An advance-fee scam is a type of fraud and one of the most common types of confidence trick.
The scam typically involves promising the victim a significant share of a large sum of money, in return for a small up-front payment, which the fraudster requires in order to obtain the large sum.
The details vary, but the usual story is that a person, often a government or bank employee, knows of a large amount of unclaimed money or gold which he cannot access directly, usually because he has no right to it.
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Other official-looking letters were sent from a writer who said he was a director of the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation.
He said he wanted to transfer $20 million to the recipient’s bank account – money that was budgeted but never spent.
One variant of the scam may date back to the 18th or 19th centuries, as a very similar letter, entitled "The Letter from Jerusalem", is seen in the memoirs of Eugène François Vidocq, a former French criminal and private investigator. One of these, sent via postal mail, was addressed to a woman's husband, and inquired about his health.
Another variant of the scam, dating back to circa 1830, appears very similar to what is passed via email today: "Sir, you will doubtlessly be astonished to be receiving a letter from a person unknown to you, who is about to ask a favour from you...", and goes on to talk of a casket containing 16,000 francs in gold and the diamonds of a late marchioness. It then asked what to do with profits from a $24.6 million investment, and ended with a telephone number.
Yet other variants have involved mention of a Nigerian prince or other member of a royal family seeking to transfer large sums of money out of the country—thus, these scams are sometimes called "Nigerian Prince emails".
While Nigeria is most often the nation referred to in these scams, they may originate in other nations as well.
According to Cormac Herley, a researcher for Microsoft, "By sending an email that repels all but the most gullible, the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select." In Nigeria, scammers use computers in Internet cafés to send mass emails promising potential victims riches or romance, and to trawl for replies.
They refer to their targets as Magas, slang developed from a Yoruba word meaning "fool".
In exchange for transferring the funds out of Nigeria, the recipient would keep 30% of the total.
To get the process started, the scammer asked for a few sheets of the company’s letterhead, bank account numbers, and other personal information.
If a victim makes the payment, the fraudster either invents a series of further fees for the victim, or simply disappears.