Dubious statistic of the day, Nigerian email edition

By Felix Salmon
May 4, 2009

How much do Nigerian email scammers make? According to Jeffrey Robinson, it’s the kind of money which would make a CEO blush:

Investigators in the U.K. who are tracking him note that, since Dec. 1, 2008, Macjon has targeted 13.5 million Americans with the work-at-home e-mail scam. Investigators estimate his success rate at around 0.1%. That’s 13,500 victims from whom he’s stolen as much as $40.5 million.

That’s $40.5 million in 150 days, which works out at about $100 million a year. Nice! But also complete bullshit.

Macjon’s scam is highly elaborate. All such scams involve a long series of emails going back and forth to set things up; this one culminates in forged checks being mailed to the mark’s house to be deposited into his bank account. And Robinson reckons that Macjon is doing this at a rate of 630 people a week? Of course he doesn’t really think that, he’s just happy to pull a random 0.1% number out of thin air and extrapolate it into some multi-million-dollar headline figure.

This is a Barron’s article, not a scholarly paper, so I’m not asking Robinson to provide footnotes. But I am saying that the 0.1% figure doesn’t pass the smell test, and that if Robinson had bothered to ask where it came from, he probably would have been very surprised at how sketchy it really is. Frankly, I don’t have much faith in the “13.5 million” number either, or, for that matter, the implication that the average mark has lost $3,000.

It would be nice, just for once, for dubious numbers such as these to come with some kind of warning sticker attached. But journalists are always loathe to admit that they don’t know everything, and as a result we get ludicrous results like Nigerian email scammers making $100 million a year each. Depressing.


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We’re a collection of financial fraud investigators operating in the UK. To read the kind of rubbish that Felix Salmon posts supports our belief that too many journalists are more interested in printing words like “bullshit” than finding out the facts. We have first-hand knowledge of the case cited by Jeffrey Robinson and can state categorically that his sums are correct, having been extrapolated by officers from email intercepts. Success rates for old fashioned 419 snail mail were 2-3% with the average loss at $200,000. In this case, .1% is statistically correct. The average loss is also accurate. In fact, the range of most of the counterfeit checks sent by Macjon were $3200-$4800. The figure used, of 13.5 million emails, comes from the list sellers themselves. Finally, contrary to Salmon’s stab at erudition, the scam is not terribly elaborate, is actually quite simple, and doesn’t require a long series of emails. Robinson is not only right, but he is a recognised expert in this field. Salmon is not only wrong but, clearly, speaking about himself when he writes, “Journalists are always loathe to admit that they don’t know….”

Posted by Harvey Faulkner | Report as abusive

Why don’t you ask Macjon himself how much he has made. There is a high degree of assumption on both sides.

Posted by Paschal | Report as abusive

strikes me that the assumptions are only coming from felix. as usual he’s fired from the hip and missed.

Posted by george tadesco | Report as abusive

Actually they make much more than that but then the poor dears lose it all because they con each other out of it with email fraud, don’t you know.

Awesome, my anti-spam word is “toast.”

Posted by Sanjay | Report as abusive

People are just looking for the answer to their problems but, unfortunately, in the wrong place.

Posted by Kirk | Report as abusive

Adding to Harvey Faulkner’s comment re: “bullshit,” this is point out to you, Felix, that Reuters is not a sports-chat site and you are 36 years old, not 18. I had meant to write when you used a-hole and another gross, childish term back in April. We, your readers and the reasons you have this job, are reading this site often with meals, always with our minds wide open, and it’s now evident that I speak for others than myself when I say we don’t want and will not tolerate trash talk on Reuters. Next step, management, but I hope you will correct your behaviour without more.

Posted by Chaz III | Report as abusive


Posted by Davo | Report as abusive


Just so you understand a bit better about the numbers involved in West African fraud, you’re so-called “smell test”, Martins got done in Nigeria for this scam…

From: Kenny Martins
Reply-To: kennymarth77@yahoo.vom
Date: Mon, 1 Sep 2008 07:17:26 -0700 (PDT) (10:17 EDT)

I have a new email address! You can now email me at: kennymth@yahoo.com – Chief Kenny Martins, Chairman of the Police Equipment Foundation, Federal Republic of Nigeria.

DEAR BELOVED, I am Chief Kenny Martins The Chairman of the Police Equipment Foundation. It is a tough of war for me and my family as the Government of Nigeria has Unleashed mayhem on me over missing Police Equipment Fund. Despite returning vehicles and some cash money on my position back to them,They are still hunting me and my properties are being ceased by the Economic and Financial Crime Commission, an agency being use by the Government in Fighting those against the self interest policy of the Government. I have being arrested and re-arrested, now in court with the Government and my families are in hiding and I can not travel out to save keep my belonging as my particulars had being ceased. I have concluded plan with my bank and financial adviser to transfer some amount of money out for a save keeping but they agree on term, only if I provide a custodian any where in the world. This is why I am writing you to help me and my family; I will transfer the sum of (13.6 million USD) for you to keep in your possession for my family. We as a family had agree to duce out 30% of this money to any individual or group who permit and agree for us to keep this money under his or her care for our re-settlement after all these problem and we assure you that you will not have any problem doing this for us and God will bless and your family. Thanks for your understanding and I look forward to your urgent respond. Please reply to: kennymarth77@yahoo.com . God Bless You, Chief Kenny Martins.

It is a standard, vanilla flavour 419 letter. And it netted him $96 million!

Posted by Harvey Faulkner | Report as abusive

This article is a joke. You dispute another writer’s numbers without providing any numbers or fact to back your claim.

Do you get paid for this job?

Posted by All Havoc | Report as abusive

The little I know, is the real Kenny Martins is/was a either a Nigerian government official or something close to that, and using his position it is alledged he has ‘stolen’ millions of dollars of Nigerian government money(as happen with many goverment officials).

The email above is most likely NOT from Kenny Martins, but someone attempting to cash-in on the name to dupe possible victims.

Once again the issue of facts…..

Posted by ozoro 99 | Report as abusive

Issue the facts? They are that Kenny Martins has been arrested in Nigeria and is being extradited to the United States for fraud. The real Kenny Martins!

Posted by Bob A. | Report as abusive

the real kenny martins is actually the brother-in-law of former Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo. He used his influence and access to power to raise money on behalf of the Nigeria Police (Police Equipment Fund) which monies he later diverted to his own personal use. He was never engaged in the classic ‘Nigerian Letter’ advance fee fraud like Harvey Faulkner would have us believe.

Harvey next time please verify your sources before going off half-cocked like that.

Posted by ziddy | Report as abusive

First off, you cannot extrapolate for figures here. The scammers takings are totally very random. They could make nothing for weeks and then suddenly make loads the next.

Further, you really don’t know who sends each mail, because the same emails messages are used by so many different scammers.

Third, most of the mails may carry names of real Nigerian officials, who may or may not be involved in some scandal, however the emails are NEVER written or sent by them.

And while your all at it, anyone who falls for some scam involving stealing money from the Nigerian government, should end up in jail as well for attempted grand theft.

Posted by Shola | Report as abusive