“If you lay with a scorpion, don’t be surprised when it finally stings you.”
― DaShanne Stokes
One fateful day, Juan Souza Carlos, a Brazilian billionaire, received a fax message at his Sao Paulo office. Not too many people of the generation X and Y know much about fax messages. In the recent past, it was a veritable means of communication. The message was an unsolicited proposal from some Chief in Nigeria who for the purposes of this story, we shall refer to Chief Ike Aminu, to the effect that there was some big money lying in the Central Bank of Nigeria and looking for its rightful owner. On Chief Aminu’s investigation, it was found out that the owner of the money was dead, and the money was going to be forfeited as unclaimed if no body showed up to own it. The money was about $750m. An arrangement has been concluded by some senior bank officials such that all Mr. Carlos needed to do was to visit Nigeria, meet with the officials, agree on sharing formula and bingo, the money would be wired, and everyone would have fun for the rest of their lives. Mr. Carlos agreed to come to Nigeria and was picked up by Chief Aminu and lodged in a five-star hotel. In the morning Chief Aminu and his partners picked him up and they went to Central Bank Head Office, then in Tinubu Square, Lagos. They were given a red-carpet reception and eventually were ushered into the expansive office of the “Governor”. The business was briskly concluded and Mr. Carlos was convinced it was a genuine prospect. It was not illogical to assume that the wily Mr. Carlos would have also planned to renege on the bastards once money hit his account in Brazil in a ‘dog-eat-dog’ style. All he needed to do was to provide his letter headed paper and fly back to Brazil and begin to wait for his wired funds. He returned to Brazil and waited. A few days later, he received a call from his new partners to inform him all was going well but that the bank was insisting on upfront payment of taxes and some fund for greasing some palms for the funds to be released. The withholding tax of 10% and the ‘PR’ of another 5% were what was standing between them and $750m. These amounted to over $112K which was insignificant compared to the main funds. They had been able to mobilise $10K and hoping that Mr. Carlos would come up with the balance. Not suspecting anything, Mr. Carlos wired the balance to Nigeria immediately . The Mugu, or Maga, had fallen! In the next few weeks, different stories would follow, pointing to how more money would be required in pursuit of the non-existent claim of the funds in the Central Bank.
Welcome to the world of the typical Advance Fee Fraud of the 80s and 90s. The name is derived from the demand of advance fees in pursuit of a larger amount of funds. The victim is in pursuit of a larger sum while the beneficiary is targeting a smaller amount which the victim would pay in advance. There are numerous forms of scam in practically all forms of endeavour. The victims are made all sorts of promises including love, marriage and money. At the end of it all, the target is to fleece the victim and defraud her of her money.
Inevitably, the advance fee fraud scheme of those days (known as 419, derived from the relevant section (419) of the Nigerian criminal code), could not endure as people quickly became wise to the scam. The internet quickly gave vent to another ‘419’ scam that has earned Nigeria a reputation across the globe. The Yahoo scam started sometime after Yahoo Mail came into existence in 1997. Their preference for the Yahoo Messenger made the cyber fraudsters to be known locally as “Yahoo boys”. All they require to operate are laptops connected to the internet that runs almost on a 24-hour basis, Premium software exclusively for hacking purposes and a Virtual Private Network (VPN) application to mask their location.
Those involved in the illicit business have several ways of duping their victims and new ways are being developed daily. Beyond the already discussed forms, there are business email compromise, email phishing, identity theft/impersonation and outright hacking into accounts. Interestingly, some of the fraudsters often resort to seeking metaphysical powers from herbalists and native doctors that they believe will enable them to hypnotise or control their victims for the time they are on their radar. This latter category of scammers is called ‘Yahoo Plus boys or ‘G-boys.’
Yahoo boys are also known to be actively involved in ATM fraud. The debut of crypto currency is an added advantage to this trade as they are able to anonymously receive fraudulent proceeds. Holding foreign accounts to receive funds also help the profile of the fraudsters, though this only applies to the big Yahoo boys.
A more complex scheme is phishing, a technique used to acquire sensitive information such as usernames, passwords and credit card details. They stand at ATM galleries to feign assistance to vulnerable illiterate users, the old and the physically challenged and later swap cards to defraud them. Others are able to steal the PIN of unsuspecting users of the ATM and use the cards on the internet to shop or pay for goods.
To facilitate their trade, the scammers invest in informal networks, which revolve around banks, security agencies, co-fraudsters and sometimes, families. The common means of collecting fraudulent money in Nigeria is through the banks, mostly through the foreign money transfer companies like Western Union and MoneyGram. Through compromised bank staff, fraudsters use fake identity to access funds, particularly where the fraudster would have used a foreign name and would not have a recognized identity card in that name.
Internet fraud was mostly carried out at public cafés. However, with regular raids on these internet cafés and the arrest of suspected fraudsters by the police, the “yahoo boys” have simply moved their bases. The proliferation of internet service providers in Nigeria has also made it even easier for scammers to operate. It is now as simple as buying modems and surfing the internet within the confines of their apartments. The “yahoo boys” stay in physical communes of like-minded individuals and use this network to launch internet attacks.
In the area of romance, for instance, the scammers could to set up an account either on Facebook or Instagram using the stolen identity of a soldier stationed in Syria/Baghdad/Afghanistan/Iraq fighting rebels. His profile is embellished with uploaded happy moments of the white military officer using a fake name. The ‘yahoo’ scammer then sends direct messages to his targets, mostly women in their 50’s to 60’s, who are either divorced, widowed or lonely. Once they win their confidence, they swoop in all kinds of ways. To set up a close to reality transaction, the yahoo boy may arrange with a fake delivery company and send a fake package to the victim. The victim would be expected to pay for receiving the package including all handling charges. By the time she parts with funds, she would start the endless wait for a nonexistent package. The business of fleecing the lady continues until she finds out that she had fallen into the hands of fraudsters. Sometimes, the victims are too embarrassed to report the matter to law enforcement agents.
There is no doubt that many young Nigerians are involved in these crimes. Of all these, the hacking method is the most sophisticated. Here, the email or system of a top executive is hacked into and his password, PIN and other details are stolen and used to operate his accounts from where funds are stolen without his knowledge. Hacking into bank accounts has also become popular as a result of this scheme. Account holders who compromise their identities are at risk here. The fraudster is able to steal funds from their victim’s accounts from either an ATM, transfer to another account or by shopping.
It should be noted that most of these crimes are perpetrated by young Nigerians. The country has rightly or wrongly earned a reputation as the fraud capital of the world. In fact, there is a story of a victim who said that when he thought about the ingenuity and hard work deployed by the people who defrauded him, he concluded that they really worked hard for the money and should keep it. So, if our young ones are so talented, even in doing fraud why wouldn’t they deploy their skills to positive ventures?
There is no doubt that the level of unemployment and poverty in the land is one of the major reasons why we have so much of our youth involved in this despicable business. With close to 50% of our population living in abject poverty, and a youth unemployment figure of similar proportion, it is counterintuitive that this line of business would become attractive to these highly skilled and enlightened but idle individuals. Furthermore, a value system that glorifies the penchant for fast and easy money has not helped matters. Before now, most cultures in Nigeria would frown at ill-gotten wealth and not associate with someone who they were not sure of the source of his wealth. Today, the case is different as the successful scammers are honoured with chieftaincy titles and doctorate degrees, while musicians sing their praises and families worship them.
There have been many cases of fraudsters that have been caught in the recent times. One of them is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence in the United States for internet fraud that caused $11m losses to his victims. He was a rising star within the country’s private sector to the extent that he once graced the front page of an elite magazine, as an under 30 young millionaire.
Another celebrated case was a Dubai resident who flaunted his extravagant lifestyle on social media. He arrived in the United States to face criminal charges where he was alleged to have conspired to launder hundreds of millions of dollars from business email compromise (BEC) frauds and other scams, including schemes targeting a U.S. law firm, a foreign bank and an English Premier League soccer club. He and others further allegedly conspired to launder hundreds of millions of dollars from other fraudulent schemes and computer intrusions, including one scheme to steal £100 million from an English Premier League soccer club. In the process of the investigation, a top-ranking local police officer was implicated.
All these go to show that whitewashing proceeds of crime and pretending to be genuine can help but not for too long. On the other hand, flaunting it will show the fraudster the way to jail, very quickly. For some time now, hardly does a week pass without the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) parading young men for cyber fraud or some being jailed by courts for internet fraud-related offences. The foregoing indicate that we have a major challenge facing us as a society. Nigeria now has the unenviable reputation of being a major cyber-corruption hub. Just a week ago, 60 suspected internet fraudsters were arrested by EFCC at a ‘yahoo boys’ awards night in Abeokuta, Ogun state Capital. The event was christened “Peer Youth Awards” and was organised to reward high level internet fraudsters.
These developments have long term adverse consequences for Nigeria and Nigerians, wherever they may be domiciled. The shameful acts of these few members of our society have completely fouled the pleasant fragrance of numerous hardworking and successful Nigerians, who are quietly doing their honest and noble businesses.
At the end of the day, we do not benefit from whatever miserly returns that come from these criminal endeavours. They need to be snuffed out quickly or we all will continue to pay for the thoughtless acts of a few of us. This is the kernel of our discussion today. We have so many in our society who have become indifferent towards the penchant for our society to look away from, or even venerate, wealth acquired from questionable and criminal sources. It is a time bomb that needs to be diffused by ensuring that we avoid such characters and the proceeds of their illegal pursuits. Eventually, we will, in one way or the other, pay the price for our disregard of their actions. It is a war that must be fought in families, communities, schools, religious organisations and elsewhere. It is a war that we must win.
•Dr Otti can be reached via [email protected]