Do Nigerian Scam Emails Hide A Terrible Secret? [Opinion]

Christian Cawley 19-04-2012

nigerian scamsAnother day, another spam email drops into my inbox, somehow working its way around the Windows Live spam filter that does such a good job of protecting my eyes from all of the other unsolicited bobbins. Naturally, the message comes from a Nigerian citizen, a legal representative of a deposed prince who would like to pay me to hide some ill-gotten gains in my bank account. It’s a hugely generous offer, enough to make me think twice about the morality of saying yes.


The problem, of course is that it’s a Nigerian scam email – a scam that has been going on for years now, in slightly different forms with the occasional change of details. In fact the advance-fee fraud has been running for so long that I find it incredible that anyone would possibly be taken in by it.

Jelly Brains

I’ve been working IT and online security since 2004 and I know that there are people for whom the idea of using a computer is like learning a foreign language – remote, confusing and useless. I’ve seen the minds of intelligent people (consultant psychologists, professors of medicine) turn to jelly the moment a request to click the Start button in Windows is uttered.

Therefore I am well aware that people will click anything with a blue line under it, whether in an email or a webpage. My problem with the whole Nigerian Scam Email phenomenon is this – as the most famous scam in the digital age, reported on news programs, consumer rights shows and even in magazines, how can it continue to pay off for the perpetrators?

nigerian scams

Perpetrating Identity Theft

It is of course a classic phishing ruse, divulging access to your bank account or leaving enough information for the scammers to steal your identity.


These emails typically require (and I quote):

  • Your banker’s name, telephone, account and fax numbers.
  • Your private telephone and fax numbers – for confidentiality and easy communication.
  • Your letter-headed paper stamped and signed.

the nigerian scam defined

For years I’ve been telling users that any email requesting personal information should be reported and deleted. The problem I have is that with spam email systems as good as they currently are (and to let Windows Live off the hook, a quick browse through my Junk folder reveals several others, one addressed to me by surname!) it seems unlikely – to me – that the scammers would continue to use this same method repeatedly. So why are they doing it?

Is There More to the “Nigerian Scam Emails”?

Recently it was suggested to me that there could be something more to these emails that goes way beyond seemingly hilarious attempts at scamming money.


Another reason why I’m becoming increasingly doubtful about the true nature of these emails is the way in which they are presented. Would an online criminal targeting their emails at everyone who speaks English do so with a document littered with spelling mistakes – particularly when purporting to originate from an official source?

nigerian scams

There are many ways in which the creators of these messages could have them checked over for grammatical errors and formatting. Services exist online that use automated solutions or living, breathing people to check these details; freelancing marketplaces are regularly visited by coders happy to clone a website and “article rewriters” so I find it hard to imagine there would be much difficulty in finding someone willing to revise the message and keep quiet.

So what is really going on? Could these messages be something more? Is it – and forgive me for going all James Bond – a secret message, disseminated in bulk so as to find the correct recipient regardless of the email address he or she is using?


It might sound a little far-fetched, but then so is the notion that people still fall for the scam. Back in the Cold War days and before, spies would use all manner of tricks to communicate with their contacts, from the arrangement of fallen twigs in a park to highlighting text with an invisible solution that only the contact could activate.

With this in mind, the Nigerian scam emails suddenly seem far more dangerous, don’t they? Could a terrorist organization be communicating with a cell? Are the messages sent by a foreign government to undercover agents in the UK or North America?

Do People Really Fall for These Scams?

Whether these emails are part of a conspiracy that is far more sinister than theft or are simply vestiges of an era when online security was something that mattered to other people, the fact remains that they are still being sent.

Someone, somewhere, is expecting a return of some sort – and meanwhile we’re all expected to get behind western governments who are more interested in Internet censorship under the guise of protecting copyright (of course that’s a whole other discussion). Wouldn’t all this effort be better spent fostering a safer online environment for regular users, educating them about reasonable and legal use of the web and dealing with the issue of online fraud rather than pandering to big business?


Of course it would. But whatever the truth is about the Nigerian Spam Emails, they’re still dropping into inboxes and junk folders, encouraging identity theft and possibly carrying a bit more information than is obvious to the untrained eye.

So what do you think – scam or spy?

Image Credits: Spy Image Via Shutterstock, Credit Card Image Via Shutterstock, Matanya

Related topics: Email Tips, Identity Theft, Scams.

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  1. Dawn
    February 26, 2017 at 6:55 pm

    Currently there is a scam in Benin. Names of Juliet E. John, John Williams, James William Apeyi and Clement Abu ( He is the pick up person claiming to work for Western Union. Juliet E. John contacts you by phone then route you to John Williams who claims to work for Western Union with Clement Abu as the pick up person. Apeyi claims to work for Fedex.

    • Christian Cawley
      March 31, 2017 at 7:49 pm

      Thanks for sharing this, Dawn, valuable stuff.

  2. Tahmidul Islam
    April 18, 2016 at 6:02 am

    Seriously?! My dear NIgerians, stop shouting at Christian. This article is about SPAMS WHICH COME FROM NIGERIA not about NIGERIA. Stop showing love for your country by breaking your keyboard keys here and do something to stop these spams. If you can't, don't come to show this fake love for your country.
    If you read the article you'll see that Christian has also mentioned spams from other countries. So, it isn't about Nigeria. It's about spam mails.

  3. Pat
    April 25, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    Focus people, FOCUS.
    The comments for this article have strayed incredibly far off topic. Angry Nigerians, racists, and other obsurdity abounds. Very entertaining, though.

  4. 2noob2banoob
    April 24, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    So they do get to agree on a secret message protocol yet they do not exchange e-mail addresses? Seems a little far-fetched. Apart from that the theory sounds plausible.

  5. the facts
    April 24, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    few nigerians have bastardized the image of our fatherland. Nonetheless,westerners should stop the habit of calling notebook a spade because there's not a single resemblance between the two!the population strenght of scammers in US,UK and environs is far more stronger than the ones in Nig.becareful!

    • Christian Cawley
      April 24, 2012 at 3:30 pm

      I am positive that Nigeria is a beautiful country populated by handsome folk who by and large have the same aspirations and dreams as us in Europe and North America.

      But this article is nothing about Nigeria, it's about scams, and the possibility that they are more than they seem.

      Let's post our thoughts after reading the contents, not the title!

      • SBD
        April 26, 2012 at 5:58 am

        You can't be serious. What remains in you mind after you read stuff like this? Is it the content or the heading / subject? You probably won't remember any of the content; but the words NIGERIAN and SCAM will remain for a very long time. The next time you hear Nigeria(n) or see a Nigerian, you remember the heading not the content.
        Fact is that people often find it easy and fun to point at the little specks in other peoples eyes without seeing the beam in their own eyes. Most online frauds are not from Nigeria, they are more from United States and Europe. They are so perfected that you can hardly recognize them as fraud. This is because they are very tech savvy. So pots should stop calling fry pans black.

        • Christian Cawley
          April 26, 2012 at 6:53 am

          This is a ridiculous comment that completely ignores the way in which language is used. We (as in anyone who discusses these types of message) call them "Nigerian Scam Emails" because the first - or certainly most common - examples purported to be from Nigeria.

          You can rant all you like, but your problem isn't with me, other commentators of this phenomenon or the use of the term, but with the English language.

          Good luck with that challenge, you're going to need more than an anonymous comment on a website to win it.

        • Carrie
          April 30, 2012 at 4:41 am

          Wow it's getting hot in here! Christian I think some of these people need to lighten up. I think you have a very interesting topic. And i'm sure not thinking of any other name to call the scam in order for people to know what you're talking about. I've had like 6 of them very lengthy in fact even going as far as asking why I didn't show up at some bank to meet and discuss the "inheritance" i supposedly have been left. And it was weird the person was very upset that i didn't show. The letterhead says he is from "Nigeria" You have a very good point and made me look at it differently. Now are we supposed to report these e-mails? Much Respect Christian Very Sincerely Carrie

  6. James
    April 21, 2012 at 6:04 am

    Just a little speculational idea here. What if there is some kind of bot/virus or something sending out emails. A program that someone made somewhere, with bad grammar, that just hasn't ever stopped. This just occured to me. Your conspiracy theory is much more entertaining and plausible.

    • Christian Cawley
      April 24, 2012 at 3:31 pm

      I think the bot nature of the emails is probably the case, although it is now inspiring ideas of a giant program being created email by email.


  7. muotechguy
    April 20, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    OMG, I'd never even considered the fact that broadcasting these nonsense emails might actually be a cover for secret messages!!

    I doubt it, mind. Probably just poor and badly educated people trying the only thing they can. Same as indian cold callers from Microsoft. I find myself asking about their family and how they can sleep at night, but inevitably they just hang up.

  8. Changes to Africa
    April 20, 2012 at 11:52 am

    I'm a Nigerian, and i would admit to the fingers pointed at us right at the moment even when we are not guilty as charged; sometimes. But why is the world so controlled and misguided by folks like you. You SHOUT OUT!! NIGERIAN SCAM NIGERIAN SCAM. Ask yourselves these questions:
    1. Who are the real thieves ?
    2. Who are the real terrorists ?
    3. Who are the real silent killers ?
    4. Who are the ones scamming COUNTRIES AND CONTINENTS ?
    5. Who should be punished ?

    It's very hard for Africans to prevail in the world of today and it's even worse for a Nigerian citizen just because of people like you who blog about the surface of the matter and ignore the core.

    You'll all pay for your crimes someday.

    • Christian Cawley
      April 20, 2012 at 12:23 pm

      Changes to Africa - this isn't the time or the place to change the subject; we're not talking about semantics here. It doesn't matter where the emails originate, and I feel you're being over aggressive about the issue.

      The question I'm asking is: "are they more sinister than they appear?"

    • Drough Deguire
      April 25, 2012 at 3:22 am

      ...Hmmm, now this sounds a little suspicious. The emails are suspicious, but "You’ll all pay for your crimes someday." is also. Kinda got a bad taste out of that.

    • SBD
      April 26, 2012 at 6:14 am

      Good talk. They make it look as if more scams come from Nigeria than any other country. How may Nigerians are involved in ponzi schemes? What about fine prints? There are more evils in west than in all other parts of the whole world. Why can't somebody talk about them. If somebody has nothing reasonable to do with his / her time, he or she should go and sleep rather than broadcasting his / her stupidity and ignorance. What is the population of Nigerians? What % of them are engaged in scamming? Why will one idiot decide to insult the whole population of Nigerians? Has he / she really investigated the source of the emails to conclude and call them Nigerian Scams? It is mind boggling that some people can be this stupid, ignorant and daft.

  9. Bob Henson
    April 20, 2012 at 8:56 am

    Just a scam, of course. There is nothing sinister about them - they just rely on the fact that the sheer stupidity and/or greed of a sufficient number of the recipients will produce a return.

  10. Chris Hoffman
    April 20, 2012 at 6:27 am

    I thought the terrible secret was going to be the crushing poverty that leads people to send them!

  11. Marc
    April 20, 2012 at 6:05 am

    I believe the mis-spelling is to get past the spam filters that windows and other companies have in place.

  12. Si
    April 20, 2012 at 4:18 am

    Apparently people do still fall for it. The people at my local post office told me that they often have folks wanting to send money to obvious scammers. Even when told about the risks, some would insist on sending money.

  13. Qwertinsky
    April 20, 2012 at 12:06 am

    It cost nothing to send out millions of emails, and it only takes one reply to pay off.

  14. Mike
    April 19, 2012 at 11:33 pm

    Hey guy, I'm a Nigerian and I won't deny the one time existence of such scam mails, I actually get some in my box too but permit me to be of the impression that some other entity might have taken advantage of this image-defaming activity (nigerian scam mail) to perpetrate some other agenda, I won't be surprised if Filipinos, Americans or some other African citizens have taken charge of this, afterall the accusing finger will be pointed at Nigerians. I jus urge us all to b careful and avoid any get-rich-quick scheme. You'd be a victim of your own GREED. Thanks guys!

    • Christian Cawley
      April 20, 2012 at 12:26 pm

      Thanks Mike - a fair point and everyone should be aware. In fact it would be great to come across some method in these comments of increasing awareness of this problem...

    • Tom Sobieski
      April 26, 2012 at 9:22 am

      "Hey guy, I’m a Nigerian and I won’t deny the one time existence of such scam mails"
      One time?
      I'm a Boomer, an old fart actually, and have a blog catering to a bunch of other old farts. Have any idea how many times people tell me about receiving one of those "one time" e-mails? Nigeria is just geography, get over it.
      They come from a lot of other places too. The last one I heard of was from Wales, in the UK.

      • Ayo
        May 15, 2012 at 9:35 am

        Thank you for saying that Tom. Scams come from all over the world. The evils perpetuated in Nigeria are also done in other parts of the world.

        Nonetheless, the web needs to be sanitized, and very soon these sort of cheap scams will totally come to an end.

    • shood
      July 4, 2012 at 9:37 pm

      I once traced the origin of one of these scam emails. It claimed to be from Nigeria but was actually from the USA.

  15. Ellys B
    April 19, 2012 at 10:39 pm

    It's a scam praying on westerners who want something for nothing. Just like the people who play the lottery week after week thinking that they have a change at spending $1 to win millions. In countries where people have to sweat and toil hard to make $1 day they aren't silly enough to fall for this kind of things, but in the west - land of gambling and lottos.. people want to believe in a free lunch.

    • Tom Sobieski
      April 26, 2012 at 9:17 am

      but you really can't cheat an honest man.

  16. richard ludwig
    April 19, 2012 at 10:33 pm

    i have seen this kind of sewage before on yahoo mail back around 2003 - i saw right through it then and through it right into the trash bin then and now.

  17. Abdul Rafay
    April 19, 2012 at 10:20 pm

    Its Totally A SCAM my friend got one From Africa, A black guy was offering him half of the money his master left in the bank $750,000 when he died.he wrote that he have chosen him because his masters name was similar to him.And wanted his credit card and banks details.He also sent a scanned copy of his passport to claim he was legit.LOL I warned my friend its a scam and told him if he again contacts you tell him to send the money to his paypal Account!!!! lol

    • Rohan
      April 19, 2012 at 11:30 pm

      Last week a "White Guy" tried to steal my bag containing my iPad on the way to work....

    • Sam
      April 20, 2012 at 8:55 am

      A white guy from America stole millions. He was a former SEC chairman. His name was Bernie Madoff!

      • SBD
        April 26, 2012 at 6:19 am

        White people still too?

    • michel
      April 20, 2012 at 4:38 pm

      So the only "facts" you accept in the obvious scam is that the "black guy" has a "Master"?

    • Tom Sobieski
      April 26, 2012 at 9:15 am

      Whom the gods would destroy, they first make victim to Nigerians.