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Nigeria stamps on 419 (again)

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Nigeria is to set up an inquiry into 419 fraud and the laws covering this crime. It may also set up a new agency to tackle the scam which has made the country's name synonymous with Internet fraud.

"The government will step up measures against these criminal activities," President Olusegun Obasanjo said, the BBC reports.

According to some estimates, 419 fraud (so called after the section of Nigeria's penal code which makes it illegal) is one of Nigeria's biggest export earners, generating $5bn a year in foreign currency earners for the scammers. The biggest 419 fraud uncovered to date was a $180m swindle of a Brazilian bank which resulted in its collapse, the BBC reports. Suspects are facing prosecution as are 200 alleged perpetrators of computer fraud (including a federal lawmaker), arrested by Nigeria's anti-fraud squad in May.

So 419 is becoming a higher-risk activity, but the amount of money it generates suggests that 419 is a viable career option for the go-ahead young Nigerian and that thousands could be involved.

In the mid-90s, Nigeria bought ads in leading Western newspapers to warn people off 419 frauds. It pointed out that victims were knowingly getting involved with crime and should expect no help from the Nigerian government.

The basic 419 fraud has existed in letter-writing form since the late 1980s. The Internet has vastly increased the reach of the fraudsters. The letter writer says he has acquired millions of dollars under dubious circumstances and needs help to get the money out of the country. The victim knows that this is illegal but is sucked in on the promise of a huge fee.

The fraudsters then attempts to extract advance fees from the victim. Often the victim is lured to another country to meet the fraudsters; the reasoning for this is that the police in, say, the UK, are not particularly interested in the plight of a venal, stupid person from outside their jurisdiction. Also there have been a few cases of kidnapping and extortion conducted by 419 gangs.

In 2001, a Nigerian gang lured a British businessman to South Africa and then held him for ransom. He escaped only because he was allowed to make a phone call and was able to alert his wife by speaking in his native Polish. ®

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