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Last Updated: Friday, 6 April 2007, 13:53 GMT 14:53 UK
Playing tricks on you
By Clive James

Rory Bremner
Bremner targeted politicians
There may be a trickster in us all but one thing's for sure - there's a sadistic streak in every scam, says Clive James.

Congratulations! You have been chosen to hear a 10 minute speech by a professional Australian author.

Yes, as a result of your application being successful you are eligible to listen free of charge to an address by an experienced Australian writer and broadcaster, whose computer skills bring him into contact on a daily basis with both in-coming and out-going e-mails.

This author has noticed that no matter how often his computer security system is updated, he is still regularly bombarded with variations of the Mk II Nigerian scam.

The in-coming e-mail of the Mk II Nigerian scam always starts with the word Congratulations! Here, with no obligation on your part, is a précis of a Mk II Nigerian scam e-mail letter this Australian author received yesterday.

Security measures

Unlike earlier versions of the Mk II Nigerian scam approach, which usually came from Nigeria, this one was datelined the Department of Lotteries and State Loans, Madrid. But like them it started with the word Congratulations!

It went on to say: "Our international marketing department works in conjunction with world residential white papers, humanitarian organisations and the help of embassies and chambers of commerce in countries in Europe, Australia, the Pacific and Asia..." Etc.

But the suggestion there could be other countries within Australia would have aroused our experienced Australian writer's suspicion, if it had not already been aroused by the phrase "our international marketing department".

This is standard in the Mk II Nigerian scam pitch, as if the institution in the headline also had a national marketing department, and if his suspicion had not already been aroused by the word Congratulations!

Clive James
The world runs on good faith, if all of us had to spend our whole time questioning the credentials of everyone we met, life would come to a halt.
Clive James

The Australian writer was then informed that simply by existing he had won a prize in the third category. The implication there must be a second and first category in which even richer prizes might be awarded was once again a standard corroborating device in a Mk II Nigerian scam sucker play.

The third-category prize was announced as being 615, 810 euros. That tagged-on 10 was again a subtle touch, as was the information there were 16 other winners to be congratulated, all of whom had won the same amount, thereby sharing a total of 17 times 615,810 euros.

A very large sum for any institution to be giving away unless it was involved in funding the Millennium Dome or the London Olympics.

"We ask," the letter asked, "that you keep this award away from public notice until your claim had been processed and your fund remitted to you, as this is part of our security measures."

To get the fund remitted, it was merely necessary to contact Senor Carlos Alfonso by a certain date, otherwise the funds would be sent back to Ministry of Economics. Presumably this would swell the pot for the next disbursement staged under its ministerial auspices, which didn't sound very economic at first blush.

Brixton basement

But there could be no quarrelling with the name and rank of the official in charge, billed as Dr Antonio Gomez, vice president. The doctorate wasn't a bad touch and the vice presidency was masterly, calling him president would have been too much.

Calling him vice president suggested the Ministry of Economics might actually have been engaged in this philanthropic activity as part of some incidental arm of government policy. The kind of thing a vice president would handle down there in Madrid, if not in Lagos or in a small basement flat somewhere beneath Brixton, with an old sofa in the garden for the ministers of economics to relax in with a beer on a spring day.

Like most writers, whether Australian or otherwise, I'm pretty good at rearranging the facts on paper to make them more interesting. It's a habit that can spread into real life if you aren't careful and I would have made an accomplished fraudster except for one thing - I don't like fraudsters.

I never did like the idea of fooling people, maybe because I don't like being fooled. I don't even like practical jokes. To be a good sport about being done down, you need a lot more natural dignity than I possess. If it's different for you, congratulations!

Evelyn Waugh
Waugh invented artist Bruno Hat
The Mk II Nigerian scam might seem a comparatively mild form of fraud compared with the Mk I Nigerian scam. In the Mk I Nigerian scam, they want you to send them some money until Thursday so that they can free their blocked funds, from which they will give you back 10 times as much money on Friday.

If the flim-flam man is sensible enough to offer you a return of only twice as much, the scam might even work. I was once defrauded of a heartbreakingly-large sum by a fellow writer who was smart enough to offer no return at all. True to her word, she didn't return my money either.

Later I found I was just the latest on an honour roll of sympathetic writers all over Europe that she had been stitching up for years. But at least she wasn't after my identity. In the Mk II Nigerian scam, they're after your details and once they've got those, they've got you and they can get going with the business of helping you to rob yourself.

Some commentators regard fraudsters as romantic types, more interesting than poor old plodding us. These commentators say that few of these frauds would work without our greed. Perhaps not, but none of them would work without the propensity of the fraudster to lie.


Admittedly the liar sometimes doesn't have to do much lying. In America before World War II one sharp character made a lot of money in a hurry by placing a classified ad that gave nothing but his post office box number and the instruction in capital letters: HURRY LAST CHANCE TO SEND IN YOUR DOLLAR. I might have sent in my dollar as a tribute to his simplicity.

Hoaxes work. It's a good reason for not liking them. Virginia Woolf and her friends once dressed up as Arabs and successfully inspected the fleet at Spithead. They spent the rest of their lives giggling about their triumph but how hard was it?

Evelyn Waugh and his friends invented a modern artist called Bruno Hat. Everybody fell for it, but why wouldn't they? And speaking of Bruno Hat, is it any wonder that so many people have bought Joyce Hatto's CDs under the impression that she is actually playing on them, when all the stolen performances are so good?

William Boyd, whose fictional works I admire, recently promoted the works of a non-existent American painter. Boyd must have soon realised with a sickening sensation that people were going to fall for it because they had no reason not to.

Chris Morris
The hoaxes of Chris Morris caused controversy
In Australia during WWII, a couple of established poets invented the supposedly nonsensical works of a fictitious poet called Ern Malley and used them to discredit the modernist pretensions of the young editor who printed them. It never occurred to them that as writers of talent they were not in a position to suppose they could deliberately write something perfectly meaningless.

It probably did occur to them that the success of their venture would entail the ruination of the young editor's career. They were talented men, but they were also sadistic, a characteristic inseparable from the hoaxer's personality.

I was part of a hoax once. A bunch of us from Cambridge Footlights pretended to be a team of explorers, visited a local school and bored the sixth-formers for an entire evening with lectures about our adventures in the upper Brazilian hail forest.

After the first half hour I started feeling queasy and had difficulty looking any of our dupes in the eye. But after an hour I could see what was really wrong with our plan. It was bound to work. There was no risk involved. The world runs on good faith. If all of us had to spend our whole time questioning the credentials of everyone we met, life would come to a halt.

Self congratulating

Later on, as a parent, I remembered the Brazilian hail forest when I faced that awful moment when a responsible father has to tell his daughter that she must never, ever get into the stranger's car even when he swears blind that he has been sent to take her home.

I suppose there's something to be said for debunking authority, and the celebrities who fell for Chris Morris's assurances there was a dangerous new drug called Cake on the loose were proving that we should all be more sceptical.

But I think he was also proving there is streak of the self-congratulating fraud in every hoaxer, and I found it hard to admire him for his supposed coup. Rory Bremner I really do admire, but I wonder how well he has been sleeping if he really did hoax Margaret Beckett into saying derogatory things about her colleagues.

I have a newspaper quote from him right here: "I just rang up and said I was Gordon Brown." Yes, but suppose I just rang Rory up and said I was his bank manager and told him I'd just handed all his money to a man from Nigeria, who promised to quadruple it by Friday. And said "Congratulations!"

Below is a selection of your comments.

American comedian Soupy Sales delighted fans with his pranks, but went too far on New Year's Day 1965 when he asked children who watched his show to "go to Daddy's wallet and get those little green pieces of paper with pictures of George Washington on it and send them to me." They did, sending in some $80,000, but the prank led to a brief suspension of the show.
Candace, New Jersey, US

Hoaxes are only funny if there is no offence caused or if it genuinely serves to reveal a person's darker side that they cover up. That's why the BBC spaghetti tree April fool isn't really that funny: spaghetti was an exotic food in 1957 and I'm not surprised that many people didn't know how it was made.
Ed, London

I was with you, Clive, up to the Chris Morris stuff. Getting a Tory MP to ask questions in the House about something he'd been told was "a made-up drug" is true genius, because it reveals their utter lack of interest in evidence.
James, Edinburgh

Chris Morris's tactics in showing up the ignorance and pomposity of opportunist politicians and cynical, rent-a-quote celebrities were perfectly legitimate. The fact that he was able to find legislators prepared to pronounce publicly on the basis of ludicrous misinformation, purely on the basis of prejudice and without bothering to seek any corroboration exposed grave deficiencies within our political life. Hoaxes of the type Clive James describes play a useful role if deployed to place pretension and stupidity in their proper context.
David Webb, Belgrade, Serbia

Congratulations! You have won best sarcaustic writer of the year award in Zambezi, the sunshine province of Dengueland. You must collect in person & as inflation is high I advise bring C.$10000 with you to cover expenses. Our representative will meet you in the gents at Heathrow before you board your flight. Have Fun.

Clive it is wonderful to have your wit and perception back on tap. It has amazed me for a long time that so many people fall for these things. I have a simple mantra that seems to hold true: "You don't get anything for nothing." Keeping that in mind has allowed me to delete all such offers of instant wealth without a second of hesitation. It may be that I have deleted a genuine offer in the middle of this deletion frenzy, but rather that than wasting hours of my life trying to find that one holy grail!
Andrew James, Southend-on-Sea, UK

I am amazed at how many people still get caught by these hoaxes. When on earth has anyone given out free money?? And with all the security alerts around now, why would anyone give their personal details over the e-mail to someone they have never heard of. I for one regularly receive e-mail from Fifth Bank asking me to update my details. I have never heard of them nor do I have an account with them. Same goes for chain letters. No one is going to give some poor child 10p each time an e-mail is forwarded. Why are people so gullible?
Séverine, London

I disagree about Chris Morris having anything to be ashamed of. His hoaxes are not mere idiot-bating. The Cake episode for example showed with devastating clarity how so much of the news we are told to regard as fact is merely earnestly re-parroted spin. Had MPS, journalists, and newscasters alike learned the lesson of taking personal responsibility to sanity-check even basic facts and logic in what they're told (e.g. with the 'dodgy dossier') rather than being trusting sheep, we might have avoided the tragedy of tens of thousands of innocent deaths in Iraq. Sometimes hoaxes have a serious point!
Ken Broughton, Edinburgh

People have had their lives ruined by these Nigerian con artists. They've been made bankrupt, homeless and faced prison sentences to boot. Yes that's funny isn't it? Maybe you should investigate the impact on real peoples lives of the Nigerian 419 and similar scams a little more. It's not a joke.
Marvin, Birmingham, England

My mother always tells me the story of her father's attempt to save money during rationing by responding to a classified that said "Make your butter ration go farther: send 2 and 6 to ... " or something similar. They sent back a slip of paper saying "Spread it more thinly."
Joss, London

I will defend Chris Morris's Brass Eye hoaxes to the death. They were a rare example of a fully justified hoaxes. They were clearly not done for a giggle but to expose ignorance, blind hate and the vacuous intent of celebrities wishing to promote a cause. At every turn, each "victim" of Morris's was given every clue that this was drivel. "Hoecs" games, "Shatners Bassoon" as a supposed part of the brain, keyboards emitting odors that only paedophiles can produce, "I'm talking Nonce Sense". What more do you need to hear before you twig?
Steve, Liverpool

I would say Chris Morris' hoaxes are considerably different from those of, say, the sadistic "comedians" on C4's Balls Of Steel or various other hidden camera shows, who do nothing more than prey on people's good nature. His hoaxes are used to highlight the eagerness of celebrities to endorse anything, without finding out the facts first, and he does this by using scenarios so absurd that anyone with half a brain can see through them, unless their only concern is exposure or money. How can anyone possibly say "I'm talking nonce sense" or "there's no evidence to back it up, but it's scientific fact" without realising they're being had?!
Doug, Glasgow

I find it strange that I have been congratulated on several occasions, winning many competitions and prizes. However, I also realise that to win a competition, you first need to have entered the thing in the first place. The old saying "you have to be in it to win it" has some truths in it
neil adamson, doha, Qatar

Send me $5 and i will show you how to spot and steer clear of scams!
seth taylor, cambridge, uk

If you want me to believe that you really are Clive James, just send me your bank details and passwords.
jo.owen, london

This explains it all! I've been trying to give away £5,428,319.17 for six weeks now, but nobody will answer my emails!
Dr Jim O'Hagan, Hamilton Lanarkshire


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