john skinner

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"Help me steal some money — from you!"

The Internet is currently overflowing with e-mail from Africa, offering to give you a few million dollars in exchange for secrecy and a little help. The writer is a bank employee or minor government official, who has found a way to steal many millions of US dollars. (A variation has the writer a poor orphan, trying to retrieve money that his late father stole; another variation comes from a U.S. Marine officer who found a stash Taliban money; yet another comes from a bank courier who was on his way to the WTC on September 11th.) He needs your help to perpetrate his crime: you must tell him your name, address, social security number, date of birth and the numbers of all your bank accounts, and give him some money in advance for bribery and other expenses. He will transfer all his stolen money into your account, and you can keep a quarter of it. He trusts you! so surely you can trust him too?

Well, no, you can't. He is indeed a criminal, that's true, and he is indeed out to steal some money. But guess what: it's your money he is after.

It's just amazing that a trick this obvious can work so well. The phrase "million dollars" clearly switches off many people's bullshit detectors. The evidence certainly speaks for this: if the scam weren't successful, "they" would stop.

Where do we start? The letter-writer opens by stating directly that he is a criminal. He's found a way to steal someone's money, and is going to do so. Do you often knowingly collaborate with criminals? I expect some victims intend to rob the robber: they think they'll transfer all the money out of their account and leave the swindler high and dry. File these sad fools under "poetic justice".

Second point: why you? Who are you, that some African should turn to you for help? Is your ego really so monstrously huge, that you believe your name to be well-known in the backwoods of Africa? Put yourself in his position: if you were trying to steal a few million dollars, would you ask an absolute stranger for help? Or would you rather ask somebody you knew and trusted? If he really were a bank official or government officer, then he would surely know people in banks or governments in other countries. They could help him much better than you can. Why doesn't he write to them?

Third point: consider the mechanics of the deal. He transfers money into your account and then he transfers most of it back out, leaving the rest as your payment. The operative word is he. You have to grant access to your bank account to a self-confessed criminal. Does that sound like a good idea?

Fourth point: even if it were true, helping him makes you an accomplice i.e. a fellow criminal. Do your life plans include becoming a criminal? I would find it hard to enjoy the proceeds: both my conscience (whose money is it really) and my common sense (someone will find out) would leave me no rest.

Fifth point (I'll stop soon): even if it were true, someone will find out! All banks — even the Swiss — cooperate with national governments and international agencies, in an effort to trace drug and terrorist money. All large-sum transactions are immediately reported to the authorities. The taxman will know about your little adventure, and will be burning with curiosity! You have at most three months in which to think of an explanation that would not leave you either in jail or liable for income tax on the whole sum. Good luck.

Sixth and most important point: the information he asks for is at least as valuable as the contents of your bank account (which will soon be his bank account). He can take out and default on loans in your name, he can sell your own house from under you and pocket the proceeds, he can get a driver's license or a credit card or a passport in your name and repeat it all with another victim. Whose name does all this blacken? Yours, dear friend. This is called identity theft and it's big business.

What to do?

All mail servers have an account called "abuse" for dealing with these cases. Forward a copy of the letter to them (complete and unedited), and ask them to close the account. For example, if the letter is from "", then you write to "".

There may be further e-mail addresses in the header or body of the letter, forward the letter to "abuse" at all of these too.

(Incidentally, I do this with all spam mail, not just transparent frauds. It won't stem the tide, but it makes me happy.)

There might also be telephone numbers in the letter. Call the relevant national phone company (the long-distance operator will tell you their number) and tell them the story. They will be happy to disconnect the fraudster's telephone. Alternatively, forward a copy of the mail to the police department of the country where the telephone number is based.

Then delete the letter.

What not to do?

Don't fall for it.

Don't answer in any way, shape or form. Even a reply like "may you get cancer" is useful to the fraudsters: it confirms your name and e-mail address.

Further reading

Wired magazine has reported often on these and similar scams.

Further thinking

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't true.
Every unsolicited offer of money or work, is an attempt to defraud you. Keep this in mind and you won't go wrong: I guarantee it will be true in 99.3% of cases. The remaining 0.7% will be so unattractive (because honest work is unattractive) that you wouldn't want to write back anyway.

I'm sure that the majority of Africans are at least as honest as anyone else, and are hard-working, decent and kind to children and small animals too.

I am also sure that most of these letter-writers have never been anywhere near Africa. It's a convenient choice which plays on our prejudices and half-knowledge. We all "know" that Africa is basically lawless, corrupt to the back teeth, and very dangerous. The story of the corrupt official is immediately believeable, and the victims are unlikely to go in search of their stolen money.
Copyright © John Skinner, 2003. All rights reserved.
Last updated 2003.02.26