Skip to main content

Nelson Mandela's Penalty Kick

As the globe catches World Cup fever, our Peter Nardi sees a little hidden scamming among the confetti.

Yesterday I noticed an e-mail in my inbox from the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Unlike many other e-mails whose subject matter contains various innovative ways of spelling Viagra, this one seemed at first glance to be a legitimate organization's communication.

I read the following message:

"Your email address has been selected as one of the winners of the Nelson Mandela Foundation/Fifa 2010 World Cup Lottery Draw. Kindly review the attached letter for instructions on how you will claim your prize.


The reply email address was listed as: NELSON MANDELA FOUNDATION (with an e-mail address of and a Word document eagerly awaited a click from my mouse.

Yesterday was also the day I wasn't born. I immediately searched on the Internet and, of course, found the real Nelson Mandela Foundation's Web page with a warning about this scam, which has been circulating since the beginning of 2009. It also reproduced the instruction letter that informed me that my "Email Address was among the 2010 Email Addresses that was picked through the computer ballot system." (To view a copy, see PDF here)

And "with great pleasure" the "Staffs & Members of the Lottery Board Commission" congratulated me on having my e-mail address "come out top number (1) out of the 2010 Email Addresses, on the FINAL BALLOT DRAW, and this had made you the JACKPOT WINNER OF THE SUM OF US$ 850,000.00." Standard Bank LTD was listed as a sponsor of the promotional program.

SKEPTIC'S CAFEPeter Nardi discusses how to use our critical skills to avoid scams, respond to rumors and debunk questionable research.

Peter Nardi discusses how to use our critical skills to avoid scams, respond to rumors and debunk questionable research.

Obviously, e-mail veterans know immediately that this message is likely a scam, perhaps a creative variation of the formerly ubiquitous Nigerian bank scams. But let's look more critically at the elements in the e-mail and attached letter to help us in discovering its false nature.

First, check to see to whom an e-mail is addressed. In this case, it was sent to a group distribution list and not to me individually. Could it be that all 70 people on this list "came out top number (1)" in the computer lottery? Even if I were the only person addressed, I should still first ask how I could be part of a lottery I never entered.

No names were in the body of the e-mail, neither a "Dear ____" or a "Sincerely, _____" and the attached letter generically was addressed "Dear Winner." I would think that if almost a million dollars were being handed out to me, I should have the courtesy of at least a personalized letter.

Since so many scams originate in non-English-speaking countries, sure signs of fraud are grammatical and spelling mistakes, that is, beyond what seems to be the norm among texting teens! These mistakes can range from fairly overt errors to more nuanced idiomatic misuses.

A small example is the future tense phrase pointing to the attached letter as providing instructions "for how you will claim your prize" rather than the more common present tense phrasing "for how to claim your prize." The letter also contains a mismatched noun-verb with "your Email Address was among the 2010 Email Addresses that was [sic] picked." And this sentence in capital letters makes little grammatical sense with its plural form of "information" and other poor phrasing: "THE WINNING INFORMATIONS WRITTEN ABOVE ARE THE ORIGINAL WINNING INFORMATIONS AS WAS SELECTED BY THE COMPUTER ON 7TH DAY OF JANUARY 2009 AND IT HAS ALSO BEEN AGREED THAT THE WINNER WHOSE WINNING INFORMATIONS HAS BEEN SENT TO, WILL BE PAID THE SUM OF US$ 850,000.00."

Finally, the secretive nature of the lottery, as stated in yet another oddly worded sentence, seems peculiar given that it's supposedly a promotional program for the World Cup and publicity would be a major component of the campaign: "Please keep this Form confidential from public to avoid double claim and contradiction over the receiving of your fund."

Beyond an internal check of the elements in an e-mail message and letter, another step to critically assess the offer is to go to the source: Check out the Nelson Mandela Foundation, in this case an actual organization. On the Web page, it's easy to find a warning about the e-mail scam and to learn that it does not sponsor lotteries. Searching for the Nelson Mandela Foundation Lottery similarly turns up many Web sites and other references debunking lottery scams and warning people not to follow through with the instructions in the letter (and reminding us not to open an e-mail attachment from someone we don't know).

These critical-thinking steps do not take much effort, yet many people often hurriedly react to these messages and bypass logical reasoning. Should you recklessly engage the senders of these scam e-mails, be sure to contact the Internet Crime Complaint Center, which is co-sponsored by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Center.

And next time, don't take a chance on an e-mail offering something for nothing; your odds of winning in a real lottery are certainly better — and you know how unlikely it is to win a lottery!