Being Suckered: Con Games

The classic con game exploits human gullibility, human sleaziness, and human shame. Consider for instance the "Nigerian Health Minister" scam. I first encountered this scam by snail-mail in the 1980's, and to this day occasionally get updates by e-mail. I received a typewritten letter with a Nigerian postmark and a typed signature from someone who claimed to be the past Health Minister of Nigeria. He had hidden away a significant amount of hospital funds when the junta took power in Nigeria. He felt that the junta was in power illegally and didn't want them to send the people's money to their Swiss bank accounts. He wanted help from a trustworthy person to get this money out of the country where he could keep it safe until the junta was deposed. He wanted me to establish an American bank account into which he could deposit the money, and for that service he would pay me some proportion of the funds.

The letter was well written. I even felt a little sympathy for the good doctor faced with the cruel junta. At the same time something didn't ring true (why me?), so I called the Attorney General's office. The official I talked to said, "The Nigeria letter. Right. It's a scam. Send it to us and we'll deal with it." I dropped it into the mail addressed to the A.G.'s office and heard no more about it.

I have since learned how this scam proceeds. If I had responded to this letter, the good doctor would have praised me fulsomely for my helpfulness and, in a warm exchange of letters laced with tear-jerking stories about the suffering of the Nigerians and the cruelty of the junta, would have persuaded me to open a one-year Certificate of Deposit in both my name and his. To get the optimal interest rate, I would have to deposit the account minimum, say $25,000. After I deposited the money, the good doctor would empty the account and I would hear no more from him.

A scam like this exploits the sucker's sympathy and gullibility, the sucker's willingness to do something sleazy in hopes of a quick return, and the sucker's reluctance afterwards to admit stupidity. The letter itself was written to excite sympathy; a gullible person would feel for the good doctor trying to protect his people's health from the cruel junta. A sleazy person would think the good doctor could be turned in as an embezzler to the cruel junta, after which the sleazy person could claim the entire bank account. Finally, once the money disappeared, there was a good chance the sucker would feel so stupid he wouldn't go to the police at all.

Lesson #1: If it looks too good to be true, it isn't.

Lesson #2: Emotional arguments are sucker bait.