‘Who in their right mind gives away money for free’: How S’poreans got bamboozled by ‘Nigerian Prince’ scam in the 90s

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There are a lot of scams nowadays.

Which is a natural progression from the yesteryears when there were also a lot of scams.

One of the most prominent ones though might be the “Nigerian Prince” scam.

The scam basically involves some mode of communication, snail mail for the swinging 90s, with a person (sometimes a governor, other times a prince, someone important basically) needing to get a huge sum of money out of their country.

Enter you, the very randomly chosen person who has a bank account. The important person then promises you a cut of his incredible wealth, but before you start buying yourself a plot of land in Joo Chiat, the person wants you to transfer some of your own money as a sign of trust, or to pay off unspecified “administration fees”.

And that’s how you lose a lot of money.

It eventually developed the moniker of the “Nigerian Prince Scam” due to the initial scams being sent by a “Nigerian prince” looking for a way to get his money out of his country.

The scam apparently started in the 90s, at the very least the first mentions of this particular scam in Singapore were around 1991.

The very very difficult scam

Compared to the scams of today, the thing that sticks out about the Singaporeans that did get tricked by the scam was how many steps they had to go through.

Firstly, at least back in the 90s, these scams were apparently carried out via snail mail.

A 1991 TNP article described the situation as swindlers “‘flooding’ Singapore with letters promising to pay” millions of dollars.

A very interesting quirk of the scam in the 90s was also who were the ones being targeted.

Instead of perhaps older, less tech savvy, individuals, the scammers appeared to have targeted companies and businessmen.

According to the police then, a Nigerian syndicate had been sending companies letters that offered “commission which could run into millions of dollars”.

All they had to do was allow their bank accounts to be used for “large transfers of money”. These large sums often supposedly being “government funds”.

Now, before you go thinking that everyone in Singapore was falling for these scams, the general consensus, much like now, appeared to be one of massive incredulity.

In a 1994 Straits Times article, a branch manager of a company who had received an iteration of one of these letters had this to say about the scam:

“Who in their right mind gives away money for free? The grammar was not that good, and the letter did not even have a proper letter-head. I immediately thought it was a con.”

But some did, and they went to quite incredible lengths in order to get that money.


One such victim was “Ray”, back in the early 90s.

According to a 1994 ST article, Ray had received a call from one Azakiwi, who claimed to be a governor from a Nigerian state, to give him more details about a get-rich-quick scheme.

Azakiwi was apparently desperate to get millions of dollars out of his country. So desperate that he was willing to part with a “hefty percentage” of the aforementioned millions.

Sounds like a great deal so far, but then came one very familiar catch.

Azakiwi needed a “fee” to show that Ray was serious.

In this case, the “fee” was S$32,000 in cash, three Rolexes, gold cuff links, and some bottles of French perfume.

And here is how troublesome getting scammed was back in the 90s.

Ray had to actually go to Lagos, Nigeria, to hand over the loot.

There, he was escorted to a house in a Mercedes Benz where he met Azakiwi, a neatly-dressed man of medium height. Ray handed over the money later the same day, in the article he commented on how he felt he had given the money too easily, and speculated that he had been placed “under a charm”.

Whatever the reason for the loose hands, Ray spent the next three days in the house before being taken to a “run-down” office.

There he met an unconvincing man, who gave an unconvincing pitch that compounded his worries. The “bank president” whom he met then demanded more money, another S$170,000 as a “security deposit”.

Ray agreed to escape the situation, hurried back to Singapore and ignored the several subsequent phone calls from Azakiwi asking for the money.

The trips weren’t always one-way either, another scam involved two Nigerians who came to Singapore to “conclude” the deal with a Singaporean businessman.

According to another 1992 ST article, the total amount the businessman spent on them was about S$20,000. This time, it was the Nigerians who didn’t make contact after they went back to their country.

How it’s going

While you might feel the same incredulity that the branch manager earlier expressed, the almost unbelievable nature of the advance-fee scam (which the Nigerian Prince scam falls under) is not a flaw, but rather by design.

According to research from Microsoft in a piece titled “Why Do Nigerian Scammers Say They are From Nigeria?” the usage of Nigerian scammers, despite an almost worldwide media blitz ridiculing these attempts is not a flaw, but rather might be by design.

To ensure someone goes through all the aforementioned steps is tough, and only really invested people might go through all the hassle.

So a larger number of people might not necessarily lead to more victims, but rather more work for the scammers till the person understandably felt this was way too much work for way too sketchy a deal.

Reducing false positives therefore become paramount to these operations:

“Finally, this approach suggests an answer to the question in the title. Far-fetched tales of West African riches strike most as comical. Our analysis suggests that is an advantage to the attacker, not a disadvantage.

Since his attack has a low density of victims the Nigerian scammer has an over-riding need to reduce false positives. By sending an email that repels all but the most gullible the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select, and tilts the true to false positive ratio in his favour.”

The nature of scams has changed quite a bit since the 90s, snail mail for one have seemingly fallen out of favour.

Warnings by the police now include tips like never giving One-Time Passwords to others, or how to exercise caution when making online transfers.

The ease of getting scammed, at least compared to the aforementioned scams in the 90s, appears to have reduced drastically as well.

Now you don’t even have to leave Lavender to get scammed, let alone having to travel all the way to Lagos.

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Image from Getty