Everyone has a hobby. As longtime readers will know, mine is collecting Nigerian scam letters.
For those of you who’ve lived under a rock and/or had no internet access for the last 10 or 15 years, the fabled "Nigerian scam" involves an e–mail (a fax in the old days) soliciting help in moving a large sum of cash out of some African country, usually Nigeria.
You, dear reader, have your heartstrings tugged, as well as your wallet, in assisting to get the cash into the U.S. for a promised cut. If you take the bait, you’ll be asked to forward gradually increasing sums of cash to the writer, ostensibly to grease the wheels of corrupt bureaucracy.
It’s all quite illegal, of course, but my position is: If you’re stupid and greedy enough to fall for it — and there are no truly innocent parties on either side — then you deserve to be separated from your money.
I’ve collected Nigerian scam e–mails for years. I savor the best of them like fine wine.
For all their criminal intent, to me they represent something rare and beautiful in this world: True creative writing, with a dedication not only to craft but to effect — and all the more poignant because we will never know the writers’ true identities.
In the best examples one can sense the pride as these scrappy Third World hustlers fight through the cloak of anonymity to show the literary flair beneath. As an editor I must say it’s truly wonderful to behold, and my tongue is only partially in cheek when I say a lot of freelancers could learn something from them.
As with most things in our world, the golden age of scam letters is long past. After 9/11, the writers began relying more and more on lamely expressed televangelist sentiment and awkward references to Jesus.
Often this was coupled with a misguided attempt to change locale out of the presumably politically suspect continent of Africa. In some letters these days, the promised fortune is located — gasp! — within the U.S., a grotesque violation of scam letter tradition.
Another problem is the short length of most post–9/11 e–mails. Like a Russian novel, a true Nigerian scam letter takes time to develop and mature into a true work of the scammer’s art.
Thankfully, there is a literary renaissance of sorts going on in the world of the Nigerian scam. A few crafty writers have returned to their roots — colorfully embellished tales of exotic African intrigue, combined with a grifter’s ability to hook a sucker and never let go.
I received one the other day from my new BFF, Chief Abdullateef Alao. It’s far from the best I’ve ever read, but if his "TRUSTED PERSON NEEDED" is any indication, then a glorious new high period of Nigerian scam letters may be on the way. Be still my beating heart!
Like a Greek tragedy, a Shakespearean sonnet, or a blues song, a true Nigerian scam letter must follow a time–honored template. The opening is crucial. It sets the tone, combining both an introduction with a note of humility for being so direct. Here’s Chief Alao’s intro:
You may be surprised to receive this letter from me since you do not know me personally. My name is Abdullateef Alao, a close confidant of the acclaimed strong man of Ibadan politics and an industrialist, business mangul (sic) and government contractor in western part of Nigeria, Alhaji lamidi Adedibu.
Note the specificity, the finely honed attention to detail that is the mark of a careful writer. It’s not just in Nigeria, but in the "western part."
Everything in a Nigerian scam letter serves the narrative. Even the misspelling of "mogul" in this case serves a purpose: To humanize the writer and make him more believable.
After the intro comes the all–important portion I call the "habeas corpus," i.e., a very specific reference to the exact amount of money and precisely where it is:
Alhaji Lamidi Adedibu died on 11 June 2008, and as his closest confidant and accountant, I am aware of his financial dealings and account in some part of Europe and America. I am aware of a large sum deposited in a bank in Netherland which is USD$4.5 million (Four million, Five Hundred thousand United States dollars),which one of his children get to know recently, and my live have been threatened several times with that of my families asking me to go to the Netherland to withdraw their fathers money which I decline since I am the only signatory to the account/funds, and he does not want the government of Nigeria to know about in case there is a probe.
I especially love the chief’s signature manic run–on sentences, an almost stream-of consciousness technique that conveys his earnestness and quiet desperation.
Remember, without the habeas corpus, you don’t have a true Nigerian scam letter. Beware of cheap imitators!
The stage is now set for the section I call the "appeal to decency:"
It is against this background that, I and my family fled Nigeria having escape so many attacks for fear of our lives and are currently staying in the Netherlands where we are seeking political asylum and more so have decided to transfer this money to a more reliable foreign account... As the signatory to the account, I am saddled with the responsibility of seeking a genuine foreign account where this money could be transferred without the knowledge of the Netherland authority as well as the children of the late chief... I must let you know that this transaction is risk free. If you accept to assist me and my family, all I want you to do for me, is to make an arrangements with the bank to clear the consignment(funds) to a partners account I can really depend on and trust.
The trick here is to take the high road by appealing to the reader’s sense of personal honor — in this case the opportunity to help a persecuted political refugee — while simultaneously taking the low road and stoking their innate greed.
This dual nature is the core of the Nigerian scam’s genius, and the main reason it has continued successfully for over thirty years.
Of course 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:
I have two options for you. Firstly you can choose to have certain percentage of the money for nominating your account for this transaction. Or you can go into partnership with me for the proper profitable investment of the money in your country... I have also mapped out 5% of this money for all kinds of expenses incurred in the process of this transaction. If you do not prefer a partnership I am willing to give you 10% of the money while the remaining 85% will be for my investment in your country. Contact me with the below E–mail addresse,while I implore you to maintain the absolute secrecy required in this transaction.
Again, note the humility and pragmatism. If I want I can settle for just ten percent! He’s even "mapped out" five percent of the total for contingencies. Who could turn down such a well–thought out offer?
Who indeed? I’ll tell the Chief hello for you!