Nigerian Scams

Enterprising chaps, the Nigerians. It seems that they have the monopoly on the informal pharmacology trade in South Africa; but it is the 419 scamsters of whom I wish to speak today. Some of them have moved their base of operations to other countries, and are operating local versions of scams in those countries.
I get these invitations to be fleeced via email all the time. Now they’re coming to my phone via SMS.

ATT!You cell number won you R950,000 in the NELSON MANDELA FUND/RICA 2013 Mobile Grant with ref/no SA0319. Send an email to
Info +27110518021

Presumably the people who go to the trouble to send these messages must do their sums and come to the conclusion that it is worth while to go to the expense of sending out ‘x’ messages with the expectation of receiving ‘y’ replies, and at least some of those replying will be gullible enough to be fleeced of the contents of their bank accounts. I have no idea what the scamsters costs are; but I assume that there must be some. Cellphone networks charge something, however minimal to transmit SMS messages; and I suppose that those folk who operate spambots do not do it from altruistic motives.

It must be noted that these scams are merely an extreme form of advertising. We are bombarded by adverts all day, every day that make assertions that are unverifiable and in all likelihood untrue. “Nine out of ten dentists recommend ‘Sludgey’!” Which ten dentists did you ask? And what did the tenth one think was wrong with Sludgey?

So what sort of person responds to these messages with the expectation of receiving something for nothing? What psychology could possibly lead a person to imagine that he has been singled out by Bill Gates or the Director General of the United Nations to receive mind-bogglingly vast sums of money? Especially when those worthies write from hotmail accounts? They must be either extremely gullible, extremely egotistical, or simply have no coherent idea of how the world works.

The answer might lie in something the psychologists call ‘locus of control.’ It seems that there are personality types that believe that they are not in control of events that effect their lives–their locus of control is external, and stuff just ‘happens to them’–and others who believe that they are in control of their own destinies;[1] i.e. they have an internal locus of control. The former group are far more likely to believe in ESP, gods, life after death, &c., than the latter group. Also, they are far more likely to believe that the widow of the Grand Poobah of Baghdad has singled them out to share her fortune, despite the fact that they have never even heard of that majestic personage.

It seems that the location of the locus of control is not determined by intelligence; people who sport high IQs could well have an external locus of control, and vice versa. The key, it has been discovered,[2] lies in the degree of uncertainty with which people perceive the environment in which they live. For example, if one has not been educated in the basic physics of electricity and how it pertains to thunderstorms, one might be tempted to attribute a lightning flash to a malevolent deity; but a person armed with a naturalistic explanation, even if it is wrong, will be able to separate the phenomenon of lightning from themselves, and not impute malevolence to it.

If, therefore, we were to educate our children in critical thinking, in recognising that the world works according to certain laws and is not unpredictable, they will be less likely to fall for scams such as this. However, this will not occur while the entire education system is geared to the rote learning of trivial ‘facts’ for the purpose of passing exams. We need to teach them right from the beginning how to tell fact from fiction and how to assess the likelihood of any particular proposition being true. This will allow them to take control of their own destinies, and avoid being ripped off by scams and advertisers.

1. Marshall, et al., 1994. “The Five-Factor Model of Personality as a Framework for Personality-health Research.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 278–286.

2. McGarry, J. JU. and B. H. Newberry. 1981. “Beliefs in Paranormal Phenomena and Locus of Control: A Field Study.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 41, 725–736.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

4 Responses to Nigerian Scams

  1. Con-Tester says:

    It’s a numbers game. If even just one in a few hundred “clients” responds in the right way, the scammers will have profited. Either way, the cellphone service providers are smiling.

    As you intimate, inculcating critical thinking habits is crucial to defeating this kind of opportunistic exploitation. A large part of the problem is with the basic education dished out here in SA. I fear that a perhaps equally large part of the problem is that it’s already too late for many kids and that the damage has already been done by the time most kids get to go to school. If I’m correct it will take several generations to fix the problem because official policy is that respecting traditions is more important than speedy and effective solutions to growing problems. The circumcision issue shows this clearly.

  2. Beechmount says:

    We are not immune to scams via email from Nigeria here in Canada, but most people are well enough informed and educated not to fall for these offers of ‘instant riches’.

    The one that I receive most often is from someone who claims to be a lawyer who wants help to claim millions of dollars left to him in an account by a former client. Some of those guys have received a nice virus from me via email reply.

    Some of the worst offences are committed by on-line pharmacies that sell adulterated or phony drugs at cut-rate prices- Cialis being a particular popular drug that is sold as the real thing, but probably contains nothing else but some calcium powder. At least, no harm will come from buying that. Far worse are the drugs that many seniors depend upon to keep them alive or well. So many of those drugs can be obtained from phony on-line pharmacies much cheaper than in the local drug store, but they are not the real thing. resulting in serious medical deterioration of seniors who bought the drugs, believing them to be the “real thing”.

    It is difficult to educate people in third world to this menace, at least in the foreseeable future..

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