As I've mentioned before, we recently had a death case that involved a victim of a Nigerian 419 scam. The scammers made him believe that they needed his help bring gold from Ghana to Dubai. It went on for about 18 months, and he gave almost a million dollars to the perpetrators, in addition to traveling to Dubai and Accra. A colleague in Ouagadougou, who had a similar case (though it didn't involve the death) sent me a link to a New Yorker story about a well-educated older man who was taken for hundreds of thousands of dollars. He even went to jail for depositing fraudulent checks and committing wire fraud.
It's easy to call the victims stupid or naive. Perhaps they are naive, but I think more than anything else, they don't want an opportunity to pass by. It doesn't matter how ridiculous it gets to an objective observer. Many people say that e-mail is an aid to the scammers because they can use anonymous Web-based e-mail addresses. That's true, but there's a psychological factor as well. E-mails can look official, or they can look personal. When you get an pleading e-mail for help from someone in distress, you can inject as much emotion into it as you're prone to give.
There's also the "good money after bad" issue. I've noticed in dealing with these cases that at some point -- perhaps after $500, maybe after $50000 -- the victim has decided internally that they can't admit to themselves that they've been scammed. So they keep going, hoping that it'll all pan out in the end. It's better than admitting failure. Sometimes that means getting friends and family to give loans, sometimes it means stealing money from your company, and sometimes you've gone so far you think you have nothing else to live for. Think about it -- if you lose $300,000, $500,000, or a million dollars, you (if you're like most Americans) are never going to recover from that. You've not only ruined your own life, but probably your childrens' as well. It's not surprising to see someone consider suicide.
Anyway, here's the story. And believe me, whether it's from Nigeria or not -- I've heard from colleagues in Ghana, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Benin, Ethiopia, the Netherlands -- the money isn't coming. But there are Internet cafe's full of Nigerians, Ghanaians and anyone with passable written English who will tell you it is.