Scamming and Scheming Online - Data Week

By Tanya Silverman

Photo courtesy of schnaars.

Searching for a decent apartment is a tedious part of adult life that, in many cases, entails endless hours of sifting through posts on Craigslist. After countless rounds of obsessively re-loading a designated rental page, one may miraculously discover a dream place, affordable, located in a convenient neighborhood, and somehow equipped with all of the right features.

After looking up this apartment’s coordinates on Google Maps, and zooming in as close as the street-view goes, the apartment searcher will go forth and contact the seller.

Their reply may read something like this:

“Hello, how do you do? My wife and I are on mission work in Nigeria. You have inquired about our rental, and let me tell you, out of all the applicants, my wife and I liked yours the most. We have two children, God bless them, on our mission work, helping orphans. We all had to leave town right away to help these orphans, God bless them, but The House has many amenties, working television, internet access. i will reserve the house, just for you, you must promise me that you will keep it. The last renter sucured the House, but you must promise me, you will keep,and i will allow you for your word”

Likely, if the reader is smart, they will delete such a response, and continue on with the search, frustrated by disappointed hopes.

Had the apartment seeker gone through with it though, the next steps involve actions like wiring money overseas via Western Union or Money Gram, or receiving an advanced-fee faulty check with upcoming requests for money in return.

Nigerian 419 Scams

The Craigslist rental programs are a singular example of Nigerian 419 scams, named after the criminal code of Nigeria that addresses fraud schemes, These scams, which are a form of advanced fee fraud, have affected people in a variety of ways, from saturating the “Spam” folder on one’s e-mail account with petty promises of overseas inheritance funds to buying products on eBay to advanced networks with multi-million dollar approaches.

“The stories differ, but the concept is always the same, whether it’s buying somebody’s car, wanting to date them, or wanting to rent an apartment to them,” explains Les Henderson, a crime fraud author who also maintains the online consumer-fraud awareness library, Crimes of Persuasion.

The Craigslist apartment rental scams often take place out of small internet cafes in Lagos, Nigeria. The way that they obtain attractive rental information is by copying and pasting previously listed data about real estate into a posting on Craigslist. Henderson explains that they may even figure out how to post a virtual tour of the home to convince the potential renters. While there are high-end scammers that live in mansions from the millions made off of their highly intricate methods, these cafes are grounds for more of the low-end deals. The petty operations will often play on people’s emotions, such as pretending to discover a lost pet and requesting the owner to wire reward money, or formulating a relationship with a victim for six months before ever requesting money.

Of course, the nation of Nigeria has many other positive qualities to it other than internet scams, and people of any nationality could implement scams. So what is it about Nigeria that has led to this 419 scam phenomenon?

“It’s an English-speaking country, there’s very little employment opportunity, and yet, a great deal of the people are university educated,” Henderson says regarding the dynamic of the West African nation with an existing internet infrastructure. He also points out that socially there is no taboo against tricking “mugus” (the term for the scamming victim) or receiving dibs on their opulent wealth. “If it’s part of your culture, you don’t see anything wrong with taking money from gullible people.”

Enforcement and Action

Today, Craigslist is an easily accessible means for Nigerian scams, but such schemes go way beyond just this utilitarian and anonymous virtual classifieds page. These 419 scams actually began in the early 1980s, before the inception of the internet, with the use of phones, fax machines and fraudulent letters. Since the internet has expanded and viable data can be accessed from almost anywhere, scams have evolved and increased.

“It wasn’t until the turn of this century that law enforcement actually started to act on some complaints,” explains Brian Wizard, a veteran, filmmaker and author who volunteered for six years to work against 419 scams. After succeeding in breaking up some high-end Nigerian scams that took place in Amsterdam, he realized that even if all of the scammers were arrested today, they would be replaced tomorrow. He feels that law enforcement against this particular type of crime is “futile,” as harsh as that may seem.

American citizens are often fall prey to these scammers, who may operate out of apartments in Amsterdam or internet cafes in Lagos. The FBI and many other law enforcement agencies are well-aware of 419 fraud. Even after volunteering to combat high-end 419 scams where victims gamble away their parents’ retirement fund and children’s college savings, Brian Wizard notes that: “99.9 percent of the time, money given to a 419 scam is unrecoverable.”

An Example

Focusing back on apartments, Craigslist also warns the public against scenarios where the “Apartment listing may be local, but landlord/owner is “travelling” or “relocating” and needs you to wire money to them abroad;” postings where the “Deal often seems too good to be true, price is too low, rent is below market, etc.” Craigslist also discourages wire service to certain countries, Nigeria being first on its list.

Western Union is of course aware of this as well, warning specifically against rental prices that are unbelievably low, with follow-up e-mails that have “common red flags like poor grammar, misspellings, character/spacing mistakes, and excessive capitalization.”

Even with all of the official enforcement, source awareness and public education, these phony apartment rentals continue to be listed. The Craigslist apartment rental schemes are simply a minor microcosm to the vast world of Nigerian scams, and do not result in very many cases where “mugus” fall for the defective rhetoric and actually wire money overseas. Nevertheless, the fact that members of the American public have responded to such seemingly attractive postings to begin with, shows that whoever it was who posted the ad (perhaps a man, thousands of miles away, in an internet café in Lagos) has successfully detected the vulnerable desires and desperation of people in our country.