By Laurent Moucate (as told to Felix Macherez)
By now, everyone is well aware of “419” scams, also known as advance-fee fraud or Nigerian-email fraud. These are cons in which anonymous hustlers pose as corrupt African officials or exiled refugees looking to transfer Scrooge McDuck-ian heaps of cash into foreign accounts. They blanket thousands of email addresses with invitations, and the occasional gullible victim is tricked into forking over private banking information. There are a handful of variations, but most people with eyeballs and keyboards know to hit mark spam whenever they see anything of the sort sliming around their inbox.
In 2003, however, the con was less well known, and a friend of my father’s got seriously duped. When Laurent (his name has been changed at his request), then a 42-year-old salesman at a pharmaceutical company living on Réunion Island (a French territory in the Indian Ocean), received an offer to launder $1 million from a frozen Nigerian bank account into his own, it seemed to solve all of his money problems.
Instead, he wound up battered, bruised, and abandoned in a strange country. I spoke with him recently to find out what the hell happened.
About ten years ago, I was at home playing chess on my computer when an email from someone claiming to be the governor of Lagos, Nigeria, landed in my inbox. The subject line was URGENT, so I read it right away—actually, I read it a few times in a row. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
I don’t recall the exact wording of the email, but the gist of it was that the governor of Lagos West constituency, Bola Tinubu, had hidden around $1 million in a secret bank account to avoid taxes. The money had been stolen from public funds, the email continued, and the Tinubu family couldn’t use it because they were being closely monitored by the government.
They needed a foreigner to come to Lagos, take the money out of the account, and put it into a Swiss bank. That’s where I came in. Supposedly, if I sent $1,300 in cash to a Lagos address, they would get me a room in a luxury hotel, and I could come over and sign some documents that would be prepared by a lawyer, whose fees would run me another $1,300. I’d wind up with 5 percent of that $1 million, which sounded pretty fair to me.