How internet fraud is fueling a parallel economy in South Eastern Nigeria

The amount of money stolen worldwide in 2017 via the Internet reached US$172 billion, according to a report by cybersecurity firm Norton. The scammers, also known as Yahoo Boys, are criminals responsible for the mutation of this trade to whatever form will yield the most money.

A decade ago romance scams were hot, but since the world has caught on to it, cyber criminals have transformed their illicit trade into more complex endeavours that target vulnerable victims ready to ‘invest’ their savings on a promise to easily and quickly make money. Yahoo Boys are always one step ahead of law enforcers by inventing different scams, targeting different regions, and fleeing to other locations.

SENSE OF UNITY

The Yahoo Boy rarely lives alone. A sense of community is vital to know how to make money, avoid certain locations, and know what type of fraud to commit in what region of the world.

Back in New Haven, a commercial center in Enugu state, Nigeria, scammer Chukwukadibia Godson explains the need for this group of criminals to stay together: ‘It depends on what stage of despair over life in general you are when you get in. If you are new then you need to know which brand of this business will pay and how soon.

“You need to know what time of day to throw a bait and on what platform, what time to check back in on a client, and you need business documents, and that can be produced here in New Haven. So you need to stay close because you will get all that information here.”

The aim is to get money from unsuspecting individuals or businesses from around the world. Once a victim transfers money, the criminal does not stop until that victim has no more money and no one else to borrow from.

Godson, 29 years old, rides a ‘Lexus Yahoo boy’ also known as the Lexus Rx330, a signature vehicle for the successful scammer that he changes once every two years. Godson, who holds a Bachelor’s degree from Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Southeastern Nigeria, earns from hundreds to thousands of US dollars per month from his scam business.

An entry-level job at the civil service in his state pays 38,000 naira or about US$105 per month. Nigeria’s unemployment rate reached 18.8% in the third quarter of 2017 from 16.2% in the second quarter same year, and nearing an all time high of 19.7% reached in the fourth quarter of 2009, according to Trading Economics. In addition, the rate of underemployed rose to 21.0% in the fourth quarter of 2016, making it easier for young unemployed adults to find other sources of revenue, according to Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

TYPES OF SCAMS

Romance scams are easy, the crucial thing is to ensure defraud before the victim becomes skeptic. “The hard ones are when you promise to send a consignment. That is when you need shell companies,” Godson said. The scammer will ask the victim to help him bring a large sum of money into the country or wire money to him. The fraud happens when the thief asks for a small fee to help him release the large sum.

“There is a guy in New Haven whose job is to produce fake documents.” The victim will be sent fake receipts, details of the agent and of consignment as proof that money is coming her way. The victim will keep paying for clearing because she has been convinced there is money to be made.

People fall for these ruses “because they believe in online,” Godson said. Those who live in western societies, where many daily transactions have been digitalized, are more susceptible to falling for cyber fraud. “It is easy for them to believe the offers we make are legitimate.”

Fear of getting caught is not enough deterrent for the Yahoo boys who are sufficiently aware of not only the trade’s illegality but also its ruthlessness.

“You need to kill your conscience to be able to do this,” said Michael Chukwutoobig, a struggling 28 year-old Yahoo Boy who also works in a lounge in Owerri, Imo state’s capital.

“There is a need to move on fast when one has cashed out or when bait is thrown and no one bites. There are no thoughts spared for victims,” Chukwutoobig said. “This is important because it is my career.”

Chukwutoobig has a university degree in Biochemistry yet he moonlights as a comedian and gets paid a token after his performances at the lounge.

The Nigerian cybercrime law doesn’t legislate against dead consciences but it can against Internet fraud. Section 419 of the Criminal Code of Nigeria states that a business fitting the description of Chukwutoobig’s career is a felony and he is liable to imprisonment. Chukwutoobig is not worried. He says law enforcement officers are also ‘hustling’ and arrest only those they don’t know or those ‘who haven’t shown them love’.

NIGERIAN 419 SCAM SPILLS OVER TO GHANA

A certain level of creativity and elasticity is vital to this trade, creativity to get people to take the bait, and elasticity to try every means possible to defraud and to move on from failures fast.

The most required ingredients however are a rock solid drive to deceive and good Internet. In Ghana there is good internet and a budding organized cybercrime cartel.

Afriyie Sakyi the new Divisional Commander at Ghana’s Madina Police Headquarters expressed concern about Nigerians recruiting Ghanaian young men and women, mostly in their 20s, to build the cartel.

According to Sakyi, Ghana offers more than good Internet, it offers believability. “It is easier to believe the legitimacy of a Ghanaian Internet lover or potential businessman over a Nigerian one,” he said.

None of the Yahoo Boys in West Africa will give up the trade unless they are stopped. But Nigeria is yet to establish an institutional framework to fight cybercrime, urgently suggested by T.G. George-Maria Tyendezwa, head of computer crime prosecution unit at the ministry of justice in a paper on Legislation on cybercrime in Nigeria.

For now Internet users worldwide will continue to become victims of this yahooyahoo industry.


**Names have been changed to protect the identities of those mentioned.

“This story was produced by Olivia Ndubuisi. It was written as part of Wealth of Nations, a pan-African media skills development programme run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in partnership with the African Centre for Media Excellence. More information at www.wealth-of-nations.org

Olivia Ndubuisi is on Twitter and Instagram – @116olivia.