Don’t Get Tricked, Bro: How to Recognize a 419 Email Scam


Yesterday, I told you all about ponzi schemes and how to recognize them, even though new ones pop up all the time with different names. Today I’m going to write about 419 scams, which can be more difficult to recognize than you might think, for the same reason.

If you’ll recall, one psychological element of how pyramid schemes make their recruits so stubbornly committed to the company and resistant to accepting they were fooled is to cultivate an attitude that future riches are . They’ll encourage recruits to fantasize about the yacht they will own, the sportscar. “All you need to do is to decide which color you want!” I once heard a recruiter joke.

419 scams operate around this principle. They are also sometimes known as “advance fee” scams, because the scammer convinces the mark that just a small advance fee is needed to unlock the transfer of a much, much larger sum of wealth into their bank account.

Because of the relative size of the promised sum, the fee they are asking for does indeed seem small, though often it is thousands, tens of thousands or in rare cases, hundreds of thousands. A few have sought millions but with negligible success, for obvious reasons.


The most insidious thing is that, firm in the belief that they will receive that mountain of wealth if only they can muster the “transfer fee”, victims of this scam often resort to increasingly desperate, unethical measures to obtain that money.

For example taking out loans or borrowing from relatives without saying what it’s for (just assuring them it will produce a lucrative return), stealing, or inviting close friends/family to “invest” in a “financial opportunity”,

By this point they are already totally convinced they are on the road to riches. They’ve taken it for granted and begun to plan their retirement in the Bahamas. Coming at them with the news that they were fooled will fall on deaf, and often hostile ears.

If you’re right, it means they’re not actually going to become rich and have all those luxuries they’ve been fantasizing about. It means they’re gullible and have financially ruined themselves, so they will strongly resist that conclusion, searching for any other possibility. For example If you’re wrong, you’re the one that’s stupid and just don’t see what a golden opportunity this is. Take three guesses which conclusion they will naturally gravitate towards.


This effect is seen even more commonly in pyramid schemes, by design. It prevents the marks from being reasoned out of participating by their loved ones, making them think those friends or family members just don’t understand, or want to hold them back from being rich, or whatever else. If there were no retention mechanism like this, it would be much easier to talk people out of scams of this nature and they wouldn’t be nearly as successful.

This is why it’s important not to be hostile, yourself. It will only further convince them that they are right to ignore your warnings, that you’re just a dumb, overly skeptical asshole. The last thing you want is to make them dig their heels in, so no matter how certain of their future reward they are and no matter how infuriatingly resistant they may be to seeing the obvious signs of what they have been roped into, you must speak to them with as much patience and kindness as you can muster.

So, why does anybody still fall for 419 scams in the first place? Hasn’t everybody and their dog already heard about the supposed “Nigerian prince” email? Sure they have. Nobody falls for that specific version of it anymore. But there are endless permutations of the same basic formula, seen below.


A “Dutch noble” who is being deposed, needs to move his fortune out of the country but can’t do it without a transfer fee. A charity raising money for a child with cancer, but the money can’t be freed up from the joint account without paying the bank a fee. Amusingly, one even claimed that a Nigerian astronaut was trapped in space and needed three million to fund a rescue mission.

Learning to recognize the anatomy of a 419 scam, the formula they are all based on, is the key to never being taken in by one. This same basic scam wears many different masks, but the structural details are always the same.

So and so has a large sum of money. They are in some sort of trouble and need to move that money. The money cannot be moved without a fee of some kind. If you supply the fee, they will cut you in on the larger sum.


By laying bare the anatomy of various scams, I hope to immunize you against them. Just like a vaccine which is not a cure and won’t work on someone already afflicted, this information won’t change the mind of someone already recruited into a scam, either the pyramid schemes I discussed yesterday, the 419 email scam or any other kind. It has to be delivered before that point. Hopefully, in your case, I’ve delivered it in time.

I post text here, often accompanied by images and sometimes video. People then clap or don't depending on whether they enjoy what I posted.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store