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The Boston Globe

Ideas

From Sunday’s Globe | Ideas

The long, weird history of the Nigerian e-mail scam

200 years ago, a near-perfect con was already snagging our imaginations—and wallets

Earlier this year, thousands of people checked their e-mail and found a surprise: An American soldier needed help, and there was something in it for them. Their correspondent was a sergeant stationed in Iraq, he explained. He had accumulated millions in hundred-dollar bills—the older ones being phased out by the Treasury—from the cash brought into the country by the American occupation. The soldier needed to launder this money, fast, and needed a stateside bank account to do it. In return for a cut of the total, could he use yours?

Reading this, you’re probably already shaking your head: The message is obviously spam. This electronic missive from a 21st-century war seems like just a new, cynical twist on a scam that’s a hallmark of the Internet era: advance-fee fraud, also known as “419” (for the fraud designation in the Nigerian criminal code) or “Nigerian letter spam.”

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