Friday, May 25, 2012

If the e-mail is from Nigeria don't touch it!

Good Day Readers:

Nigeria has to be the world's online scam capital. Who among us hasn't received an e-mail many times that starts something like:

My Dearest:

You're probably surprised to hear from me but an uncle, a very wealthy businessman who died recently bless his soul, left me $10 million. I would like to invest in your country but I will need your help. If you agree I will give you $1 million. Please send me the following information.

Passport Number:
Bank Account Number:
Etc., Etc, Etc.

What most don't realize is this is not one person but rather the tip of a team of scammers. If you respond even to tell them to go to hell that will unleash a process by which your internet footprint will be researched - Facebook Page, Twitter account, Blog, Linkedin- anything that yields information about you. Let the barrage then begin. Scam Team Member One will contact you, "Oh, I noticed you attended such and such school I have a friend who was also there. What year did you graduate? Or, "You did such and such ..... - all attempts to gain your confidence and try to get you to respond. Don't!

The number "419" refers to the Nigerian Criminal Code (Part of Chapter 38: Obtaining Property by false pretenses: Cheating) dealing with fraud.

Admit it you've been 419'ed! Sounds like an interesting read.

Clare L. Pieuk
Will Ferguson's new novel, 419, centres on an email scam based in Nigeria

Michelle Lalonde
Thursday, May 17, 2012
Will Ferguson's 419 makes sure we will never look at those Nigerian advance-fee email frauds the same way again. (Photograph: Alex Ferguson, Penguin)

Who hasn’t received an email message that starts something like this: “Dearest Sir or Madam, I am the daughter of a Nigerian diplomat, and I need your help”?

It’s called advance-fee fraud because the sender usually promises the receiver large sums of money if only the receiver will send a small sum paid in advance, to cover various (bogus) fees for the transaction. And of course, the big payoff never happens.

Nigeria has the reputation of being home to a large number of advance-fee fraudsters, to the point where an article in the Nigerian criminal code, Article 419, has come to be a shorthand way of referring to this type of fraud. To 419 someone is to defraud or swindle them.

Will Ferguson, renowned Canadian travel writer, novelist and three-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for humour writing, has constructed his latest novel, 419, around this type of crime and its victims. Though there is a touch of humour in its pages, 419 is much more of a showcase for Ferguson’s travel-writing talents.

The novel begins with a fatal car crash in a Canadian city that strongly resembles Calgary. The victim is a retired high school teacher, Henry Curtis, who police soon discover has poured his life savings into an elaborate 419 scheme.

Henry’s daughter, Laura, a quiet, depressive copy editor, and her brother Warren, a foul-mouthed businessman, both set out, in very different ways, to recover their father’s money and, more importantly, punish the scammer who has caused their father’s suicide.

After a quick introduction to the tragedy of Laura’s father, Ferguson hurtles us across the globe to Festac Town in Lagos, Nigeria.

Here, a young man named Winston is sipping spiced tea and trolling through messages at an Internet café.

Quickly painting some vivid details on how exactly 419ers operate in that grim place, Ferguson lets us know that Winston is the scammer responsible for Henry Curtis’s death.

Next, Ferguson introduces us to Amina, a young, pregnant woman from a mysterious and disappearing tribe, dragging herself alone through a sandstorm across the Sahel region in northern Nigeria.

We follow by turns snatches of Laura’s progress on the trail of her father’s tormentor, Winston’s exploits in Lagos and Amina’s slow walk to freedom or death. Then Ferguson now introduces a fourth seemingly unconnected main character who dominates the rest of the narrative.

Nnamdi is a young boy with a bright smile growing up in his tiny Ijaw village on one of the creeks in the Niger Delta. Transnational oil companies are devastating the region, and oil men come to Nnamdi’s village, offering jobs to keep villagers from sabotaging pipelines in their anger over contaminated waterways, ruined fishing grounds and clear-cuts.

Nnamdi heads off to Bonny Island at the mouth of the delta, to work in the terminus of the Trans-Niger Pipeline. He is a natural at mechanics, and is moving ahead in the company and making good money.

But when an oil spill causes the river to catch fire, everything changes. Anger against the oil companies leads to a series of attacks and kidnappings of foreign workers. Nnamdi and all local workers are fired, and Nnamdi ends up joining a group of “mosquitoes,” men who steal oil by breaking into the pipeline, and then make a living out of selling it, sometimes back to the same oil companies from which they have stolen it.

Very gradually, the stories of Laura, Winston, Amina and Nnamdi intertwine. Unfortunately, Ferguson is so determined to inform his reader about the history and current realities of Nigeria that sometimes the story gets lost and our interest flags. This is a travelogue with a story woven in, rather than the other way around.

Still, for its finely drawn portraits of Lagos, the Niger Delta and even Calgary, this book deserves high praise. Ferguson is a keen observer of landscapes and cityscapes, and has a brilliant ear for dialogue and accent. But the plot, although promising at the outset, drags along through the middle and pushes the boundaries of believability in the end. Ferguson has failed to make his readers care enough about some of the main characters (Laura, for example is too thinly drawn to hold our interest) to dwell on them as long as he does. And the characters that do charm or enthrall us (Amina, Winston, and even the cartoonishly evil organized-crime boss, Ironsi-Egobia) are not fully developed. Nnamdi is compelling, but we are kept at a distance from his central dramas, like the death of his father, and the development of his love affair with Amina, for example.

419 will be a truly enjoyable book for anyone who already has a passion for Africa in general, or Nigeria in particular. For others, it may seem about 100 pages too long, though still worth the read.

One thing is sure, you will never see those creative 419 emails in your inbox in quite the same way.

419, By Will Ferguson, Viking Canada, 400 pages, $32


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