If you have an email account, you've almost certainly received an e-mail from a Nigerian scammer promising to pay you thousands or even millions of dollars if only you’ll loan them some money until funds in some locked up account are freed. It’s been going on for years, with the latest variant involving a Nigerian astronaut supposedly trapped in space for 14 years!
Here’s the desperate plea from the "astronaut's cousin":
In the 14-years since he has been on the [space] station, he has accumulated flight pay and interest amounting to almost $15,000,000 American Dollars. This is held in a trust at the Lagos National Savings and Trust Association. If we can obtain access to this money, we can place a down payment with the Russian Space Authorities for a Soyuz return flight to bring him back to Earth. I am told this will cost $3,000,000 American Dollars. In order to access his trust fund we need your assistance [read: money].
Now, who would believe this silly story? Not many, it turns out. So why are these scams so crudely written? Are the scammers really that unsophisticated? Quite the opposite, according to Microsoft.
“Far-fetched tales of West African riches strike most as comical. Our analysis suggests that is an advantage to the attacker, not a disadvantage. Since his attack has a low density of victims the Nigerian scammer has an over-riding need to reduce false positives (people who don’t fall for it). By sending an email that repels all but the most gullible the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select, and tilts the true to false positive ratio in his favor,” writes Microsoft researcher Cormac Herley, in a report.
The thing is, pulling off a scam necessitates an investment in time and resources for the scammer. “For example, each respondent to a Nigerian 419 email requires a large amount of interaction, as does the Facebook ‘stuck in London scam,’” Herley says.
That’s why scammers come right out and tell people they’re from Nigeria—doing so weeds out suspicious types who aren’t likely to cooperate.
To make scammers' lives more difficult (and for general amusement), some people counter these crooks by "scambaiting"—wasting the scammer's time by pretending to be a gullible victim. My husband had a brief stint as a scambaiter with a bad guy on Craigslist, who was supposedly selling an expensive SUV for a fraction of its value and promised to ship the vehicle as soon as my husband wired him the money. My husband was able to waste hours of the guy’s time before the scammer finally gave up.
While my husband amused himself by baiting a scammer, it’s not something you should do unless you're very careful (not to mention it’s a waste of your time, as well!).
"The golden rule is: Do not give out any real information whatsoever," a scambaiter named Mike Berry told NPR. "The scammer who's writing you may live 3,000 miles away, but he may have friends who live near you, and these are not people you want to mess with."
Since these "please send money" scams keep changing their stories, just make sure you don't fall for one of them. If you get a "get rich quick" email from a stranger (or friend, for that matter) that sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is.