One of the most common email crimes committed today is called the Nigerian Scam, also known as the Nigerian Letter or 419 fraud. Although this scam derives its name from the country of Nigeria, forms of the Nigerian Scam have originated from other parts of Africa and Europe. Although the current form of the scam appears to have started in Nigeria during the 1970s, an early version called the "Spanish Prisoner Letter" has been around since the Middle Ages.
Essentially, the classic form of the Nigerian Scam centers around a letter, fax or email allegedly sent out by the family of a wealthy Nigerian political figure who is currently exiled, imprisoned or dead. The family cannot access a frozen account containing millions of dollars, but the money can be deposited into foreign bank accounts. The family must find foreigners willing to receive a portion of this money for safekeeping. In exchange for this 'white collar' crime, the recipient is entitled to keep up to 40% of the total investment.
Quite often, the Nigerian Scam email will contain legitimate information concerning a real political dissident's death or imprisonment. This may be enough verification for a skeptical recipient. The second part begins when a recipient agrees to send confidential financial information to the sender in order to receive the money. From this point on, the scam artist will either use this private information to clean out the victim's entire bank account or send a fake cashier's check as a partial payment.
Sometimes the victim will only provide personal contact information, correctly fearing a potential financial disaster. The original Nigerian Scam artist will turn over the con to a second criminal who specializes in hard sales tactics. This person will use psychological pressure and even physical intimidation in an effort to secure a good-faith loan from the victim. Once this money is received, the scam artists disappear quickly. Needless to say, there never was a family fortune or an inheritance that needed to be ferreted out of the country.
Variations on the Nigerian Scam involve other huge sums of money, such as an international lottery. Victims are informed through email that they have recently won a substantial amount of money in a previously unknown lottery. In order to claim their prize, however, the victims are often asked to submit 'security bonds' to ensure proper delivery. Sometimes, a judge may have to be bribed in order to legalize the proceedings. Again, the scammers soon disappear after receiving these illicit payments.
There have been cases reported world-wide of murders and other criminal acts as a direct result of Nigerian Scam variations. In 2006, a minister in Tennessee was shot by his wife, who feared exposure as a victim of an international lottery scam. Others report kidnapping threats, physical assaults and blackmail by participants in a Nigerian Scam operation. Law enforcement efforts are often hampered by the sophisticated electronic elements of the most modern scam variations. A scam can literally be operated from an Internet cafe connection anywhere in the world.