Nigerian Letter Scam Definition and How to Avoid It

What Is the Nigerian Letter Scam?

The Nigerian letter scam, also known as advance fee fraud or "419 fraud," is a scheme in which a sender requests help facilitating the illegal transfer of money. The letter may be sent by mail, fax, or email—the most common method. The author is typically a self-proclaimed government or military official, bank officer, or business executive, who explains they need access to a foreign account to transfer money out of Nigeria.

In exchange, the sender offers the recipient a commission—sometimes up to several million dollars, depending on the perceived gullibility of the target. The scammers then request money to pay for some of the costs associated with the transfer, such as taxes, legal fees, and bribes to government officials. If the scammers are successful in receiving money, they will either disappear immediately or try to get more money with claims of additional transfer problems.

Key Takeaways

  • The Nigerian letter scam is a scheme in which a sender offers a commission to someone—generally via email—to help transfer a large sum of money. 
  • Nigerian letter scammers hope the commission offered will be enticing enough to compel recipients to send thousands of dollars to a stranger.
  • The reasons given for the transfer can differ from a government freezing an account to an inheritance with no beneficiary.
  • Nigerian letter scams are also known as advance fee fraud or 419 fraud. 
  • The name stems from the prevalence of these scams in Nigeria during the 1990s. 

How a Nigerian Letter Scam Works

This specific type of scam is generally referred to as a Nigerian letter scam because of its prevalence in that country, particularly during the 1990s. Section 419 of the Nigerian Criminal Code makes this type of fraud illegal. However, this scam is not limited to Nigeria and is also perpetrated by various organizations in countries around the world. 

The origins of this scam are widely debated with some suggesting it started in Nigeria during the 1970s, while others suggest its origins go back hundreds of years to other confidence scams, such as the Spanish Prisoner scam.

Special Considerations

The Nigerian letter scam was initially conducted by phone, fax, and traditional mail. The proliferation of email provided a new route for the Nigeran scam. Warning signs that a message might be a scam include mention of a U.S. currency account in a foreign country and the promise of substantial compensation for little effort, as well as typos, grammatical errors, and unusual syntax.

What the Scammers Are Looking for

Nigerian letter scammers hope the commissions they offer will be enticing enough to compel recipients to risk sending thousands of dollars to a stranger. The scammer may say the transfer is needed because the government is trying to freeze (or confiscate) their accounts, or that the money is otherwise hostage to war, corruption, or political unrest. The person might say they desperately need your bank account number to transfer the money for safekeeping.

Of course, when it comes to this type of request, remember that if anything sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Nigerian letter scams continue to exist because it only takes a handful of people—out of hundreds of thousands of attempts—to be fooled to make it worth the scammers' time and effort.

How to Avoid the Nigerian Letter or 419 Fraud

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recommends the following tips for avoiding this type of fraud:

  • If you receive a letter or email from Nigeria (or any other country) asking for personal or banking information, do not reply in any manner. Forward the letter to the U.S. Secret Service, your local FBI office, or the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. You can also register a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission's Complaint Assistant.
  • Be skeptical of people stating they are Nigerian or other foreign government officials asking for your help moving large sums of money to overseas bank accounts.
  • Do not believe in the promise of large sums of money for your cooperation.
  • Always guard your account information carefully.
  • If you know someone who is corresponding with a scammer, encourage that person to contact the FBI or U.S. Secret Service as soon as possible.

Though many people recognize these and other types of scams, remember that criminals only have to find a few gullible people to make their time worthwhile. If you know anyone who may be vulnerable to fraud—for example, your aging parents—be sure to explain how scams work and how they can be avoided.

What Is the Nigerian Romance Scam?

In a romance scam—which is a type of catfishing—a criminal adopts a fake online identity to gain a victim's trust and affection. The scammer uses the guise of a romantic relationship to manipulate and/or steal from the victim. The criminal may propose marriage and make plans to meet in person, but that never happens. Eventually, the scammer asks for money. According to a study from tech and cybersecurity company TechShielder, Nigeria is the second-most-notorious country worldwide for romance scams, behind only the Philippines.

What Is an Advance Fee Scam?

An advance fee scam happens when a victim pays money to a fraudster who has promised something of greater value in return—such as a gift, contract, loan, or investment. The victim, of course, receives little or nothing, even if they cooperate with the scammer's demands. The Nigerian letter scam is an example of an advance fee scam because the victim is promised a cut of a large sum of money in exchange for providing banking details and making upfront payments.

Do Nigerian Letter Scams Originate in Nigeria?

Not necessarily. Of the Nigerian letter scam criminals who could be traced, 71% lived in the United States. Nigeria accounted for the next highest portion, at 8%.

If you believe you have been a victim, you can file a complaint with the Criminal Investigative Division of the U.S. Secret Service, Office of Homeland Security.  U.S citizens or residents should label the correspondence "No Financial Loss- For Your Database" or "Loss", depending upon your circumstance, and:   

  • Send it by mail to the U.S. Secret Service, Criminal Investigative Division, 950 H Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20223. It is important to report significant financial loss due to a message of this nature to your local Secret Service office also, which can be located in the 
  • Field Office Directory on the Secret Service website or on the inside cover of your local telephone directory.
  • Forward suspected Nigerian e-mails to so that the Federal Trade Commission will be aware of your experience.

Additional information about Nigerian fraud scams can be found on the FBI's website

Article Sources
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  1. AARP. "Nigerian Scams."

  2. Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Nigerian Letter or 419 Fraud."

  3. Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Romance Scams."

  4. TechShielder. "Catfish Analysis: The Countries with the Highest Rates."

  5. Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Advance Fee Schemes."

  6. State of Georgie Bureau of Consumer Protection. "Nigerian Fraud Scams."

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