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Doing the hustle: Nigerian and other worldwide scams

Gregg Reese | 4/27/2011, 5 p.m.

Nigeria is a reflection of Africa in all its contradictions. As the wealthiest nation of that continent, it is blessed with one of the richest concentrations of natural resources in the world while simultaneously suffering the ravages of corruption throughout its governmental infrastructure. Nigerian crude oil is especially prized in the world market because its low sulfur content eases the refinery process.

Following its liberation from Great Britain in 1960, Nigeria endured long periods of military dictatorship, totalitarian or ineffectual administrative institutions, including an often ineffective and crooked court system. This condition continued as the lucrative oil industry emerged, and may be one reason why this windfall has not benefited the masses. In any event, it provided a fertile breeding ground for those with a predilection for scams.

Stories out of Nigeria claim incidents of scamming actually started in the 1970s, when the impoverished masses mailed photocopied pleas for economic relief to sympathetic marks in America. The oil industry collapse of 1986, which collided with the spread of fax machines, encouraged locals to use faxes to smooth the transmission of their pitches to unsuspecting recipients on the other end of their faxes. Around this time, Nigerians also became involved in the trafficking of bogus credit cards, according to Det. Ed Whyte of the LAPD's Commercial Crime Division.

Unlikely propositions
The economic downturn left its sociological footprint on the populace of Nigerian, as did the spread of comparatively low-cost personal computers. While few could afford to own computers, scores of cyber cafes popped up throughout the city of Lagos, especially in Festac, a federal housing project that grew to be the center of the cyber-scam universe.

The cafes became the preferred hangout for throngs of disaffected youth with few job prospects and plenty of time on their hands, and soon a subculture developed. These so-called "yahoo-yahoo" boys, a reference to the famous web portal of the same name, evolved into inventors of Nigeria's most infamous export: the cash advance fraud.

Briefly, this hoax promises the mark a huge payoff (either in love or money) in exchange for cash up front. The scenario is as varied as the imagination of the scam artist, some of the most common being the request to help transfer an astronomical sum of money into the United States for a nominal fee. To conclude the transaction, the benefactor will be rewarded with a sizable chunk of the proceeds. Other set-ups involve the appeal to assist in the collection of a debt, or, playing upon the heartstrings to attain the girl of your dreams by simply forwarding payment for travel and incidental costs.

Over time, this hustle has become known as the "419" scam, a reference to article 419 of the Nigerian Penal Code, which prohibits fraud. Regardless of the label, the lure of an attractive inducement (emotionally or materially) in exchange for cash up front, is a lure that transcends culture and geography.

Typically, Nigerian scam letters are distinguished by their inventive spelling, shifting punctuation, and unique grammar, of which the following is an example received by the editors at Our Weekly: