‘419’ explores an insidious Internet scam

Posted Sunday, Sep. 01, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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More information 419 by Will Ferguson Pintail, $16

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Practically anyone with an email account has found this correspondence in his spam folder.

The letter begins, “Dear Sir or Madam, I am the daughter of a Nigerian diplomat …”

The specifics that follow vary, but the gist is always the same: The sender has limited access to a fortune languishing in another country, but he can’t get it out. Perhaps, he proposes, the email recipient can be of assistance by allowing it to be transferred into his personal bank account. For agreeing to help move the money, the recipient is promised a sizable cut.

Everyone knows this is an Internet scam, right? Everyone knows that the money never arrives while the helper winds up losing every last penny he owns, right? Well, think again.

Will Ferguson, author of the novel 419 (Pintail Books, $16 in trade paperback), says a surprising number of people fall for this contemporary twist on an age-old confidence game.

Some of the victims are naive. Others are blinded by greed.

Ferguson spent a great deal of time researching “419” scams, so named because an inordinate percentage of the con artists are based in Nigeria. (The number refers to the article of the Nigerian Criminal Code that addresses fraud.)

In his novel, Ferguson opens with a well-meaning victim who loses everything to a 419er, then commits suicide, prompting the victim’s daughter to retaliate. But 419 is about more than just Internet scams. It’s also a fascinating look at contemporary African culture.

We talked last week with the Canadian author about his book.

What sparked your interest in 419 scams?

We all get emails like that. Until a few years ago, they were always something I just deleted and never thought much about. But I was researching a book set in the 1930s about scams and cons and I came across a reference to 419. I thought, “Oh, I know those. Those are the silly emails we get.” And given that I was writing about the 1930s, they didn’t apply.

But there was a footnote pointing out that the 419 scam is a modern variation of the “Spanish Prisoner” con game, which goes back 500 years. That got my attention, because I didn’t know how an email scam could go back 500 years.

And what exactly is the Spanish Prisoner con?

It goes back to the late 1500s and the Spanish Armada taking on England. Even though England won, a lot of English noblemen drowned or disappeared. And letters started to circulate. Not emails, of course, but quill-and-ink letters.

And if you read them, they’re really funny because they’re almost exactly what we get today: “Dear Sir, I am the daughter of an imprisoned English nobleman and he has a great fortune trapped in a Spanish prison that he needs to get out. If you will advance a small fee to bribe his captor and hire a coach to get him out, you will be rewarded.”

I read about this and thought, “OK, if this swindle has been working for 500 years, there’s more to it than just a silly email.” That’s when I started to research it and realized how many people’s lives are ruined by it. It’s a very dark story.

Who is more likely to be duped: the gullible or the greedy?

The character in the book who falls for it is sympathetic. He thinks he’s helping a woman. There are a lot of people who think they’re honestly helping someone. Those are the heartbreaking stories.

But I would estimate, from reading the police reports and email trails, that upward of 60 percent are very hard to have sympathy for, because they’re driven by pure greed. If you read how the scam works, they say they’re going to move, like, $50 million into your account and they’re going to trust you to keep only 10 percent or 20 percent and pass the rest on.

Well, a certain type of person will say, “These African rubes. I can take them for everything.” They’re the ones the 419ers are really hoping to snare. The greedy ones think they can steal it all from some poor, gullible, semi-literate African who has access to all this money.

But in a battle of cunning versus greed, cunning always wins.

You followed the scam all the way back to a dangerous criminal culture in Nigeria. How much of your writing about this part of the world resulted from firsthand research?

I have been to Africa. I just came back from a refugee camp in eastern Congo, which is almost in a state of civil war. That didn’t faze me. But many of the areas I wrote about are especially dangerous.

Like, there was no way I was going to go into Lagos [in Nigeria] and start poking around the 419 Internet scammers. That wouldn’t have been safe at all. I did not go to the Niger Delta, where a lot of the action happens. Even the oil workers there have to have armed guards all the time.

I was set to go to the Sahel, the northern desert area, but there was a Muslim extremist group that started kidnapping foreigners and massacring people in churches, which prompted counter-massacres against innocent Muslims. So I canceled my plans. I am not a flak-jacket journalist with a death wish.

But the beauty of fiction is you can blend research with applied imagination.

Maybe your next book can be set in some place safe, such as Disney World.

Exactly. My wife would love it if my next novel was set in the French Riviera. Or at Saks Fifth Avenue.

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