Email scams remain a fact of life in the digital era. While spam filters do an admirable job of keeping the more dangerous ones out of inboxes, online hoaxes, like the infamous Nigerian prince scam, persist. And these scams don't simply prey on people with a lack of internet knowledge, as they've existed for over 200 years.
People have been falling for get-rich schemes for about as long as humans have existed. Advance-fee swindles, including the Nigerian prince variant, rely on a person's desire to get a lot for only a little effort, while playing on both their ignorance of the world and drive to do good.
It's no surprise they're so successful, but their interesting history shows exactly why we're still falling for the same old lie centuries later.
We commonly refer to advance-fee deceptions as "Nigerian prince" scams, but the connection with Nigerian royalty is comparatively recent. In fact, they go all the way back to at least the French Revolution, when a person might receive a letter from an unfamiliar Marquis, asking for help with collecting an abandoned chest of jewels he'd lost while escaping the guillotine. His faithful servant, tasked with securing the gems, ended up in prison, and in exchange for helping out with bail, the target would earn themselves a cut of the bounty.
By the Spanish-American War, the grift shifted to focus on captured soldiers or corrupt officers. These used the same logic as their modern versions - a little money upfront meant a lot of money down the line, and the target got to feel good about helping someone in need.
Today's Nigerian prince scam relies on some degree of distance. Americans don't know much about Nigeria and tend to imagine Africa as a technologically undeveloped, impoverished continent. To the American victim, Nigeria may seem like a place where royalty gets mistreated or imprisoned - and, more importantly, a place where only the very wealthy have access to the internet.
In reality, almost 50% of Nigerian citizens possess internet access, and the country features a secular democratic government with only a slightly lower voter turnout than the United States. By appealing to American misconceptions about Nigeria, particularly the vision of a developing country with a surplus of royalty, scammers (Nigerian or not) gain the perfect opportunity to exploit the gullible and ill-informed.
Though "Nigerian prince scam" is the most common usage, these types of cons have a number of other names. Many come from the story the scam utilizes, such as the "Spanish Prisoner scam." Other names refer to exactly what the grift involves, such as "advance-fee fraud" - essentially, you pay an advance fee for money that's supposed to arrive later, but never does.
One of the catch-all terms for this style of scam is 419, referring to the Nigerian legal code designation for fraud. Though 419 relates to all kinds of fraud, the code has come to reference this style of swindle specifically outside of Nigeria.
We tend to think of spam as modern and digital, but advance-fee scams started far enough back in history that they originated with traditional mail. From letters sent just after the French Revolution to a newspaper ad written by a 14-year-old kid, the Nigerian prince version and its ilk adapted to newer technology. Or, in some cases, they haven't.
There are still advance-fee scams involving physical mail, tempting unsuspecting people to trade a little money for a lot more down the line. Because perpetrators only need a few victims to make money, they're able to cast a wide net not only online, but through snail mail, too.