The so-called "Nigerian scam" has recently become the spam of choice for people who don't want to work for a living, with average users receiving several daily chances to enhance their lot in life by helping themselves and their fellow man.
Most of us pass up this e-mail, but there are enough people who believe the promises to keep the scam moving. Said cybercrime expert Jayne Hitchcock, "If it wasn't working on someone, you wouldn't get so many of these."
These letters differ in the details — supposed country of origin, relationship to a rich person, amount of money involved — but the idea is the same. There is a large amount of money languishing away in a foreign bank, and the correspondent needs your help to move the cash to safety. For your trouble you will get a small percentage, which is actually more than what many people will see in a lifetime. They make contact, you reply and they ask you to open a bank account, or ask for a small amount of cash to get things started. Pretty soon they ask for more, for bribes or expenses. Soon after that you should get wise.
There is one notorious case, where a Detroit woman embezzled more than $2 million from her employer in order to invest in the scam. This is extreme, as few of us have access to that kind of cash. Most of the victims lose relatively insignificant amounts and get wise after the first or second encounter.
Said Hitchcock, "A lot of people fall for this and are too embarrassed to admit it." Other extreme cases include a person held for ransom, but he was unwise enough to actually meet these people.
Hitchcock said that after the recent arrest in Detroit there was the feeling that these letters would at least slow down. But after a relatively quiet two weeks, they began again with a vengeance. Recently, I've gotten a few from the Philippines, Holland and China. It's surprising that any breathing, thinking person would fall for this. Apparently, none of the suckers are able to ask, "Why are you contacting me, of all people?"
(I have accounts with Yahoo! and America Online that are rarely used, and while there were hundreds of spams in each box none of them were "Nigerian." So the absence or presence of these things is a condition as predictable as the weather.)
What can you do about this annoyance, beyond not falling for it? The standard rules apply, like not answering under any circumstances and sending a copy to www.spamcop.net. You can also insert the address of a spammer into the return address window of your mail client and reply to another spammer, to get them to talk to each other. There isn't a lot of satisfaction here, because you never get to see the results.