Such people, who may be real but impersonated people or fictitious characters played by the con artist, could include, for example, the wife or son of a deposed African leader who has amassed a stolen fortune, a bank employee who knows of a terminally ill wealthy person with no relatives, or a wealthy foreigner who deposited money in the bank just before dying in a plane crash (leaving no will or known next of kin), and similar characters.
The money could be in the form of gold bullion, gold dust, money in a bank account, blood diamonds, a series of checks or bank drafts, and so forth.
In that con, businessmen were contacted by an individual allegedly trying to smuggle someone connected to a wealthy family out of a prison in Spain.
In exchange for assistance, the scammer promised to share money with the victim in exchange for a small amount of money to bribe prison guards.
To help persuade the victim to agree to the deal, the scammer often sends one or more false documents bearing official government stamps, and seals.
419 scammers often mention false addresses and use photographs taken from the Internet or from magazines to falsely represent themselves.
This scam usually begins with the perpetrator contacting the victim via email, instant messaging or social media using a fake email address or fake social media account and making an offer that would allegedly result in a large payoff for the victim.
The sums involved are usually in the millions of dollars, and the investor is promised a large share, typically ten to forty percent, in return for assisting the fraudster to retrieve or expatriate the money.
Although the vast majority of recipients do not respond to these emails, a very small percentage do, enough to make the fraud worthwhile, as many millions of messages can be sent daily.
According to Cormac Herley, a Microsoft researcher, "By sending an email that repels all but the most gullible, the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select." In Nigeria, scammers use computers in Internet cafés to send mass emails promising potential victims riches or romance, and to trawl for replies.
They refer to their targets as Magas, slang developed from a Yoruba word meaning "fool".