The phrase “e-mail scam” conjures familiar images: all-capital notes signed by Nigerian princes offering huge fortunes—if you can only send them a few thousand upfront—or government officials who cannot properly spell their own titles expressing a desperate need to route millions through your bank account.
These fraudulent messages, known as ‘419’ scams, are traditionally associated with Nigeria, from where it is estimated about 1/5 of them originate. They are patently ridiculous, poorly written promises of massive sums of money, and tend to be dismissed out of hand as sucker-bait. Regardless of how outlandish they seem, in 2013 an estimated $12.7 billion in fraudulent funds circled the globe as a result of people falling for these false promises—hardly an insignificant figure. Additionally, kidnappings, murders, suicides, and drug trafficking have links to these scams, and to the groups who profit from them, making 419 fraud an international security and development challenge that needs to be taken seriously by the global community.
Getting a full picture of exactly how much money is moving each year as a result of e-mail scams is a challenge, as many victims are too embarrassed to report their losses. One 2009 study estimated, based only on cases that were reported and therefore almost certainly an underestimation, that victims of 419 fraud lost $9.3 billion in 2009. This was an increase of $3 billion from the year before, and a follow-up study in 2013 found that the number had jumped to $12.7 billion. This would make the 419 ‘industry’ roughly the same size as the GDP of Botswana. E-mail scams certainly circulate less money than the global heroin trade or arms trafficking, but they bring in significantly more than illegal organ trafficking. In total, it is thought that there are over 800,000 scammers globally, many of whom are part of loosely-organized crime groups that work together to run everything from check fraud to lottery scams to romance scams.
Money is not the only thing crossing international borders because of 419 fraud, either: these scams and international money laundering have been connected to the thriving Nigerian drug trade, and profits have also been tied to illegal arms trafficking, human trafficking, and kidnapping rings. Additionally, 419 scams are even suspected to have links to terrorism financing, though little concrete research has been done on the subject. Ultimately, 419 scams are a growing form of international cybercrime responsible for pulling in billions of dollars for global criminal organizations, something about which everyone should be concerned.
419 fraud does not get the same treatment as other cybercrimes such as espionage or online child abuse, though, primarily because it is not taken seriously. Piecemeal efforts are being made by various governments, who recognize the legitimacy of the issue, but the 419 fraud industry continues to grow exponentially. The Nigerian government established the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to combat financial cybercrimes, and the organization has since had notable success apprehending and convicting scammers. There have been some victories in other countries, as well, such as the 2015 arrest of a Jamaican man convicted for fraud valued at over $5.5 million and the 2004 arrest of a Nigerian crime ring of scammers in Amsterdam.
It’s not hard to see why, despite these efforts, the amount of money fraudulently raised through 419 scams has increased over the last couple of years: corruption is endemic at all levels of the Nigerian government; legitimate job opportunities are slim; and, thanks to the globalizing force of the Internet and the Nigerian diaspora, 419 scammers have a massive international network. A multi-faceted solution that addresses all of these issues while combating the illicit activities tied to funds from such scams – drug trafficking, financing terrorism – is the only measure for full and complete enforcement against these scams, and one that will necessitate sophisticated and coordinated international efforts.
Before this global cooperation can be achieved, though, more needs to be done to raise awareness of the seriousness of 419 scams in the public eye. More research must be done to quantify the connections between illicit activities and 419 scams before multinational enforcement efforts can garner international support. Similarly, more attention needs to be drawn to the continued growth of this industry, and the stigma associated with sending money to a scammer must be reduced; after all, millions of people around the world are falling for 419 e-mails and, by association, funding criminal organizations. It’s time to start taking 419 fraud seriously, otherwise the industry will only continue to grow.
Michelle Bovée is an account executive at a business development firm in the Washington, DC metro area and a graduate of the London School of Economics MSc International Relations program. She is a staff writer for Charged Affairs, where her focus areas include current events and international economics.
Image: “Binary” (credit: Morburre/Wikimedia Commons).