An online friend of mine from a small Siberian town recently posted on her blog about how her mother fell for a scam and lost the family savings in hopes of getting some nonexistent inheritance from Africa.
My friend gave her elderly parents a computer, but it did them more harm than good. They received an email — allegedly from the employee of a bank — written in poor English but with amazing news: Anna Sergeyevna (name changed), my friend’s mother, was in line for a million-dollar inheritance. As it turned out, they had a relative in Africa, Mr. John Sergeyev, who had passed away. Mr. Sergeyev had no heirs, but his lawyer began to search for his client’s relatives online, and after much time and effort, he had finally found them in this small Siberian town.
After a short email exchange, the apparent heiress was asked to wire over some cash to cover overheads before the inheritance could be delivered. My friend’s mother wired over several thousand dollars through the local Sberbank branch to the account specified in the email.
After that, all communication stopped — emails and phone calls elicited no response.
Unfortunately, Anna Sergeyevna was yet another victim of the so-called Nigerian scammers. Their scams (also called Nigerian 419 scams) are fairly straightforward: they send out emails typically requesting assistance in cashing out a very large sum of money (usually worth millions of dollars), proposing to split a large share of someone else’s money with the recipient, or telling the recipient that they are due to receive a large inheritance. But in order to successfully execute these transactions, the intermediary or the alleged heir needs to first cover some minor (compared to the riches to come) costs. The scammers are always armed with scanned documents to show their potential victims, and back up their claims with evidence of legal support or the word of a respectable figure which backs up the tales told in the initial email. Regardless of the fine print, though, the result is always the same: once they get your money, they vanish.
Each month, Kaspersky Lab filters intercept tens of thousands of Nigerian scam letters in different languages.
Glossary: Nigerian letter fraud
Synonym for “419 scam“
These 419 scams have been covered online and in the press. But there will always be people who have either just started to use the World Wide Web or who choose not to listen to sound advice, and those who are simply naïve and genuinely believe the scammers’ promises.
These scams have been doing the rounds for some time: the first Nigerian scam letters offering large sums of money appeared in the 1980s and were sent then by plain old snail mail. With the emergence of the Internet, Nigerian scammers welcomed the new advantages of emails. These days, Nigerian scam mailings are organized by scammers in countries all over the world.
The first Nigerian scam letters were allegedly written by the widows or children of Nigerian government officials, whose millions could only be cashed abroad. This is how the scam took on the name of “Nigerian” scam letters. Later, the stories fabricated by the scammers became more varied and inspired, and even won the Ig Nobel Prize (an American parody of the Nobel Prizes) for literature in 2005.
Typically, scammers have just a few tricks in their bag that can be combined in one email. Nevertheless, each premise has several variations: the names used can be those of politicians, the fatal diseases and stories involving bloody murders can sometimes be impressive, and the amounts of money are always substantial — nothing less than fifty thousand dollars or euros.
Below is one example of the classic Nigerian email, where the author discusses the death of his father. Only in this example, to bring it into line with the latest news, the father was not killed during the Nigerian civil war, but was instead a victim of Gaddafi’s regime.
Before I proceed, I must first apologize for this unsolicited mail to you. I’M the Daughter of late Mr Hame, who wasassistant secretary of Muammar Gaddafi who is now dead.
My father was among those GADDAFI killed as inside enemy, but before the fightI was taken by boot to Spain here in my father private house, so that I can take care of his investment here in Spain, and my father leave some amount of money for me here in one of the private security company here, and now I want to move this moneyout of this country
I have told my lawyer about it, all I need is a trust worthy person. So that when the money is transferred into his or her account, he or she can help me for visa and other papers I needed to live in that country, you have 10 of any amount transferred into your account.
If you are willing, then email my lawyer at this and his name is Barr. Martinez Luis So that he can explain to you more about this, if you want to come down here and see by yourself,
The lonely young heiress who needs your help
One classic set-up is a letter written by a young lady who has inherited a large estate somewhere in a war-torn African country. These emails typically target men who are registered with online dating sites (of course, these beautiful young ladies always upload their photos).
The contents of these emails go something like this:
“I am the daughter of a murdered millionaire, a refugee hiding from my father’s killer. I have a bank account holding my late father’s estate, but I need help to get it out of the bank. I can even fly to you to take care of all of the transactions with your help in your country. I am so young, and so lonely…”
Someone else’s inheritance is all well and good, but your own is even better. At least, that seems to be the scammers’ logic behind this type of scam email, which informs recipients of large estates bequeathed to them from previously unknown, wealthy relatives:
“Your relative in [insert very far away country here] has passed away. You did not know him, but you are his only heir. I am his lawyer [accountant, pastor], and I will help you with the paperwork.”
I am paul koffi (S.A.T),writing you in respect of my deceased client Late Mr.P.A.Sergeev,who died On the 21st of April 2003 along with his entire family.I have been trying to locate any member of his family to assist in repartrating the fund he deposited in finance house valued at USD$10.5million.
Please i would like you to contact me through my private email address email@example.com so that i can give the detail concerning the claim.
I am looking forward to hearing from you soon.
God bless you.
This is the type of letter that my friend’s mother received.
The dead guy’s loot
In this version, the person who has died is not a relative, but someone with the same name. He does not have any living relatives or heirs, nor has he written a will – and sadly it seems that all his vast wealth will go straight to the government! Rather than see the money go to waste, staff at the bank where the estate is held have apparently sought out a potential recipient, someone with the same surname who can claim the cash. And in exchange for their efforts, they ask for a small pittance of just 30% of the total amount.
But what if no one with the same name as the late millionaire can be found? Not to worry; the cash can still be shared out. The late millionaire has no living relatives, and his money is stuck in the bank. But the employees at the bank encourage the recipient to serve as the heir, and in exchange for their efforts, the new-found heir will grant them a portion of the plunder.
|From: Paul Kunert
Strictly ConfidentialIt gives me a great deal of pleasure to write you this mail and even when it might come to you as a surprise. My name is Paul Kunert. I am a client services manager with a bank here in Europe. I would like to use this medium to ask your assistance.
I have in the course of my duties come in contact with an account that has been inactive for some years now and a careful investigation proved the depositor of the funds died five years ago. All attempts to reach the supposed beneficiary of the deposit were fruitless and before it is forfeited to the state, can you assume next of kin? I look forward to hearing from you.
Respectfully yours, Paul Kunert
The philanthropist in search of a good Samaritan
Nigerian scam letters are also sent allegedly from wealthy figures on their death beds, looking for just one good and honest soul to whom they can bequeath their entire estate. As a rule, the protagonist of these emails is childless, a millionaire widower or widow (the latter being the most common version).
Here is an example of this type of scam:
|From: “Veronica Nelson”
Subject: From Mrs. Veronica NelsonAccra Ghana.
I am the above named person, but now undergoing medical treatment in
Since his death, I decided not to re-marry or get a child outside my
Recently, my doctor told me that due to cancer problem that he is not sure
I took this decision because I don’t have any child that will inherit this
As soon as I receive your reply I shall give you the contact of My Family
Please assure me that you will act accordingly as I stated herein and
Remain Blessed In The Name Of The Lord.
The business proposal
Disgraced millionaires don’t escape the scammers’ attentions either — their money can be divvied up as well!
An alleged lawyer, accountant or personal assistant to some well-known person needs help: his client’s (or boss’s) money can’t be cashed out in their native country, but it can be transferred abroad to someone’s account. You’ll get 50% of the sum for helping out!
We received these types of letters from, allegedly, an assistant to the son of the ousted Egyptian President Mubarak, the widow of Badri Patarkatsishvili, a personal assistant of Muammar Qaddafi who managed to somehow escape from Libya, from Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s accountant, and from countless relatives of African government officials whose names no one has ever heard of but who are victims of oppression in their war-torn countries.
Here’s an email supposedly sent by the widow of Georgian millionaire Patarkatsishvili:
|From: “Mrs. Olga Patarkatsishvili”
Subject: Re: Greetings From Mrs. Olga PatarkatsishviliGreetings from Georgia,
Greetings in the name of the lord, I am Mrs. Olga Patarkatsishvili, the widow of late Georgian business tycoon Mr. Badri Patarkatsishvili, I have a business proposal which will be of great benefit for you and myself. I will send you further details once I receive your response back. Please for security reason, I will strongly recommend that you write me through my private email account only.
I can be reach on this Email: (firstname.lastname@example.org), for more information’s on this project.
Thanks for your understanding.
The mysterious box full of cash
In addition to the countries where government officials suffer through no fault of their own and are at the mercy of oligarchs, there are also countries torn apart by war. It seems Nigerian scammers think war-torn countries provide an ideal setting for intriguing stories told in emails from soldiers.
“I am a US soldier. During military operations in Iraq [or Afghanistan], I found a box full of money. I intend to keep it for myself, but I do need to transfer the cash to a reliable place. I have chosen you for this purpose. Please let me send the box to you, and once my tour is over, I will come to get the box. I’ll give you half of the money for your troubles.”
In some letters, the “soldiers” hint that the money could have been Osama bin Laden’s. One such letter claims his estate was $12.5 million. How all of that fit into one tiny metal box will forever remain a mystery.
And finally, a devious scheme aimed at would-be freeloaders:
|Subject: NIGERIA SCAM VICTIM COMPENSATION:
From: *****@**********It has reached the office of the Federal Govt of Nigeria that you were scammed before so the Govt has decided to compensate you with the sum of $70,000.00,
Contact Barrister Etters and pay a fee of just $80 for funds release .
There are both longer, more detailed boilerplates for these types of emails as well as the brief ones, as in the example above. They all promise compensation for the unlucky victims of scam and fraud. The recipient of the email is supposed to quickly get the hint that no one is going to check to make sure this is legit, and he’ll be raking in the cash thanks to a simple government error.
But it’s all fair play. Want to get compensation without actually having fallen victim to a scam? You won’t get money, and you’ll end up becoming a victim of fraud.
As we mentioned above, Nigerian scam emails don’t all originate in Nigeria and now come from countries all around the world. The authors of these emails typically write in English or French, and online translation sites help them translate their literary masterpieces into any language, including Russian. The scammers can also use machine translation sites to read any responses they may receive from their potential victims.
One email from “the daughter of a major political figure” from the Ivory Coast arrived in our inbox in the artificial language of Esperanto. A quick search for the name Rosina Jillian Tagro showed that the baroness also sends letters in Polish. We can only guess where the author is really from.
Sometimes letters are simply addressed “Dear Friend,” in the hope that the recipient will fall for it, reply, and the scammer will be able to harvest the victim’s first and last names from the reply email.
As we saw above, scammers often know the first and last name of the recipient. Unfortunately, it is not particularly difficult to gain access to databases of names and addresses. If you have ever received spam, it means that your information is in at least one such database, which in turn means you may also become a target for Nigerian scammers.
Even if an email uses the recipient’s name, oddities resulting from cultural ignorance do sometimes occur. For example, a recipient entered in a database as Petrova Olga may receive a curiously composed email that starts: “Dear Mr. Olga! Someone who shares the same name as yours, Mr. John Olga, has passed away.” Russian names are a complicated thing. But this doesn’t discourage the scammers — 99 recipients of this type of email may read it, laugh, and forget all about it, but the gullible one hundredth recipient might just take the bait.
If you receive an email promising you millions from an inheritance, as a gift, or as a reward for acting as an intermediary in cashing bank funds or taking money out a country suffering from unrest, think long and hard before sending any replies. These emails are sent by scammers only!
Don’t get over-excited, even if it seems like a wealthy widow, the beautiful daughter of a murdered oil tycoon or the staff of a major political figure might be writing to you personally and addressing you by name: the scammers know where and how to get their hands on databases filled with names and addresses.
If the authors of the emails send scanned copies of documents as evidence of their honesty and the existence of their millions, don’t be too quick to take them for scans of actual documents. Malicious users typically have no problems falsifying documents. It’s easy to make a fake document — scan a passport, a bank statement, legal statement, or a photograph of a pastor surrounded by his parish, and use Photoshop or another photo editor to apply some basic changes to the images.
The safest choice of all is to avoid opening emails from unknown senders. If you still want to see what kinds of tales the “Nigerians” have for you and have a laugh at the expense of machine translation, then no harm done. And send your Nigerian scam letters to Kaspersky Lab — it will help us protect other users against scam attempts.