became prevalent. It continues to work because the victims are tempted by a large amount of money.
How widespread is the problem? In this British articledated 4 Oct 2007 it states that 4500 fake documents were seized and that US$16.2m of fake cheques were seized. It also states that it costs the UK GBP4.5b every year, though this probably includes law enforcement costs. The problem isn’t limited to the UK either, it’s global.
What can you do? Be aware that this is a common scam and talk about it with anyone unfamiliar with the dangers present on the internet, especially older people. It would also be useful to report such emails (and letters) to your local authorities. A lot of people get arrested for taking part in these scams and any evidence you might have could be useful.
I’ve read articles describing victims that have gone to Nigeria to hunt down the scammer and reclaim their money, and they story ends tragically with murder or kidnapping. If I find these articles again I’ll post them here.