Who’s behind those Nigerian email scams?

Updated on
The World

LAGOS, Nigeria — Remember that Nigerian prince who contacted you a few months back, saying he’d pay you to help transfer his inheritance to the United States?

All he needed was your bank account details, and you’d be well on the way to riches — or at least on the way to seeing your riches siphoned off to an enterprising Nigerian.

Chances are that email was sent from a console somewhere in Festac Town, a quiet, ramshackle suburb of Lagos, Nigeria. Here, a cluster of net cafes are rumored in Lagos’ press to be some of the last holdouts against a Nigerian federal crackdown on the country’s email scammers.

In the last two years, the Electronic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) of Nigeria has been putting scammers in jail. The commission has invited journalists on a successful high-profile operation to apprehend a scamming ring and has helped foil Nigerian-led groups that ran multimillion-dollar fraud schemes. In a 2007 report, the EFCC said it handled more than 18,000 advanced-fee fraud cases, a six-fold increase in just four years.

Now, even the net cafes in Festac are feeling the heat.

Festac Town was once a posh, park-lined suburb of low apartment buildings that the Nigerian government built in 1977, during the country’s first oil boom, to house participants in the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. The festival drew tens of thousands from around the world, and Festac remained an upscale, desirable neighborhood until the 1980s.

But in the 1980s and 1990s, Festac deteriorated, and its wealthier residents left for newer neighborhoods. Soon it was flooded with educated, jobless youths hanging on to the bottom edge of Lagos’s middle class. These young people now populate the internet cafes. Like Festac Town’s apartment buildings, they were made for a future of far more promise.

One cafe, Steadylink Communication, is a dimly lit, third-floor place with unfinished plywood cubicles. Signs on the walls warn that the EFCC is watching. Some customers look rankled by the presence of a foreigner with a notepad.

But while the EFCC efforts may be making people jumpy, they haven’t stopped the scammers. The Internet Crime and Complaint Center (IC3), a U.S. federal body that tracks crime on the web, actually reported an increase last year in the percentage of internet crimes in the United States perpetrated by Nigerians. For years, the IC3 has ranked Nigeria as the No. 3 source of internet crimes in the world, behind the United States and the United Kingdom. But internet penetration in Nigeria is less than 7 percent. That means Nigerian scammers are particularly prolific.

Cons prey not only on victims’ naivete but also their greed — common scams include a request to facilitate a bank transfer of ill-gotten money. With a global pool to fish from, scammers only need a tiny percentage of people to take the bait.

The EFCC may not have stopped these scams, but the campaign has made a strong impression on cafe owners. Prince Kenneth Okonedo, the managing director of Steadylink, sounds like he’s answered questions about scams before.

Okonendo says that the telltale sign of a scammer at work is that a vast amount of similar, template text will pass through the cafe’s ISP — an indication of bulk spamming.

“If we catch someone doing illegal things on their computers, we kick them out,” he said. “If they come back, then we don’t serve them, because we know their face.”

“There is always someone stubborn,” he added with a smile. “If that happens, we can call troops to come and take them.” He said he has taken those measures a couple of times, though he can’t describe a specific instance.

Next door to Steadylink is the more upscale King’s Net Cafe. Natural light floods the room from three sides, there’s a pool table in one corner and an employee wearing a blue polo emblazoned with the cafe’s name serves soft drinks. The clientele — almost entirely young men — chat, surf and shoot eight ball.

Manager Ope Loye laughs sheepishly when asked if he knows the hit Nigerian rap tune “Yahooze,” in which singer Olu Maintain celebrates the high-rolling life of an email scammer. Loye says hardly anyone tries to scam at his cafe.

“Once they come in, we start monitoring, and if they are doing anything with cut and paste or anything like that, we ask them to leave.”

Still, it’s easy to imagine that some of the young men at the cafe might have a hard time resisting temptation. No matter how much the EFCC clamps down, the underlying causes of the scam epidemic remain. Nigeria boasts a huge pool of relatively well educated, jobless youth.

Ayo Olagunju, a software designer and financial analyst who grew up in Festac, would like to see government programs that help young scammers become legitimate entrepreneurs. He says internet crime is just as damaging to Nigeria as it is to naive foreign victims.

“I’m in the financial industry, and a deal I should just talk through over dinner, you have to word it and get lawyers to convince them you’re not fake,” he said. “It’s affecting people who are genuine.”

More GlobalPost dispatches from Nigeria:

Surviving Lagos Mega-city

Nigeria tries to settle oil protests

Nigeria boast colorful fashions

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