The Nigerian Prince Email and the History of Social Engineering Techniques

21 Aug 2023

The Nigerian Prince scam is one of the most infamous online schemes in the history of the internet.

Despite most people understanding what this scam is, there are still victims falling for this tall tale every day, thanks to its well-crafted social engineering techniques.

When it comes to this scam, P.T. Barnum’s famous quote covers it perfectly: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Awareness of this classic trap is just as important today as ever.

What is the Nigerian Prince Scam?

The Nigerian Prince email scam is a classic example of an advance-fee scam. This type of scam involves a fraudster promising a victim a large amount of money in the future in exchange for a small fee today.

The Nigerian Prince scam gets its name from its elaborate story, usually involving a foreign “prince” that’s waiting to send the victim a massive amount of money. In reality, the scammer is just trying to receive money or bank information from the victim.

This scam is commonly referred to as a 419 scam, named after the Nigerian penal code for fraud.

Although this scam often involves Nigeria as its country of origin, this type of fraud can also appear as if it’s from Spain, the Netherlands, Poland, Jamaica, and more.

It’s also worth noting that Nigeria does not have, nor has ever had, a royal family. This is often the case for most countries that are used in this type of scam.

The Original 419 Scam: The Spanish Prisoner Swindle

The origins of the Nigerian Prince scam date back to 1910 when it went by another name, the Spanish prisoner swindle.

Back then, victims would receive this message as a letter in the mail rather than over the Internet, but the same basic structure between both scams remains the same.

The Spanish prisoner swindle centers around a wealthy foreign nobleman who is imprisoned for political reasons. The nobleman claims to know the location of a lost treasure and that he’s willing to share this treasure with the victim. The problem is he’s in prison and needs the victim to send him money so he can bribe his way out.

Needless to say, there is no treasure to be shared. If the victim sends the swindler the money, the victim never hears from “the nobleman” again.

Here is an example of this classic scam:


What Nigerian Prince Scam Emails Look Like

With the invention of the internet, the story of an imprisoned nobleman with the knowledge of secret treasure evolved into a Nigerian prince who would like to share their fortune.

This is what the first version of this scam looked like:


Back when the internet was new, it was easier for people to fall for such an outlandish story because many felt like anything was possible on the internet.

Some scammers would tweak the scam to appeal more toward the victim’s goodwill by recounting a tragic tale:


By the time the 2000s came along, most people had caught on to the fact that the Nigerian prince email was a scam. However, this did not stop scammers as the “prince” element of the elaborate tale was often removed and replaced with a slightly more “believable” element.



Eventually, scammers removed any references to a royal family or the continent of Africa altogether but kept the same basic structure of the scam:



Social Engineering Techniques Used in the 419 Scam

Despite the elaborate stories that fraudsters have concocted, it’s estimated that 419 scams have racked up over 2.5 billion dollars in the last decade or so. The success of this ridiculous scam is due to social engineering.

Social engineering is when a scammer tricks an individual into revealing sensitive data by exploiting human trust.

The 419 scam does this in a few different ways:

Use of Typos

Most 419 emails are littered with typos and grammatical errors, and it’s not because the person is truly from a foreign country. The typos are added to the text on purpose.

419 scammers are looking for the most gullible people they can possibly find, and they don’t have time to deal with an intelligent victim.

Scammers know that once a sophisticated person sees two or more typos in an email, they will instantly ignore it, assuming it's a scam. To the scammer, the perfect mark is someone who can’t even spot an obvious error in the first few sentences.

Typos are a way for gullible people to essentially self-select themselves to fall for the scam.

Broken English

419 emails usually sound like they were written by someone without a firm grasp of the English language. Sometimes this is true, but most of the time, this is done on purpose to lower the victim’s guard.

If the scammer claims to be from a foreign nation, then it only makes sense that their English would be poor. The broken English adds authenticity to the story in the email.

Secondly, the broken English also makes it appear as if the scammer is not smart enough to deceive someone. Sometimes the victim will think, “There’s no way this person is trying to scam me. They can’t even write a proper email.”

Some victims may see the broken English and assume that they can actually scam the scammer based on a false sense of superiority.

The Lottery Effect

Another part of this social engineering attack is the idea that the victim just struck gold.

The lottery effect works on those who believe that because others win the lottery every day, it’s only a matter of time before their day comes due.

These victims will let the scam take over their reasoning based on the desire to finally hit it big.

What is the Best Countermeasure Against Social Engineering When it Comes to a 419 Scam

The first thing to remember is that there are no recorded cases of someone receiving a large amount of money thanks to a random email sent to their inbox.

After receiving an unsolicited email promising riches, potential victims should:

  1. Flag the email as spam/phishing
  2. Delete it
  3. Then do the same to any other follow-up emails

Also, potential victims should avoid clicking any links or opening any documents inside the email, as doing so may spread a virus or malware on their devices.

Final Thoughts

It may seem unlikely, but the Nigerian prince scam and other 419 scams still manage to fool hundreds of people a day, thanks to the well-crafted social engineering techniques built into each email.

Potential victims need to remember the signs of a 419 scam we went over in this article, and always proceed with caution when receiving emails from people you don’t know.