By now, anyone who has an email address has seen one or two (million) pleas from wives or children of deposed Nigerian dictators offering them the chance of a lifetime. I must get 20 a day. Hold on, let me go check my inbox.
Ah, look. Here we go:
From: MOSES AZIZ.
This letter may come to you as a surprise due to the fact that we have not yet met. I have to say that I have no intentions of causing you any pains, so...
Sadly, Mo here is dying. He needs to transfer $30 million out of Nigeria and needs an outside partner. That would be me. He ships me the money, I get to keep 10%. Bow before me, plebeians, I'm gonna be rich!!!!
Except that there's no money coming my way from this, guaranteed. This is what is known as a 419 scam -- 419 is the criminal statute in Nigeria dealing with such frauds -- and the only money that would be transferred if I engaged my dear Mr. Aziz would be from me to him. These are scams, plain and simple. That they ever work at all simply baffles me, in the same way that I can't believe that people are influenced by those penny stock hype emails. (An update: Those same companies are now down an average of 92%.)
Your best course, naturally, is simply to delete these emails. But if you have some time on your hands, and a penchant for corresponding with potentially dangerous people, then you might find some sport in playing with the scammers, keeping hope alive. Actor Dean Cameron decided to do just that, responding to an email from "Mrs. Mariam Abacha" in January 2003 with "Great! Do you have any toast?" Thus began a 22-month correspondence between Cameron, taking on the persona of a sexually confused single middle-aged Floridian millionaire who lives with his cats and a houseboy.
There are two things that I love about this. First, the fact that Cameron used these actual emails as the basis for a live two-person show called "Dean Cameron's Nigerian Spam Scam Scam," running through December 18 at the Sacred Fools Theater in Hollywood, Calif., and we in the rest of the country can only hope that they go elsewhere around the country after that. (What Motley Fool could resist such a name as the "Sacred Fools Theater?" If you're in or near Los Angeles, go see the show!!) Cameron is somewhat circumspect as to whether he will be paying "Mrs. Abacha" or her "son" "Ibrahim" for writing half of the show. Second, for a couple of hardened scammers, I absolutely adore just how earnest and gullible Cameron's correspondents can be, particularly when Cameron introduces them to another Nigerian scammer and suggests that they work together.
I recently spoke with Cameron about his show and experiences with the Nigerian scammers.
The Motley Fool: Is it true that these scams are the fifth largest Nigerian export?
Dean Cameron: As far as we can tell, it's true. It may be even higher, but obviously it doesn't show up on official statements. I know that in the U.K., it's about $20 million per year, and it's about the same in the United States. A lot of it is underreported, a lot of people figure out they've been scammed and don't report it out of sheer embarrassment. So we don't really know, but it's in the tens of millions of dollars.
TMF: Why don't you ask Ibrahim how much he's taken in?
DC: That's actually one of the things I wanted to do with this show, turn it into a documentary and actually sit down and talk with the guy. I've had phone calls with him, but they were obviously in character as a crazy person. On a call-in radio show I once got a call from a Nigerian living in the U.S. who had family members who were scammers. They sit in Internet cafés all day and they run this scam.
TMF: Have you met people who have been taken in by such a scam?
DC: We did the show at a conference of bunco cops early this year. One of the people speaking was the wife of someone who had lost $250,000 to Nigerian scammers.
TMF: Well, I'm glad they aimed low, my emails are usually asking for 5 grand.
DC: Well, after that initial amount of money, they continue to soak you. They get your bank details and clean out your account.
TMF: I'm always baffled that people fall for this. Don't these emails scream "danger!" to you?
DC: I'm baffled too, but you have to remember, everyone believes weird things. There's feng shui, there's astrology, there are all these crazy things people buy in to. A friend of mine says "everybody got the gris gris," everyone has something that they believe that is weird. You can't win the lottery, but people buy tickets. So someone falling for a scam, you can't get too incredulous, because there's certainly something that you believe that is certifiably nutty. So sure, it's possible that there is somebody with $30 million in a bank who needs your help.
TMF: Yeah, "why not me?"
DC: Exactly. At one point they send me a picture of Mrs. Abacha sitting on this ornate couch, probably the ugliest couch I have ever seen. I wrote back saying, "What are the odds? We must shop in the same place. I have the same couch!" I know a foreign correspondent at NPR who has actually sat on the couch where Mrs. Abacha's picture is taken. I'm pretty sure, at this point, that I've never heard from the real Mrs. Abacha after two years.
TMF: But at this point they can't not know that you're aware this is a scam. They know that you're scamming them back, right?
DC: They found the website. He wrote me as Mrs. Abacha, saying, "I can't believe you've posted out correspondence on the website, you've broken my heart." When "she" wrote this, I wrote back and blamed it on my houseboy Kwan, saying he was mad at me and he's trying to ruin my name. "Mrs. Abacha" wrote back saying, "I forgive you, do you still love me? I love you!"
TMF: Tell me about the origins of the play. I see a lot of bored fun in the emails, but at some point you made the transition from thinking you had good material for a website to figuring out you really had something here.
DC: Well, it wasn't really me. I was just sending this to friends, saying, "Can you believe this?" So then some of them, like Penn Jillette and Eric Stoltz said, "This would be a very good play," and so last year we did a test version of it and people loved it. So Paul Provenza helped me shape it into a good piece of theater, and we took it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and got rave reviews.
TMF: As far as you know, has anyone in Nigeria ever been arrested for this?
DC: Nigeria's such a mess that its laws are mainly treated as "suggestions," so I don't know of anyone who has been arrested in Nigeria. A scambaiter like myself got someone in Ireland. They tracked him down through IP addresses to an Internet café in Ireland. He was, of course, Nigerian, but living in Ireland.
TMF: Are you aware of many people doing this? I'd think that on some levels it's kind of dangerous. I know of one other group, who use Rudy from the show Survivor as their character.
DC: Yeah, there are others, but none of them have a play.
DC: My favorite is a guy who says he's a member of the Church of the Painted Breast. He's amazing. He says, "I'd like to give you money, but I belong to this church, and if you join the church I will send you money. What you have to do is paint a red circle around your left breast. He sent a picture of himself and a bunch of friends posing with red circles on their breasts, and the guy in Nigeria replied with a picture of himself with a red circle on his breast.
TMF: Whatever it takes, right? I'm baffled by how persistent Ibrahim is. You put him through hell to get this money. If someone sent me guacamole recipes instead of money, I'd have to take that as a sign that this was someone who was, at a minimum, a barking lunatic.
DC: I think that was part of the attraction for Ibrahim. My goal was to drop just enough hints that he would stay on the hook. He still writes. The last correspondence was in July and it's pretty simple: "That sounds great, send us a check." They're pretty much done with it. But what I'm doing with the show is I'm taking up a collection of tchotchkes, and I've got eight large DHL boxes of stuff like Blockbuster
TMF: Is there anything people can do to turn these people in? Or is the best advice to do not as you do, and ignore it.
DC: I think ignore it is the best thing. But a woman from Nigeria came to the show and said, "I love that you're wasting their time, because if you are they aren't hurting someone else." Scambait them and have fun. Maybe you'll get a show. They're almost impossible to catch.
TMF: Have you ever felt you were in danger doing this?
DC: I had a bunco cop watching my back, and he'd make sure I didn't do something stupid. Fake faxes, the mailing address was a post box. There were a couple times when he offered to come to the United States and I ignored that. Of course, Victor [Isaac], who does the show with me, hopes I get hurt, because then he'll have a great show.
TMF: The sequel will be amazing. It'll have the closer that Hollywood seems to demand.
DC: Yeah, it'll have pathos. "Dean Cameron, I kill you!!"
TMF: From our perspective at The Motley Fool, we just appreciate what you're doing. We try to help people make good money decisions, and I can't think of too many that would be worse than this one. It's like the lottery times a million.
DC: Well, yeah, because there is no chance you're winning if you play.
TMF: Dean, thanks for your time. I hope we see "Dean Cameron's Nigerian Spam Scam Scam" all around the country.
DC: Thanks, Bill.
Bill Mann and Dean Cameron will be leading a guided tour of Lagos in March. To reserve, please send money to....Uh-huh, riiiight.
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