News from a Dear Friend: Stuck in Africa


Josephine turned on her shiny new tablet, a gift from her son Frank, to consult her email: for a long time now her day were beginning in this way, a sort of consolidated ritual since she retired. And since Frank had moved to the United States, the Internet had become the most convenient and cheapest way to communicate with her son.

After some initial difficulties, Josephine had become familiar with the tablet and now she was perfectly at ease with these new objects that until a short time before gave her so much apprehension.

The joy she felt in seeing her grandchildren on the other side of the Atlantic in real time led her to often wonder if she could have endured that distance without the help of these new technologies.

But that day a message in her box caused her great concern. It had been sent to her by Jane, Frank’s wife. Although they had always enjoyed an excellent relationship, they had sent two or three emails at most in all those years.

They preferred both face-to-face live video chats! The subject of the message had nothing reassuring: “VERY URGENT”. The content was alarming:

Good morning !

Hope not to disturb you? I am traveling to Africa and I have had a problem. I really need your help is very urgent.

Contact me soon by email.


As a matter of fact Jane was often abroad for work. Josephine felt a little embarrassed, wondering why her daughter-in-law had thought of contacting her instead of contacting someone else. She tried to contact Frank on his cell phone, but he didn’t answer. Nothing strange: in the United States it was still late at night.

But since the stakes were really high, Josephine replied to that strange email to find out more. The answer was not long in coming:

Thanks for your answer, I am in a problematic situation. I wanted to talk to you, but I didn’t want you to tell someone else, because a very shameful thing happened to me. I will tell you in more detail when I return.

I was the victim of a very serious attack yesterday, in a neighborhood where they said it was dangerous, it is true. All my personal belongings were stolen: credit cards, cash, telephone, documents. I have no more money and I cannot make a withdrawal, in this situation I need your financial help very much. Could you lend me 1,500? With that I can pay the whole hotel bill, but any amount will be fine, I am in great need.

I contacted the embassy this morning but they haven’t helped me yet. I think they want to check the story, they are very cautious but I can’t wait for them, that’s why I’m contacting you to help me. For now I am not reachable, I connect to the Internet from the hotel.

Please send me a deposit with XXX, a cash money transfer agency that has offices here and this agency is in the post offices. For the transfer, use the information below. I have no more documents and I will not be able to withdraw the money if you do it on my behalf. You have to get it addressed on behalf of a nice person who wants to help me, but isn’t rich enough to lend me the money.

Here is his personal data for sending money: Surname: XXXX, Name: XXXX, City: Lagos, Address: XXXX, Country: Nigeria

Send me the references of the transfer as soon as possible (MTCN code, sender’s name, security question and answer and the amount sent) so I can collect the money.

Thanks so much.

Frightened by what she had just read, Josephine ran to the nearest post office to make the payment. Of course, she wasn’t rich but she couldn’t refuse Jane such help. As soon as she got home she received a call from her son, in panic.

“What’s going on mom? I saw you called me in the middle of the night!”

“It was for Jane, she’s in Africa, she wrote me that she was having problems.”

“But what are you saying, mom! She’s having breakfast right here in front of my eyes!”

To Understand, or How They Did It

Fraud 419 (also called scam 419 or Nigerian scam) was widespread on the Internet. The name 4-1-9 was derived from the article number of the Nigerian code which sanctioned this type of fraud.

A “scam” usually came in the form of “spam” (message, email, and so on) in which a person claimed to have a large amount of money (millions of dollars in inheritance, bribes, money to launder, funds to be placed abroad as a result of a change in the political context and so on) and expressed the need to use an existing account to quickly transfer these alleged funds.

The organizer of the scam asked the victim for help in transferring money. The victim therefore acted as figurehead for the operation, often presented as a good work in favor of persecuted politicians or people in difficulty in any case.

The operation had a certain cost, which the victim was called to cover (which represented the amount defrauded), in exchange for a percentage of the money that would have been transferred. If the victim agreed, she/he was gradually asked to advance sums of money intended to cover imaginary expenses (notaries, security companies, bribes, bank transfer costs and whatever else…) before the transfer was successful.

Obviously, the coveted transfer to the victim’s account never took place, while there were cases in which several payments were made to the fraudster.

It was not difficult to find very common types of letters of scam 419. A typical model:

First of all, please keep this conversation private. We represent the top management of the Federal Government Contract Review Panel of Nigeria and we intend to safeguard some funds that have been trapped here in Nigeria. In order to assist us in the commercial negotiation, allow us to receive these funds from abroad otherwise they would be frozen…

The many who took the hook also lost thousands of euros.

The Word to the Historian

This kind of scam was certainly not born with the Internet.

The oldest classic version of this scam is called the Spanish prisoner. The most remote traces date back to the fourteenth century, the era of the Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula by the very Catholic Spain, then in the process of being formed.

In this case, a letter was delivered to a nobleman in which the “Spanish prisoner” presented herself as a high-ranking girl kidnapped by the Moors. The nobleman was begged to deliver the ransom requested by the kidnappers to the bearer of the letter, who was obviously an accomplice in the scam. For this pious work, the nobleman was promised the hand of the prisoner…

Similar versions exist in every age, among which the so-called Letters of Jerusalem stand out, made known in the memoirs published in 1836 by the infamous Eugène-François de Vidocq, “ex” delinquent and convict in the Cayenne, who later became chief of the secret police in France in the years of the Restoration.