Enduring success of the 419 scam

A group of Nigerian con tricksters allegedly found a lucrative target in Nelson Sakaguchi, a former official of Brazil's Banco Noroeste.

Enticed by promises of $39m of kickbacks on a project to build a new airport in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, Mr Sakaguchi is accused of transferring huge sums of his employer's money into offshore accounts.

Between 1995 and 1998, according to High Court documents in Nigeria and the UK, the fraudsters obtained $190m from Banco Noroeste.

Five Nigerians will appear in court on Wednesday in Abuja on charges relating to the alleged fraud.

The accused, who include high-profile individuals such as Emmanuel Nwude, a former director of Union Bank of Nigeria, one of the country's largest financial institutions, all pleaded not guilty at a preliminary hearing last week.

The trial, billed as the world's biggest "advance fee" fraud case, highlights a criminal phenomenon that reveals much about both Nigeria and international attitudes towards the country.

The alleged fraud is one example of a family of scams known in Nigeria as "419s", after the section of the criminal code that covers the offences.

The archetypal 419 fraud is the email or letter claiming to be from a corrupt government official or relative of a dead African dictator who needs to take millions of dollars out of the country and will pay a significant cut for help in doing so.

The target who expresses an interest in the deal will typically be asked for bogus legal fees or details of his or her bank account, which will promptly be emptied.

The concept of the 419 fraud covers a huge range of deceptions and is as familiar to Nigerians as it is to the western office workers who find offers of fabulous wealth in their email inboxes each morning.

Homes around Nigeria carry graffiti, such as "This House is not for sale - beware 419", as a warning to potential purchasers who might be "sold" the properties by fraudsters.

Some mischievous Nigerians note that last year's controversial presidential elections, which were undermined by reports of widespread ballot fraud, took place on April 19: or, according to the US system of writing dates, 4/19.

For all the 419 fraud's domestic and international notoriety, it is much more than simply a blight Nigeria has exported to the world.

Many of the big-time frauds succeed because there are foreigners who are prepared to abet serious criminal offences to facilitate the movement of stolen money.

Doubtless some victims are playing out atavistic prejudices in which they see themselves as smarter than childlike Africans who have no idea what to do with their fabulous ill-gotten wealth.

Another dubious generalisation - albeit one containing some elements of truth - casts 419ers as plucky, impoverished Nigerians hoodwinking the avaricious rich overseas.

Some fraudsters are already wealthy people and their actions discourage foreign contact with Nigeria, helping perpetuate an isolationist domestic economic system that is already grotesquely skewed in favour of a corrupt elite.

The methods of fraud can also be brutal, eschewing appeals to greed and playing on people's fears instead. Examples include the conmen who intercept telephone lines to tell callers that their friends and relatives are seriously ill and need money to be wired urgently to Nigeria.

The image of ingenious young chancers fighting against cruel domestic and international economic systems is more compelling when all that is at stake is money held by foreigners who should know better.

Western law enforcement agencies say a scam favoured by West African criminal gangs is to order goods from companies using false cheques or credit card details.

The cons work because of the time-is-money speed of western financial transactions. They mostly go unpunished because of the ease with which the fraudsters can disappear from their own resource-starved and corrupted law enforcement agencies.

The profile of the typical 419 fraudster gives a sense of how deprivation can underpin this exotic strain of economic crime. Many con tricksters are from the east of the country, where the indigenous Igbo people have long complained of discrimination at a political and economic level.

Opportunities for jobs and education are scarce for everyone in Nigeria: the sense of being at the bottom of such an unpromising pile must be unbearable.

If the prosecution case is upheld, the Banco Noroeste case will be unusual in its scale but not in its pattern of Nigerian ingenuity and foreign complicity.

The advance free fraud is already a transnational issue for law enforcement authorities. The question is whether Nigeria and its western allies will address the deeper problems that sustain the enduring success of the 419 scam.

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