This scam usually begins with a letter or e-mail purportedly sent to a selected recipient but actually sent to many, making an offer that would result in a large payoff for the victim. The e-mail's subject line often says something like "From the desk of Barrister (insert name) ", "Your assistance is needed", and so on.
The details vary, but the usual story is that a person, often a government or bank employee, knows of a large amount of unclaimed money or gold which he cannot access directly, usually because he has no right to it. Such people, who may be real but impersonated people or fictitious characters played by the con artist, could include the wife or son of a deposed African or Indonesian leader or dictator who has amassed a stolen fortune, or a bank employee who knows of a terminally ill wealthy person with no relatives or a wealthy foreigner who deposited money in the bank just before dying in a plane crash (leaving no will or known next of kin), a US soldier who has stumbled upon a hidden cache of gold in Iraq, a business being audited by the government, a disgruntled worker or corrupt government official who has embezzled funds, a refugee, and similar characters.
The money could be in the form of gold bullion, gold dust, money in a bank account, blood diamonds, a series of checks or bank drafts, and so forth. The sums involved are usually in the millions of dollars, and the investor is promised a large share, typically ten to forty percent, if they assist the scam character in retrieving the money. Whilst the vast majority of recipients do not respond to these e-mails, a very small percentage do, enough to make the fraud worthwhile as many millions of messages can be sent. Invariably sums of money which are substantial, but very much smaller than the promised profits, are said to be required in advance for bribes, fees, etc.—this is the money being stolen from the victim, who thinks he or she is investing to make a huge profit.
Many operations are professionally organized in Nigeria, with offices, working fax numbers, and often contacts at government offices. The victim who attempts to research the background of the offer often finds that all pieces fit together. Such scammers can often lure wealthy investors, investment groups, or other business entities into scams resulting in multi-million dollar losses. However, many scammers are part of less organized gangs or are operating independently; such scammers have reduced access to the above connections and thus have little success with wealthier investors or business entities attempting to research them, but are still convincing to middle-class individuals and small businesses, and can bilk hundreds of thousands of dollars from such victims.
If the victim agrees to the deal, the other side often sends one or more false documents bearing official government stamps, and seals. 419 scammers often mention false addresses and use photographs taken from the Internet or from magazines to falsely represent themselves. Often a photograph used by a scammer is not of any person involved in the scheme. Multiple "people" involved in schemes are fictitious; the author of the "West African Advance Fee Scams" article posted on the website of the Embassy of the United States in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire believes that in many cases one person controls many fictitious personas used in scams.
A scammer introduces a delay or monetary hurdle that prevents the deal from occurring as planned, such as "To transmit the money, we need to bribe a bank official. Could you help us with a loan?" or "For you to be a party to the transaction, you must have holdings at a Nigerian bank of $100,000 or more" or similar. More delays and more additional costs are added, always keeping the promise of an imminent large transfer alive, convincing the victim that the money they are currently paying is covered several times over by the payoff. Sometimes psychological pressure is added by claiming that the Nigerian side, to pay certain fees, had to sell belongings and borrow money on their house, or by pointing out the different salary scale and living conditions in Africa, compared to the West. Much of the time, however, the needed psychological pressure is self-applied; once the victims have put money in toward the payoff, they feel they have a vested interest in seeing the "deal" through. Some victims believe that they can cheat the con artist. This idea is often encouraged by the fraudsters who write in a clumsy and uneducated style which presents them as naive and easily cheated by a sophisticated Westerner.
The essential fact in all advance-fee fraud operations is that the promised money transfer never happens because the money or gold does not exist. The perpetrators rely on the fact that, by the time the victim realizes this (often only after being confronted by a third party who has noticed the transactions or conversation and recognized the scam), the victim may have sent thousands of dollars of their own money, and sometimes thousands or millions more that has been borrowed or stolen, to the scammer via an untraceable and/or irreversible means such as wire transfer.
In extreme cases the victim may not realize that he or she has been defrauded. A version of the scam is for the thief to claim to have contacts to facilitate legitimate business loans; the victim here is not persuaded that he is doing anything illegal. The fraudster meets the victim, and must be able to act the part of a well-connected and experienced loan broker. He asks for payment in advance, which is normal for large loans. Then the loan gradually falls through in a plausible way, and the victim may end up being defrauded of tens of thousands of dollars or pounds, thinking only that the deal simply failed. These frauds may go unreported, either because the victim does not realize he has been cheated, or due to reluctance to admit the facts. Because of "non-disclosure clauses" which may have been included in the fraudulent contract, reporting of the scam may be delayed until the victim becomes certain he has been cheated.
The spam e-mails perpetrating these scams are often sent from Internet cafés equipped with satellite Internet. Recipient addresses and e-mail content are copied and pasted into a webmail interface using a standalone storage medium, such as a memory card. Many areas of Lagos, such as Festac, contain many cyber cafés that serve scammers; many cyber cafés seal their doors during afterhours, such as from 10:30 PM to 7:00 AM, so that scammers inside may work without fear of discovery.
Nigeria also contains many businesses that provide false documents used in scams; after a scam involving a forged signature of Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo in summer 2005, Nigerian authorities raided a market in the Oluwole section of Lagos. The police seized thousands of Nigerian and non-Nigerian passports, 10,000 blank British Airways boarding passes, 10,000 United States money orders, customs documents, false university certificates, 500 printing plates, and 500 computers.
During the courses of many schemes, scammers ask victims to supply bank account information. Usually this is a "test" devised by the scammer to gauge the victim's gullibility.
Scammers often request that payments be made using a wire transfer service like Western Union and Moneygram. The reason given by the scammer usually relates to the speed at which the payment can be received and processed, allowing quick release of the supposed payoff. The real reason is that wire transfers and similar methods of payment are irreversible, untraceable and, because identification beyond knowledge of the details of the transaction is often not required, completely anonymous.
Telephone numbers used by scammers tend to come from mobile phones. In Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) a scammer may purchase an inexpensive mobile phone and a pre-paid SIM card without submitting subscriber information. If the scammers believed they are being traced, they discard their mobile phones and purchase new ones.
In Benin, Nigerians operate scams with Beninese cooperating in the schemes.
Some crime syndicates employ fraudsters in the United States who conclude "deals" or threaten victims who try to leave deals