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.
I’d never received this type of message before. There were some grammar mistakes, but I figured that was because the man writing it wasn’t French. He probably spoke Hausa or Igbo, or one of the many other languages spoken in Nigeria. Also, Bola Tinubu really was a Nigerian politician who was governor of Lagos West—that was the only part of the message that wasn’t a lie.
I was in debt and desperately in need of money back then. I’d gone through a vicious series of hirings and firings and was once again in the hot seat at my job at a pharmaceutical company. The Nigerian deal sounded perfect. After I subtracted the cost of the plane ticket and the $2,600 I’d give to my Nigerian partners, I’d stand to make well over $40,000, which would have put my family’s finances back on track. Plus, I’d have a few days of vacation in Nigeria. I realize how stupid I must look now (and how obvious a rip-off this was), but back then, I knew the Nigerian ruling class was extremely corrupt. Even though I thought the situation described to me in the email could’ve been bullshit, it sounded likely, and I desperately had to provide for my family.
I spent a month vetting my Nigerian partners. We sent about ten emails back and forth before I was satisfied they were legit. Maybe I was trying to talk myself into it. I’m superstitious, so one night I told myself, All right, if I win a game of hearts with less than 15 points, I’ll do it. I’d never scored that low in my life, so when I landed at 11 points, I thought it was a sign and decided to buy a ticket.
I didn’t tell anyone about the trip, not even my wife—she didn’t know how bad our money situation had gotten. I only told one friend of mine, a guy I used to drink with. I felt like my secret was safe with him, plus I had to hit him up for plane fare.
I told my family and friends I was going to Nigeria to negotiate a contract to sell insulin pumps, which was plausible given my job. My friends celebrated my new status, and my wife was so proud of my promotion that I almost believed my own lie. I mailed the Nigerians $1,300 in cash and boarded a plane to Lagos.
Ilanded at Murtala Muhammed International Airport in late April, where I got my tourist visa in exchange for 10,000 nairas (around $50). The beginning of the trip went according to plan. As I left the airport, two big guys in suits and ties, their fingers covered in gold rings, were waiting for me with a sign with my name on it. They took me to my four-star hotel in a black sedan—my partners really had booked a room there for a night.
“We’ll see you tomorrow,” one of them told me. “You’ll have to bring the other half of the money in cash. You’ll receive an envelope with $50,000 an hour after the lawyer leaves you to finalize the process. We’ll be with you while you wait for him to come back. We hope you’ll enjoy your stay in Nigeria, sir.”
Sir! Naturally, I believed more than ever that it was all real and I was a really important person.
That night I went out to dinner at a fancy restaurant downtown, where I met a Dutch engineer who worked for an oil company. After a few minutes of conversation, he told me, “You know, organized crime is very active in this area. Sometimes people are robbed, beaten, and kidnapped for money—especially Europeans.”
By this point I’d already spent a lot of money getting to Nigeria and decided to ignore what, in hindsight, was a big flashing WARNING sign. For me, the only thing that was important was getting my hands on the money as fast as possible. After I left my companion, I went to the hotel’s ATM, withdrew the $1,300 I’d need to complete the deal, and went up to my room.
That night, I received two calls from my Nigerian partners confirming our meeting the next day and a third call from a deep-voiced Ivorian man who introduced himself as the lawyer and stressed the importance of the $1,300.
“This money will allow us to finalize the money transfer and all the transactions,” he told me in French with a strong African accent. I didn’t really understand everything he was talking about, but I told him I’d bring the money.
The next morning I received another phone call, this one telling me that we’d be meeting in the business district near the hotel. I wasn’t afraid at all; it’s crowded down there and they’d have no chance to do anything shady.
A man escorted me out of the hotel and toward the same car that had brought me from the airport, but when he handed me some legal documents in the parking lot I had my first big, stomach-plunging doubt. These allegedly authentic documents signed by Nigerian government officials were obvious fakes. They were badly printed, with grammar and spelling mistakes everywhere.
I got in the car. There were four guys inside, all in suits. The ten-minute drive was completely silent, and ended in a tiny alley. All of a sudden I felt acid bubbling up inside my stomach—my doubts, which had been there all along, were suddenly confirmed. I knew exactly what was going to happen.
“Give us everything you have,” one of the guys told me.
I refused at first and said that I would go to the police. They didn’t like that, and three of the goons immediately jumped me and beat me unconscious. It didn’t take long.
I woke up in an empty room with bruises all over my face and body. I assumed they were going to kill me. After 15 minutes or so, one of them came in and said, “Look, we don’t want to hurt you—the only thing we want is your money. But if you go to the cops to complain about anything, we’ll kill you with our own hands. We’ll slit your damn throat. Got it?”
They dragged me to the car by the arms, drove for about 20 minutes into the middle of nowhere, and kicked me out. I stood up and brushed myself off. I was alive and had the clothes I was wearing, but no wallet and no passport. Besides some trees and a few small houses on the horizon, I was surrounded by dirt and a burning hot asphalt road extending into the distance.
I walked to a bus station, begged my way onto one headed back to the city center, and picked up my bag and my last few euros from the room. I wasn’t booked for a second night in the fancy hotel, so I had to take a room in a flophouse primarily occupied by prostitutes and their johns. The sounds of gasps and moans kept me up all night.
In the morning, I looked at myself in the mirror for a little while. My swollen face was covered in bruises that ran the gamut from light blue to sickly crimson. I went to the French Embassy to fill out an application for an emergency passport. While I was waiting for the bureaucratic wheels to turn, I begged locals to let me stay with them. A few agreed, and I spent four days going from one apartment to another, sleeping wherever I could. I think the way my face looked made it apparent to everyone what had happened to me.
Ididn’t want to go home to Réunion Island; I couldn’t face the people there. Instead, I changed my return flight destination and went to my father’s house in the suburbs of Paris to spend some time alone. From there, I called my family, who were incredibly worried. Having them on the phone was as pleasing as it was uncomfortable and painful—I had to lie to my wife about what had happened in Nigeria and why I was in Paris. The way I told it, my business trip had gone fine, but there were problems with my father. “I have to stay here with my dad,” I told her. “He’s in really bad shape, I need to stay by his side in case something happens to his heart.”
I stayed near Paris for about a month to gather my thoughts and wait for the bruises to fade. I worked from France over the internet for the pharmaceutical company and took a part-time gig to recoup the money I’d lost during this misadventure, plus enough cash for a plane ticket back to Réunion. The only job I was able to find was as a gravedigger, so I worked in a cemetery for three weeks.
I was back on the island in early June and talked about what had happened to me as little as possible—I’m sure it looked incredibly strange, but there was nothing else I could do. Every now and then I look at my emails with the Nigerians, and I see dozens of things that don’t make sense and get furious at myself for being such an idiot. Eventually, I deleted those conversations, either out of a sense of pride or to hide them from my wife, I’m still not sure which.
I still get some emails like the one that led me on that misguided mission, but now I delete them right away, without even taking the time to read what’s inside. Today, I’m divorced from my wife, who still doesn’t know what happened to me in Nigeria. Until now, I’ve never spoken about it.