Staying Safe from "Nigerian" Scams

So-called "Nigerian" scams originated in Nigeria and are carried out via e-mail, phone, fax or by mail. The typical "Nigerian" letter purports to be from a wealthy foreigner who needs help moving millions of dollars from his homeland and promises a hefty percentage of this fortune as a reward for helping him.

Because there is little recourse after you've been victimized by one of these scams, you should learn how to identify and avoid them.

How the Letter Scam Works

  • Victim receives a fax, e-mail or letter from someone claiming to be an "official" or other wealthy foreigner.
  • This "official" promises to send a large amount of money.
  • Sender talks about forming a "trust" with someone in the United States.
  • Sender's goal is to make victim believe he is dealing with a legitimate person who needs help.
  • Victim will be asked to wire funds for the "business deal."
  • Victim receives counterfeit check via FedEx or by mail.
  • Victim is told to deposit the check and then, likely, wire money to Nigeria or another foreign country.
  • Sender will tell victim to provide bank account or other personal information in order to facilitate the money transfer.

Variations of the Nigerian Scheme

There are many variations to the Nigerian Scheme and they do not always originate in Nigeria. These schemes are known as Advance Fee Fraud Schemes, Re-shipper Scams, Check Cashing Scams, Lottery Scams, and Counterfeit Cashier's Check/Money Order Overpayment Scams.

Most schemes and scams often vary only slightly from other types of scams. All of them require the victim to participate in an unordinary or unusual business practice the scammer claims is necessary because of some hardship. Victim is always promised a portion of the proceeds if willing to help them.

Most scams involve a counterfeit check or money order, which the victim deposits into their own account. Victim then withdraws money from the deposit, transfers those funds as directed, and is left holding the bag when the counterfeit item returns to their bank and is taken out of their account. The perpetrators of these schemes prey on victims they meet in chat rooms, through E-Bay, other Internet sales sites and newspaper classified ads.

Advance Fee Fraud Schemes come in many varieties, but always require an upfront payment to obtain the supposed lottery prize, unclaimed inheritance, or product to launch a new business.

Re-shipper Schemes employ the victim as the middleman in questionable transactions. This includes receiving large amounts of merchandise and then "re-shipping" it to various addresses, often overseas. The merchandise is typically purchased with stolen credit cards and the employer claims that the companies will not ship to foreign addresses, so they need someone to take delivery, and then re-ship as directed.

Check Cashing Scams are very much like re-shipper scams, except the victim is hired to cash checks and transfer money instead of moving merchandise.

Lottery Scams are often advanced fee fraud scams where one must first pay to obtain the winnings, but the scammers provide the means to do so with a counterfeit check, which they ask the "winner" to cash and then return the funds to them via Western Union or other money transfer service.

Counterfeit Cashier's Check/Money Order Overpayment Scams are currently the most prevalent "Nigerian" Scam in Ada County, and involve overpayment for an item the victim is advertising for sale online. The scammer will send the seller a cashier's check or money order for an amount greater than the price of the item for sale. The scammer asks the seller to send the difference to them or a third party to whom the seller owes money. The unsuspecting victim sends the buyer or the third party the difference as directed and only later finds out the cashier's check was counterfeit. At that point the victim is out as much as several thousand dollars.

Red Flags

If you can answer yes to any of these questions…there may be a problem!

  1. Is the check supposed to be used to buy an item you are selling on the Internet?
  2. Is the amount of the check more than the selling price of the item?
  3. Have you been instructed to wire funds as soon as possible?
  4. Is the check from an individual you have communicated with only via email?
  5. Is the check drawn on a business or person's account different from the person buying your item or product?


Preventing or foiling the scammers' plans is the best way to put an end to these types of crimes. Once you identify a likely scam, stop all contact with the scammer.

After you are victimized, there is little recourse for investigation, prosecution or restitution. The international nature of these scams renders United States Law Enforcement Agencies powerless to act. Often the governments of the countries in which the scammers operate are ineffective in dealing with or possibly complicit in the scam.