Security firm Panda recently announced that the Nigerian 419 scam ranks among its top picks for scams not for this year, but of the decade. In case you need a reminder, those are the often comical solicitations, usually by email, that wish to information in eloquent but faulty English that you are the beneficiary of a vast fortune from an African cousin and only need to complete some routine paperwork in order to inherit what's rightfully yours.
In other variations, the emailer is a US soldier serving in Iraq who has stumbled across a small fortune in US dollars hidden in one of Saddam's many palaces, and wants your help to get it back to the US.
These are called advance fee frauds, because the scammer usually tries to drip money out of the victims, in bogus fees, before the victims can get their hands on the non-existent fortune.
Anyone reading these ridiculous emails could be forgiven for wondering what kind of person would even fall for such an obvious scam. The answer may be found in the words of one of the thousands of scammers plying his trade.
A recent prosecution of a Nigerian 419 scammer by a Connecticut court revealed how easy it is for poor, uneducated thieves, with little more than access to the internet, to make more than $1 million from this scam.
The scammer is a Nigerian citizen who came to the United States to make enough money to retire on. Between 2004 and 2009, he and his partners targeted thousands of email addresses at random, in the expectation that if they were able to bait just a handful of the most gullible, the risks would be worth it.
Court documents showed that the gang often shared information on known "mogus" a slang for fools who had been tapped repeatedly for many years and who regularly fell for the scheme.
In many of these cases, the thieves target the elderly. Once the victims lose the first payment they make, they often become desperate and continue to make more payments in the hope they will eventually get all of their money back. But they never do.
Personally I know of one elderly gentleman who has lost more than $1 million to these thieves, and I'm currently working with one couple who now receive almost weekly calls from a man with a thick Nigerian accent who claims to be from the US Department of Grants and wants to deposit a stimulus check into the couple's bank account.
This kind of harassment is not uncommon. Once the scammers hook someone they believe may be vulnerable, they don't let go. This particular scammer admitted to calling one victim more than 1,200 times over a two-year period - an average of nearly twice a day, every single day, for two years.
There's plenty we can do to educate and warn consumers about this kind of scam. What's tougher is addressing the inherent greed that still traps many.