It’s not uncommon for me to get phonecalls from West Africa from people I don’t know well… or sometimes don’t know at all. I’ve met a lot of people in my time living and working in Accra and sometimes I hear from family or friends of people I know, who I’ve not met before.
So when my phone rang in the middle of the night in Manila a few weeks back, and I heard an unfamiliar West African voice, I took the call. The caller told me he was looking for help establishing a foundation. Again, this isn’t uncommon – because I’ve done a good deal of charitable work in Africa, people sometimes ask for advice on starting foundations. But it was 3am, I was jetlagged beyond belief and I just wanted off the phone. “Send me something via email and we can talk later.”
A few weeks later, I got something via email – a 24 page proposal for an organization called “Ethans World Changing Another World Is Here”. That odd phrase is, surely, a reference to WorldChanging, an organization whose board I chair and who I write for. The proposal didn’t make any further reference to any of the work Worldchanging does – instead, it focused on ministering to prostitutes in the Kaduna State of Nigeria.
Throughout the proposal are references to “Ethan’s volunteers” and the good work they’ve done, preaching the gospel and opening a hair salon and seamstress operation where the prostitutes now work. And there’s a very carefully worked out budget, including line items for the curlers and hair tongs for the salon. The CEO of the new organization? “Jesus Christ of Nazareth”. And the executive director is the minister who’d called me and sent the proposal.
The price tag of the proposal – $348,063 – suggests that the author hasn’t done much research on my personal finances. I’m not in the position to provide a fraction of that much money to an organization I’m on the board of, never mind one I haven’t heard of before. Is the author of the proposal serious, just very misinformed about how one raises money from someone he’s never met before? Or is this a new variant on the 419 scam? I can’t support the whole project, but I come in for a small bit, get progress reports from Kaduna, invest more and ultimately discover it’s all been pocketed?
Today’s email suggests that I’m not the only recipient of this proposal. The email asked for my reaction to the proposal… and included the email the author had previously sent to the CEO of another NGO. Unfortunately, that CEO was sent my specially prepared proposal – I wonder if she’ll be interested in sponsoring an organization named after me.
So here’s the question I’m still left with: is this a novel 419 scheme aimed at people who run NGOs for a living, or is it merely a misguided but sincere attempt to get support for a project the author hopes to carry out? Before concluding that it’s a 419, let me point out that the scheme, in no way, plays on my greed. My vanity, yes, but it’s a little different from the usual 419 strategy.
Five years ago, working on Geekcorps, we received a proposal to work with a regional school system in southern Nigeria. It wasn’t a project we could take on – we didn’t have a funder lined up to support it – but I was tempted to follow up and see what the opportunity looked like. My business partner suggested that it could be a scam and called the US State department’s Nigeria desk. They sent us a wonderful pamphlet, the message of which was, basically, that we should assume that any business offer from Nigeria was a scam and that the State Department might try to help us get out of Nigeria alive, but couldn’t help me get my money back.
Needless to say, this isn’t the sort of publicity Nigeria needs as figures like Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala try to convince the global community that Nigeria is fighting corruption and creating a stable client for outside investment.
Which is why I’d like to believe that the author approaching me wasn’t running a scam, just trying an inept approach to finding a funder. A guy can hope, right? Even if I don’t have a spare $400k to buy sewing machines and hairdryers…
Its might be a pretty sophisticated scam to get money out of someone else, not you by getting something from you that you might not realize has some significant value – the influence of your name. You might be the hook being to land the huge fish.
Here is how it could potentially work: the shyster come up with an NGO, get someone with a well known name (thats you) to sign on atleast in name if they wont do financially. They then use the “pull” of the name they just signed on to get other sponsors onboard. After all, if “Ethan Zuckerman” is on the board of this project and is vouching for it, not only must it be legitimate, its probably going to get a ton of funding from those “Cambrigde types” shortly.
Which it might if those “Cambridge Types” are led to believe that you are on board and that your participation is confirmation of the legitimacy of the project.
Then again, this might be the real thing.
If nothing else, insists that they take your name of the project no matter what.
As soon as read “Ethans World Changing Another World Is Here” I knew it was 419 varient.
Because if you google “Ethan Zuckerman” the 8th result is “WorldChanging: Another World Is Here: Ethan Zuckerman”. The name of the NGO is simply a twisting of what the tricker found in the search results for your name.
I run a site which can be confused with an NGO and I get emails like this all the time. Here is my checklist for a 419 scam:
1. Does it go over-the-top in praise of me?
2. Does it mention Christianity?
3. Does it cost money?
4. Is it supposedly “secret”?
5. Is it supposedly sent by an African elite?
6. Does it have horrible grammar/spelling?
7. Does it come from Nigeria?
8. Is it supposedly time sensative?
If you answer “yes” to 3 or more of those questions, just delete the email and move on with your day.
Ha! This is a great checklist!
We face this challenge all the time at GlobalGiving (in fact, it is the business we are in). Our goal over time is to allow any bona fide grassroots group anywhere in the world to post a development project.
But it ain’t easy. We have a variety of ways to assess the legitimacy of a project. We depend on third party references and we do our own fact and reference checking. But we are always looking for ways to reduce costs while ensuring a project’s bona fides. The lower we can get those costs, the more grassroots projects will have access to the world market for financial and other support. And note that it is often the project leaders who bear a lot of the costs, here – not just us or others in the chain.
One way to reduce costs is to screen out the bad ones quickly rather than spending a lot of time on them. Now for the harder part – how to “screen in” the good ones? Having had good success with our initial approach, we are now piloting a number of even lower cost approaches. If any one out there is interested in this topic, would be happy to talk.