• Weird History

The 'Nigerian Prince' Scam Is Actually 200 Years Old

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. 

  • A Criminal Who Became The World's First Private Detective Originally Cataloged The Grift

    Photo: Marie-Gabriel Coignet / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Eugène François Vidocq, a reformed criminal, famously became the world's first private detective. Partly to avoid serving his time in prison, Vidocq contacted Paris's Criminal Department and offered his services and knowledge as a criminal to help the police. He pioneered many forensic technologies, such as ballistics and fingerprinting, and made another notable discovery - an ongoing scam asking for a little money up front in exchange for a whole bunch of money later.

    Vidocq was the first to document this type of situation, proving they existed as far back as late-1700s France. 


  • Similar Ploys Can Involve Monkeys Or Magic

    Though they often focus on rescuing someone or something from unjust circumstances, such as the infamous captured Nigerian prince, certain advance-fee ploys get a little more creative. One version offered capuchin monkeys at an outrageously low rate - around $600 for a monkey straight from Africa. Naturally, the monkey would never arrive.

    Another claimed orcs had killed the author's father - yes, orcs - and she needed a home for her $25 million worth of gold doubloons. Yet another infamous version suggested the letter's author would provide magical services in exchange for a small fee.

    All of these maneuvers rely on delayed gratification and the sunk-cost fallacy, which leads people to continue spending time and/or money as they have already invested so much. 

  • The Average Participant Loses Upwards Of $2,000 

    It's easy to think that nobody falls for these grifts, but people do. In just a few minutes, perpetrators can send hundreds of thousands of emails, and even a tiny percentage of those recipients falling for the ploy is enough. In fact, the average amount of money a person loses to these scams is around $2,000. But all together, that adds up to something substantial.

    Combined, Americans reported losing around $15 million to these scams in 2007, and that's only the people who admitted to being duped. Estimates for how much is really lost are upwards of $100 million, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center. 

  • Perpetrators Intentionally Make Their Letters Look Bad To Weed Out Skeptics

    Scam emails are known for being poorly written. They're often legible, but packed full of typos and odd phrasing that might indicate mistakes from somebody not fluent in English. These errors not only serve to emphasize that the writer is foreign, and therefore likely telling the truth about their plight, but they also weed out skeptics.

    A poorly written email will often be immediately deleted by the internet savvy or those who recognize the dishonesty. That, unfortunately, leaves the non-internet savvy and gullible - prime targets. If a person is unfamiliar with the trick, they're more likely to send money. And according to con artist psychology, sending even one small payment makes a person more likely to give more.