Warning: Dangerous Column

Over the years, I've written some controversial columns that got me into hot water more times than I can count. Usually it is some company screaming about something, or a wannabe pundit who lets me know in no uncertain terms what a moron I am. I have one dedicated reader who sends me e-mails pointing out all the spelling mistakes and typos in my article. But without a doubt, the most reaction I've had was from a column I wrote here a number of months ago on Nigerian e-mail scams.

I related a particular scam that was going on at the time, where people selling items like musical instruments on specialty discussion Web sites were getting e-mail offers to buy the item for many times its worth. A special delivery service would be arranged to pick up the item, and since the seller didn't know how much the shipping would be, the "buyer" would send a cashier's check for three times the amount, with the idea that the seller could deposit the check and give the delivery service the balance. Unfortunately, two weeks later the cashier's check would turn out to be fake, and the seller was out the instrument and the cash.

It was a very insidious scam because


a.It was personal. The person knew the item being sold.
b.It seemed like a tempting windfall for the seller.
c.It seemed safe; the seller received a cashier's check, after all.

So unlike the nonpersonal spam scams, this one was up-close and very personal. The scam was part of a whole category of e-mail scams collectively known as "419 fraud"--a name that comes from the Nigerian criminal code-- and informally known as "Nigerian scams," even, one would guess, if they didn't originate in Nigeria.

The column went out and almost immediately the replies came flooding back--this time from around the world. Half of them came from people thanking me for alerting them. One person said he was just about to about to fall for the scam when he read my article. Another wanted to reprint it for a newsletter geared towards the elderly.

And then there was the other half: I was accused of being a racist, for tarnishing an entire country as criminals. A Minister with the Nigerian government wanted me to know that most Nigerians were hard working, law-abiding citizens. MediaPost took a lot of heat. It was a bad scene.

Well, last Friday, it was announced that Nigeria was considering making spam illegal. According to an Associated Press article posted on the CNN Web site: "Nigeria--which has global notoriety as a base for criminals exploiting the reach of the Internet -- is considering making spamming a criminal offense that could land senders of unsolicited e-mails in jail for three years."

According to the article, those found guilty would face stiff fines and jail time if the law passes. The article continues: "Africa's most populous country is known for its 'advance fee' scamsters -- criminals scouting for victims by sending millions of unsolicited e-mails with false proposals around the world. "Among the most common are e-mails proposing to share portions of dead African dictators' ill-gotten estates in exchange for an advance payment to help move the money overseas. The scammers keep the 'fees' while victims receive nothing."

So remember, guys and gals: send all those nasty e-mails to the AP, or to CNN!!

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