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What is a 419 Scam?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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A 419 scam is an attempt to steal money from people based on the premise that a person will gain extra money if they advance a small amount. The 419 scam derives its name from the Nigerian legal code 419, which is violated by perpetuating this deception. In the 1990s, such scams, especially through email, seemed to originate in large part from Nigerian criminals. The 419 scam is also called advance fee fraud.

Generally, the 419 scam operates in two different ways. In one instance, a person receives an email from a person who claims they have huge amounts of money that they need to transfer into an out-of-country bank account. They may claim to be from any one of several Arab or African countries, though they often claim they live in Nigeria.

Another variation of the 419 scam involves paying an amount over cost for an item at an auction site, or on sites like Craig’s list. The purchaser requests that a certain amount be forwarded back to them. This forwarding generally takes place before the bank realizes the check has been canceled and that the seller receives no funds, and has in fact lost funds.

The 419 scam may seem quite realistic. However, if it is seems too good to be true, it usually is. Any letter asking one to transfer money, give out one’s bank information, or pay up front for a prize is usually a 419 scam, and should be ignored.

Both businesses and private individuals are subject to 419 scam letters. New users of the Internet are particularly susceptible to what seems like reasonable claims. Often individuals are now more at risk than businesses because it is cheaper to send bulk emails to private individuals. Also individual users do not have the same level of security built into their systems as do most businesses.

Alternately, one can forward such scams to one’s Internet company. This may help block the 419 scam in the future. One can also report a 419 scam to the Federal Trade Commission at spam@uce.gov. In fact the US Federal Trade Commission has issued statements specifically requesting notification that one has been targeted by a 419 scam.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By ElizaBennett — On Jul 02, 2012

In some cases, people who have been the *victims* of online scams have actually been charged with crimes themselves. To be clear, though, these were not people who only lost money; they also participated in things like phony bank transfers and passing bad cashier's checks.

Basically, people can *say* they didn't know that a check was bad, but the idea behind charging them with crimes is that they didn't *want* to know -- that the person was too greedy to make money and was not careful in any way.

By anon161862 — On Mar 21, 2011

Could all be just one guy.

By breakofday — On Feb 28, 2010

I haven't gotten one of these scam emails in a long time now. The ones I got always seemed to be from some dignitary or official that was willing to give me tons of money if I let them use my account to transfer their money out of Nigerian banks.

I wonder why Nigeria seems to have a "boom" of scam artists?

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia...
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