The scam has been used with fax and traditional mail, and is now prevalent in online communications like emails.

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.

Often a photograph used by a scammer is not a picture of any person involved in the scheme.

Multiple "people" involved in schemes are fictitious, and in many cases, one person controls many fictitious personas used in scams.

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.Yet other variants have involved mention of a Nigerian prince or other member of a royal family seeking to transfer large sums of money out of the country—thus, these scams are sometimes called "Nigerian Prince emails".While Nigeria is most often the nation referred to in these scams, they may originate in other nations as well.One variant of the scam may date back to the 18th or 19th centuries, as a very similar letter, entitled "The Letter from Jerusalem", is seen in the memoirs of Eugène François Vidocq, a former French criminal and private investigator. One of these, sent via postal mail, was addressed to a woman's husband, and inquired about his health.Another variant of the scam, dating back to circa 1830, appears very similar to what is passed via email today: "Sir, you will doubtlessly be astonished to be receiving a letter from a person unknown to you, who is about to ask a favour from you...", and goes on to talk of a casket containing 16,000 francs in gold and the diamonds of a late marchioness. It then asked what to do with profits from a .6 million investment, and ended with a telephone number.Some scammers have accomplices in the United States and abroad that move in to finish the deal once the initial contact has been made.