And while the vast majority of us simply ignore the email scams, one man has managed to turn the tables on the aspiring con artists in a very unusual, and funny, way.
Comedian and author Barry Marder actually replies to the Nigerian prince emails.
Often using his pseudonym Ted L. Nancy, Marder sends polite, engaging and entirely naive messages to the individuals asking for his money. And he doesn’t stop replying until the con men themselves literally beg him to leave them alone.
“Basically, I drove them nuts until they cut it off,” Marder told Yahoo News. “They said get away from me, you’re a moron.”
The resulting exchanges were so unexpected and entertaining that Marder showed his pal Jerry Seinfeld, who suggested turning them into a new show.
Ted L. Nancy: Letters from a nut
The story of how Marder, a longtime friend and collaborator of Seinfeld's, started his unusual correspondence with the Nigerian scammers dates to the 1990s.
Marder created the Ted L. Nancy character as a way to interact with companies who invite customers to write them about their experiences with the company’s products.
“I came up with this character in 1994 with my girlfriend, Phyllis Murphy,” Marder said of Nancy’s origins. “I was eating a bag of Fritos, and she was watching TV at 4 in the morning. On the bag, it said, 'If you’ve got any problems, write Fritos.' I said to myself, 'Who would write to Fritos?'”
Marder, as Ted L. Nancy, then began writing letters to major corporations and even public utility providers. And strangely enough, they wrote back.
“I wrote to the gas company and told them I was an avid reader of your gas pamphlets,” Marder told Yahoo News. “I started to get answers back, and I thought wow, these people are going to answer me.”
The Ted L. Nancy act works by seeing how long someone will indulge the ridiculous rants of an entirely sincere, enthusiastic and wildly uninformed man.
“Ted is a very nice, polite person,” Marder explained. “He’s not contentious. He compliments them. And then he starts with the horror, ‘I like to check into your hotel with 300 hamsters.’ Ted was a nut. But he was really nice, friendly nut.”
Eventually, Seinfeld encouraged Marder to compile the Nancy letters into a book. The Ted L. Nancy series – Letters From a Nut became so popular that many people assumed they were actually written by Seinfeld himself. Eventually, the pair had to make a series of national TV appearances on programs like NBC’s “Today” show to convince a skeptical audience that Marder was in fact the person behind Nancy.
'By the sixth exchange, they would be telling me I was a moron'
When the Ted L. Nancy email account started receiving messages from individuals claiming to be Nigerian princes, lawyers or doctors, he knew it was a natural way to extend the humorously benign adventures of Ted L. Nancy.
“Everyone in America gets these letters,” Marder said. “'We have $22 million for you,’ they have this sob story, etc. The stories became more and more outlandish.”
“Comedy is a very good vehicle to show people the truth,” Marder explains. “I would get into 20 to 30 email exchanges with them. I’d ask them if I could get some spending money, could I get some money for dry cleaning," he said.
And while Marder would never actually send any of the email scammers money, he would send them pictures of other, unusual items as part of the ruse.
For example, he’d mail a picture of a single sock or swimming goggles to the physical address where the scammers were asking him to wire money. Then, he would demand that they send back a photo of the sock to confirm they had received his package.
“By the sixth exchange, they would be telling me I was a moron,” Marder said. “This went on until every one of them told me off. I think this is just weird, funny stuff. It’s a social thing, it does paint a picture.”
Along the way, he interacted with scammers hailing from Russia, India and, of course, Nigeria. In the end, they all had two things in common: First they asked for money, and eventually, they all gave up and asked Nancy to just go away.
And now, Marder said he wants to turn the Nigerian prince email exchanges into a new animated Web series. He hopes he and Seinfeld could do some of the voices and his brother Alan Marder could animate a series of 10 episodes chronicling the increasingly bizarre exchanges.
As to whether there’s a deeper social meaning to his efforts, Marder said it’s all done for laughs. But he’s hopeful that anyone not already aware of the scam emails sees his videos before getting roped in.
“Anyone that preys on anyone for any reason, it’s wrong,” he said. “They’re not offering any kind of real service. I think they should be stopped.”