Isn’t the scam email a bonafide literary form at this point? I find myself reading them with fascination these days. Yes, they are predictable, but there is also something strange and captivating about them as literary documents.
Is email scam an African phenomenon? Scam letters have been around ever since the mailing system was invented. But the modern incarnation with email as the primary technology has largely been connected to Africa. In terms of rhetoric, style, and imagery, scam emails seem to me essentially writings about Africa designed specifically for a western audience.
Email scam would simply not be possible in a world without the “white savior industrial complex” tacked on to the image of the abject African always in need of being saved.
At the heart of the phenomenon is the heroic complex that has always defined the way the “first-world” thinks itself in relation to everyone else, coupled with the fantasy of primitive, “third-world” spaces where fortune is always just lying around, left for the wise and cunning westerner to grab. Familiar? Well, it’s the same presumptions that propped up imperialism: “They have all these really cool stuff and don’t know what to do with it, partly because they are not so smart. So why don’t I do them the favor of taking their stuff since I’ll be saving them in the process.”
Email scammers understand this ideology. They play western stereotypes of what Africa is against the western illusion of heroism and plunder. Everything from the choice of name, the (deliberate) misspellings and bad grammar, the single story they perpetuate about Africa as a space of violence, war, hunger, but that is simultaneously abounding in abandoned wealth, lying in Swiss bank accounts, gratis, waiting for the adventurous (and goodhearted) westerner. In a sense, the scammer simply recycles first-world prejudices and hands it back for a fee.
Scam emails are also interesting at the level of form. There is the obvious linguistic character—the quirky syntax, broken English, awkward diction, the exotic cadence of the language and so on. But I also wonder about the fictional African portrayed in these mails—that of the displaced African, often with a traumatic past that also accounts for his or her access to eye-popping fortune. Isn’t this the same image we see being circulated in the global media and even in certain African novels, the image of the suffering but enterprising African and of Africa as being simultaneously doomed and rising?
The scam email is also a form that relies on establishing a sense of intimacy between the reader and the fictional African character. It’s written in the first person, but the idea is to address the reader as someone familiar, to give the reader, however so subtly, the sense that he or she has been chosen or elected to partake in the enterprise. Of course, managing expectations and suspense, leaving bread crumbs that readers track—making them feel in control—all the while making the reader imagine a naive African willing to be taken advantage of—all these are familiar literary moves that account for why some people fall for it. Looking on from the outside, what I see is a scammer essentially inviting the reader to take part in a spectacularly elaborate dramatic irony.
I’m also interested in email scams as a peculiar kind of narrative labor. If the first email gets a reader’s attention, many more follow, phone calls, instant messaging. Documents exchange hands, sometimes meetings are arranged. A complex web of lies and half-truths are spurned while the scammer plays on the target’s fantasies, vulnerabilities, fears, greed, and prejudices. Imagine the feat! A narrative machine too elaborate for words. It certainly would make for a very interesting literary case study.
Anyway, have a good laugh reading the spoof scam emails below. It was published in the New Yorker earlier this year.
Feel free to write your own spoof 419 email and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll be happy to post the best ones.
First and foremost, I want to introduce myself to you. My name is Benson Whaddif, son to late Dr. Emi Whaddif. I am 19 yrs old Boy and my Sister is 12 yrs. Our Father was killed during rebel crisis and we are now in a refugee camp here in this part of Africa. I am writing to you at this time because my sister and I are made of solid gold. Where most peoples have flesh and muscles and such, we have gold, pure shiny gold, that we can pull from our bodies and give to you. Also, when we laugh, diamonds pour from our mouths.
If you would like us to share our body gold and mouth diamonds with you, please send us your name and address. As we both weigh 3,205 kilos, we may require assistance to make it to your house. But when we get there, oh boy: gold and diamonds. Gold and diamonds all over the lands.
Thank you and God bless you,
Benson & Saya Whaddif
GREETINGS PERSON I KNOW SO WELL!
Long time, yes? I will never forget that time you and I met at the place! I feel sad that I haven’t seen you in that amount of time. How I remember well your eyes and person shape.
As you are such an old and familiar friend, I am sorry to bother you with this nuisance: on a recent trip to London, England, I became stuck on top of Big Ben. You know the place above the clock where it goes up to a pointy tip? I am stuck on that. Can you help me? I must pay the clock rescuers before they will get me down. Please send a hundred and fifty thousand U.S. dollars, as my travellers’ checks have been pulled from my pockets by English sea birds.
Thank you for all your money,
Your Friend (Remember?)