Advance fee frauds are also known as 419 scams (named for the section of the law in Nigeria which makes it a crime). Some people call them Nigerian scams but they are not limited to Nigeria, they come from many different countries where scammers can work anonymously.
They take many different forms but are all promise some sort of reward: a huge sum of money (millions of dollars). a consignment of jewelry, gold, or other valuables, or even a pet (see the pet scam forum for more details on this variation).
They are called advance fee frauds because they all involve the victim being asked to pay fees in advance. The fees are said to be for a lawyer or barrister, court documents, registration or other formal payments, shipping charges, diplomat fees, bribes, or anything else a scammer may think up.
If the victim pays the fee, there will always be another fee that needs to be paid before the money or consignment can be released, and this will continue until the victim realizes it is a scam, or simply runs out of money to send.
REMEMBER: There is no consignment or huge sum of money: the entire story is a lie to get the victim to pay. We have set out the most common scenarios below but there are many variations. Please do not assume it's not a scam just because you cannot see your precise circumstances below.
The most common types of advance fee fraud
- Over-invoiced contract or unclaimed contract sum : the usual story is that the government owes or has paid into a bank account a large sum of money which belongs to a foreign national or overseas corporation. They have not claimed it and if nobody does so, it will revert to the government. The scammer will pretend to be a government official or an employee of the bank and will ask for the victim's help in moving the money out of the country, for a percentage of the money. The victim will be asked to pose as the individual or company owed the money.
- Unclaimed bank accounts : the scammer pretends to be a bank official who knows of a bank account which contains a huge sum of money. He will say that it belongs to an unknown foreign national or to someone who has died leaving no family, and that if it is not claimed, it will default to the government. The scammer asks the victim to pose as the account holder and claim the money, and says they will split the proceeds later.
- Next of kin : the scammer says that the victim is the lawful heir to a large fortune left by a relative who has recently died. In some instances, the scammer is working from a mailing list he has bought, and can use the real last name of the victim as the name of the deceased. In other circumstances, the scammer relies on the victim either believing that this is a relative he has not heard of, or knowing he is not related to the deceased, but going along with it in order to claim the money.
- Widows, orphans and refugees : the scammer poses as a wealthy refugee or deposed dictator (or the widow/son/daughter of one) who needs help claiming bank accounts or who has valuables such as cash, gold, or jewelry (usually said to be in a trunk box) that he needs help in moving overseas. The victim is asked to take delivery of the trunk box or consignment or to help claim the bank account, for a share of the proceeds. Sometimes the scammer pretends to be in a refugee camp at the time they are emailing the victim to ask for help, and claims to be defenseless and in need of money for medical treatment for a relative.
- Dying philanthropists or wealthy investors : the scammer pretends to have vast sums at his disposal and wants help either investing them or distributing them to charities in the victim's country. The scammer will often pretend to be dying, usually of cancer, and wants to make amends for past bad acts before he dies.
- Black money or wash-wash : the scammer tells the victim he has a huge sum of money in currency, but that it has been dyed black to disguise it and keep it safe, or marked or stamped in such a way as to conceal that it is currency. The scammer offers to share it with the victim if the victim will pay for the chemicals needed to clean the money. The victim will be invited to visit the scammer to see a demonstration of the money being cleaned. This is just sleight of hand, a magician's trick, and there is no cleaning process involved. There is no money at all, it is all just black paper cut to size.
Common features of an advance fee fraud
* There is a sense of urgency from the outset.
* The scammer insists on confidentiality and the victim must not tell anyone about the transaction.
* Other people are introduced by the scammer to the victim, such as bank officials, lawyers, couriers, security companies and diplomats. Many of these will actually be played by the scammer himself, but sometimes, they will be played by his accomplice(s).
* The scammer and his accomplices supply a great number of forged but official looking documents.
* There is an early request for personal and detailed information from the victim, such as address, date of birth, bank account details, or identification such as a passport.
* The scammer says he is with legitimate sounding government agencies or financial organizations but the email address does not relate to the organization (e.g. a scammer pretends to be a bank but uses a free email account such as Yahoo).
* The scammer uses mobile phone numbers rather than official company landlines.
* Fake bank or lottery websites may be used to convince the victim that the scam is real, and the scammer may get an email address matching the fake site to add credibility.
* Each fee is said to be the last.
* The scammer may claim to have paid some of the fee himself to build confidence with the victim and create a feeling of obligation.
More information on advance fee fraud
Metropolitan Police information on advance fee fraud
Metropolitan Police information on wash-wash scams
Canadian police advance fee fraud advice
FBI advice on advance fee fraud
Top ten signs of an advance fee fraud
News items on advance fee fraud
New Yorker magazine article 'The Perfect Mark'
Reports on wash-wash or black money being used in scams from the BBC News and Gulf News.
JS Online: Victim scammed for two years
Video from ABC News - an interview with a wash-wash scammer