Anti-419 activists say that in the roughly 20-year history of the crime, only about a dozen people have ever been convicted, according to the Nigerian government's own figures. It is a crime with little to no downside-fighting it is next to impossible.
In 2002, the Nigerians established the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and charged it with among other things, enforcing that country's Advance Fee Fraud and Other Fraud Related Offences Act 1995, but American activists say no new convictions have resulted since.
"To date," said activist Charles Pascale, coordinator of the 419 Coalition, "law enforcement agencies worldwide have been unable to deal effectively with the problem.... Of the $500 million in 419ed monies the EFCC says it has recovered, not one cent of those monies has yet been repatriated to victims."
Pascale said 419 scams defraud Americans alone to the tune of $300 million a year, and $700 million worldwide. He gets his numbers from the testimony before a congressional subcommittee of the head of the now-defunct Joint West African Fraud Task Force. Multiplying $700 million by 20 years, Pascale comes to $14 billion, which he downsizes a bit and arrives at a "conservative" estimate of $10 billion in worldwide losses to date.
"The biggest single loss anyone has ever heard of is a Brazilian bank, which lost $242 million dollars through the involvement of a top executive," he said.
Brian Wizard, an "investigative novelist" and 419 expert, told CityBeat in an e-mail interview that, in the world of advance-fee fraud, "law enforcement is an exercise of futility. No government has the time, money or manpower to police the world's 419 criminals. To compound the problem, Nigeria itself has never been up for the challenge of dismantling one of its greatest cash-flow enterprises.
"If law enforcement worldwide could arrest, detain, put out of commission each and every 419 operative working today," Wizard added, "such 419 operatives would be replaced by more enthusiastic and hungry 419 operatives tomorrow."
Wizard said the handful of arrests in the U.S. have resulted in some jail time, but for the most part, convicts are deported "and welcomed home as heroes."
Investigating and prosecuting 419 crimes is tricky business, said Robert Heyer, assistant special agent in charge of the San Diego field office. The agency would certainly like to be more successful, Heyer said, but agents need good suspect leads, which are difficult to come by, and the suspects have to be in the U.S. "We can't go outside of our borders to make an arrest," he said.
"First of all, we have to know who's perpetrating this crime, and in today's electronic world, it is very easy to obscure who you are as you perpetrate this crime. It is a very difficult crime to investigate."
Most often, 419ers are overseas. In such cases, information has to be shared with the host country. "Even though you may have a country that we've developed a rapport with," Heyer said, it "may be a country [where] some people are paid to look the other way."
With good, solid leads on suspects hard to come by, and given the jurisdictional constraints, the U.S. government pretty much has to fall back on educational outreach to fight 419 crime.
"The U.S. Secret Service has all but thrown in the towel on combating the 419," Wizard said. "They have decentralized the data gathering and, the last they told me, have pulled their 419 agents out of Nigeria and dismantled their 419 Task Force. Why? It was all an exercise of futility-counting stolen money and victims."
If Wizard were in charge, he'd start investigating links between advance-fee fraud and terrorism, and he has suggested that tack to U.S. law-enforcement agencies.
"It is a simple picture to draw," he said, "if one had the desire and resources to do so. The Department of Homeland Security cares nothing about the 419 success at stealing millions of dollars from the U.S.A. yearly. What's that all about? Why the lack of concern by those paid to protect us from fraud and financial terrorism?"
It's enough to leave an investigative novelist awfully frustrated.
"Tell your readers that it is their responsibility to become educated and updated on all 419 scam operations," Wizard said. "They cannot depend on our government's law enforcement agencies to protect them in any way whatsoever."