As longtime readers know, one of my hobbies is collecting Nigerian scam emails. This week, as is my annual habit, I’d like to share my pick for best Nigerian scam of 2011.
For those few of you with no idea what I’m talking about, the fabled “Nigerian scam” — now pushing 40 years old — originally involved handwritten letters and faxes soliciting help in moving a large sum of quasi–illegal cash out of some African country, usually Nigeria.
As technology advanced, faxes and letters turned to emails, and the purported geography of the writers became more disparate.
You, dear reader, have your heartstrings tugged as well as your wallet, in assisting to get the cash out of limbo in exchange for a promised cut. If you take the bait, you’ll be asked to forward increasing sums of cash to the writer to grease the wheels of corrupt native bureaucracy.
The emotional, guilt–inducing letters play on the stupidity, naivete, greed and even latent racism of the recipient. While I don’t condone the Nigerian scam’s illegality, I have no sympathy for fools who are parted from their money in this manner.
Despite their criminal intent, to me as a writer and editor these emails represent something increasingly rare and wonderful: Genuine creative writing, with an earnest dedication to craft that’s all the more poignant because we’ll never know the writers’ true identities.
Maybe the biggest irony is that in this age of text–speak and declining writing skills in the so–called “developed” world, scam email writers now possess what amounts to a state–of–the–art of grasp of exposition and dramatic effect.
Literary agents and editors, take note!
Unfortunately, in this Tweeting, value–shopping Walmart world we live in, the trend continues toward shorter scam emails. Like a Russian novel, a good Nigerian scam needs time to develop.
While I cannot claim that the overall level of the Nigerian scam across the board is back to golden age, pre-text and pre-Twitter heights, I did come across some fine examples in 2011, many courtesy of my number–one supplier, Jack Fitzgerald.
Like the blues or Shakespearean sonnets, the best scam emails follow a time–honored template. The genius of the writer comes through in how creative they get within the template.
This year’s winning scam email, while a little brief for my taste, purports to be from a sensitive young lady in Africa’s Ivory Coast named “Miss Esther Moses, the only Daughter of late Mr. Moses Igwe.”
A proper opening is vital. It must be compelling, and must combine the right amount of pathos with a note of humility for being so direct.
Here’s young Miss Moses’s intro:
I am very delighted to have you by my side. It is the only way I can get to you after going through your profile, considering my present situation in which I found myself into... I am an orphan being hereby begging you for your assistance. I lost my mother when I was just 6yrs and since then my father took me so special. But it is sad to say that he also pass away due to some three days sickness.
I’m hooked already! Didn’t take long.
Now we come to the integral portion of a true Nigerian scam email: What I call the “habeas corpus,” in which the writer paints a detailed picture of the exact amount of the cash sum as well as its physical location.
Check out Esther’s well–executed habeas:
He was an Agrochemical dealer and also a Fertilizer importer during his days but before his death at the hospital he call me on his bed side and told me that he has an amount of Four million, Five hundred thousand United state dollars, (USD $4,500,000.00) deposited in one of the leading Banks here in ivory coast, so I should look for someone who I will Trust to help me invest this money In any safer place outside Africa who will stand as my guardian over this money so that I can further my education there and also for better investment,
Note the exquisite attention to detail in her deathbed confession scene, a common motif in Nigerian scam emails. Not only was Dad an “Agrochemical dealer,” whatever that is, he was also a “Fertilizer importer.”
A sly double entendre referring to the amount of manure the scam writer is shoveling? In any case a deft touch.
Also note how the slightly manic quality of the run-on sentence helps convey the writer’s supposed desperation.
The stage is now set for the section I call the “appeal to decency.” This is where the scam writer can really stretch out:
I am just 22years old and a university undergraduate and really don’t know what to do. So please I am pleading you, if you can help me to transfer this money to your country so that I can join you there to further my education and also for better investment of the money. Please try as much as possible to help me, as you can see , this money is my only hope rest now, and my whole life, so please try as much as possible to help me out of this situation. and I promise you that you will never regret doing this to me.
Note again how her poor English works to her advantage: “Doing this to me” instead of the more normal “for me.”
Another subtle play on words, perhaps, reinforcing the writer’s vulnerability in this cruel world?
All this is a set–up for the “ask.” Like Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, the Nigerian scam writer lives by the principle of ABC: Always Be Closing. Miss Esther gives us a new twist, with a modern bullet–point ask suitable for the 22–year–old of today:
Now permit me to ask these few questions,
1. Can you honestly help me from your heart?
2. Can I completely trust you?
3. What percentage of the total amount in question will be good for you after the deposit is delivered to your care?
Oh, I don’t need much, Esther. Just a cool million will be fine for me. Happy New Year!