419 scam
n. A fraud, particularly one originating in Nigeria, in which a person is asked for money to help secure the release of, and so earn a percentage of, a much larger sum.
Also Seen As
Other Forms
There was, of course, no $21.5 million. Sessions, a 73-year-old retired electronics specialist, had been fleeced by what may be the most widespread fraud on Earth.

He had poured more than $300,000 into a Nigerian 419 scam, the label describing the legendary e-mails that promise millions but deliver nothing.
—Jim Stratton, “Notorious e-mail scam snares Volusia retiree's nest egg,” Orlando Sentinel, December 23, 2003
The classic 419 scam asks the victim to help some hapless relative of a deposed despot get millions of dollars out of the con artist's country. The con artist offers the victim a percentage of this illusive pot of gold, hoping to suck the victim into paying all sorts of fees to get trunks of money out of Nigeria, Sierra Leone, the Philippines or whatever exotic locale the con artist chooses. In the end, the money is never sent, but the victims are often out thousands of dollars.
—Kathy M. Kristof, “Nigerian Money Con Targets Small Firms,” Los Angeles Times, September 07, 2003
1992 (earliest)
The most recent racket involves "419" scams, so named because they violate section 419 of the Nigerian criminal code. Believed to involve retired, and perhaps current, high-ranking military men, customs officials and financial officers, the scam has bilked international businessmen of millions by promising them a cut of illicitly obtained cash.
—Bill Schiller, “Crooks and con men stain a national image,” The Toronto Star, May 10, 1992
We've all seen those earnest, not-quite-grammatical email pitches from West African businessmen or associates of a deposed dictator. Millions of dollars are just sitting in a bank account, but your help — in the form of an advance fee — is required to get at the money. Send along a check or, even better, your bank account data, and you'll be cut in on a percentage of the riches.

There probably aren't too many people in the wired world who haven't yet been pitched this phony get-rich-click scheme. Because it originates mostly in Nigeria, this nasty business is usually called the Nigerian scam, or more officially the advance fee fraud. Subscriber Simon Whitaker told me about the 419 scam variation. Why 419? That comes from the section number of the Nigerian penal code that covers this sort of fraudulent behavior.

Most people think of this as an email scam, but its origins date to the 1980s, when the scammers would send out letters and faxes to businessmen and professionals around the world. Email only served to make the scam a more efficient operation. And, incredibly, it works. No one knows how many people get taken in each year or how much they lose (most of the duped feel too embarrassed to report the loss), but the FBI has said that it knows of 74 cases that occurred in 2002 alone, with losses totaling a whopping US$1.6 million.
Filed Under