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As part of my ongoing effort to learn about Africa, I read the book 419
by Will Ferguson. It’s about a Canadian who is caught up in the so-called Nigerian scam, and it is also about charity, crime, forgiveness, and retribution. The title comes from the section of the Nigerian legal code that handles punishment of fraud. The general term is advance-fee fraud, because the victim has to pay money upfront in order to receive the promised fortune. Of course, there is no fortune to follow.

Every day, every one of us gets tons of these come-ons, most of which are routed to spam folders. Today, I have someone who is in urgent need of someone who could be trusted to take care of investments on behalf of a good client, someone who wants to let you know that a $10 million the fund can be paid if I am ready to follow advice and work secretly, and someone using this medium to inform each transaction involving the transfer of $ 21,500,000 in a bank in China to me as a receiver. Even better, it is 100% safe, as the paying customer’s deceased. (A few years back, my kid was watching the Futurama movie Bender’s Big Score, and I told him that the Nigerian scam was a real thing. Then I opened my spam folder and showed him, and he thought it was hilarious.)

It’s hard to believe in this day and age that people fall for the Nigerian scam, but they do. Pre-email, it was conducted through letters; the scammers would get names from trade association directories and the like, and so the come-on was personalized and had more of a ring of truth: “I know that the secretary of the local chapter of the whatever association must be discreet and efficient”.

The Nigerian scam is not a new one, either. It has floated around in different versions for at least two centuries. In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain has Huck and Jim run across some scalawags during their voyage. These men are known as the Duke and the Dauphin, names that meant much at the time but not so much to us now. If they had been called the Crown Prince of Nigeria and the Widower of the financial manager of the British Petroleum office in Lagos, we would know exactly what sort of people they were. In the 19th century, there were two prominent scams running in the United States. In one version, someone – the Duke – would claim to have received word that he was a distant relative of an English lord who had died, and he needed to to go England to receive the title and the fortune. All he needed was some money for legal work and passage over the pond, which would be repaid with interest when the estate was collected. In another version, the scammer would claim to be the lost Crown Prince of France – the Dauphin – who wanted to return to France to claim his throne and fortune, but he needed some financial assistance to get there. Of course, the funds would be repaid with interest from the treasury of France.

It’s an aspect of Huckleberry Finn that gets overlooked in the kerfuffle about race and language.

Another related scam was known as the Spanish Prisoner scheme. In it, someone would send a letter from Spain, Cuba, or South America claiming to be a political prisoner who knows the whereabouts of ill-gotten gains. The money will be shared with the letter recipient in exchange for assistance, and it was written about in the New York Times on March 20, 1898.

I have trouble understanding how people will fall for these. But they do. A lazy Google search turns up several, including a detailed account of one victim’s experience that ran in the New Yorker in 2006. However, people do fall, and hard, and it’s tragic. It only takes a few bad guys to ruin things for everyone.