Truth of 419 Internet scam really ‘a sad story’

Tracy Sherlock, Vancouver Sun 

Truth of 419 Internet scam really ‘a sad story’

Will Ferguson takes readers behind the scenes of the world’s most insidious Internet scam in 419, a novel about a Nigerian con artist and his victim.

Gerry Kahrmann / Vancouver Sun

Will Ferguson’s latest novel, 419, gives the backstory to one of the world’s oldest scams. You’re probably familiar with the modern version of 419: it begins something like this: “Dear Sir, I am the son of an exiled Nigerian diplomat, and I need your help ...”

Although many of us hit the delete button right away when we get an email like this, not everyone is savvy to the 419 scam — a modernized version of the Spanish prisoner scam — which Ferguson told me emerged after the Spanish Armada in the 16th century.

“The idea for the book came out of a single footnote — a reference to the 419 con — that I came across when I was researching Spanish Fly,” Ferguson said. “After the Spanish Armada, a lot of British noblemen disappeared and letters started to circulate in Britain, written with quill and ink, saying ‘I am the daughter of an English nobleman who is rotting in a Spanish prison. We have a huge fortune we will give you, but he has to get out of prison first and we need some money to bribe the guards.’

“That’s essentially the same con, but the Nigerian genius was to update it.”

Today, the quill and ink is replaced by electronic data flying across the world in the form of spam emails, which are bait for naive and trusting people, who want to help the person on the other end, and who get blinded by thoughts of megabucks.

Ferguson is the award-winning author of Happiness, Beyond Belfast, Canadian Pie and Spanish Fly. His previous novels, Happiness and Spanish Fly, were both comic novels, so the serious nature of 419 is a departure for Ferguson.

This book started as a comic novel based on the 419 con, but the more research Ferguson did about the scam, the more he realized it was really a sad story.

“It’s a sad story. I never realized what you’re writing really affects your mood,” Ferguson said. “As I was writing 419, my mood was often dark.”

He said there have been many victims of this scam.

“There have been many suicides, and many ruined marriages and business partnerships,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson based the victim in the well-written, fast-paced novel on the typical profile of an actual 419 scam victim.

“If you drew a profile of the typical 419 con victim, it would be a retired teacher with grown children, who has access to some savings,” Ferguson said.

He also based the scammer in his novel, Winston, on the typical Nigerian con artist.

“They’re usually educated young men, far more educated than their opportunities allow. They often start as freelance operators, and get drawn into the mafia.”

Another character, a pregnant, homeless Nigerian woman named Amina, is inspired by the story of Amina Lawal, a Nigerian woman who was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery and for conceiving a child out of wedlock. Lawal’s conviction was ultimately overturned.

The details of the scam were also based on an interview with fraud detectives in Calgary, where Ferguson lives.

“How it often starts is with someone replying to the initial email saying you’ve got the wrong person,” Ferguson said. “That’s how they latch on.”

From there, they will bait the victim using personal information they find on the Internet.

“I could easily come up with a profile of Tracy Sherlock. I could infiltrate your friends on Facebook, and all kinds of things,” Ferguson said. “I could say, this is the Tracy I was looking for, using some insider information, and suddenly your guard is down.”

The scam is a long con; the emailer doesn’t ask for any money up front. The process often takes months and usually includes fake documents that the scammer says are from the central bank of Nigeria.

“Often they’re much more impressive than the real thing,” Ferguson said. “They have to impress you.”

The scammer will say they want to put money in your account to get it out of the country. In exchange, they say you will get 10 per cent of a large sum of money, possibly $30 or $40 million.

“It all seems foolproof; you think I can’t lose. You’ve got stars in your eyes,” Ferguson said.

“They get you really worked up and excited in the beginning, and then wouldn’t you know it, there’s a complication, such as a lawyer’s fee or something — only $500 — and then they just bleed you dry. Once you start that downward spiral, it’s very hard to get out.”

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