Nigeria cracks down on e-mail scams
The 'yahoo-yahoo boys' who are behind the country's infamous export have few job prospects.
In the heart of sub-Saharan Africa's most-crowded metropolis, in a dimly lit Internet café thumping with Nigerian music, clusters of two and three teenage boys hover around aging computer screens. They use their Nike T-shirts and baggy jeans to wipe sweat off their brows and palms as they intently craft deceptive e-mails and scour the Web for foreign e-mail addresses.Skip to next paragraph
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These are Nigeria's "yahoo-yahoo boys" - purveyors of their country's most infamous export: scam e-mails sent en masse daily to in-boxes around the world. They represent the lowest rung of powerful, politically connected gangs that aim to swindle gullible, greedy foreigners - especially Americans - out of millions of dollars.
Nigeria's government is now cracking down harder on e-mail fraud, in part to repair damage the scams have done to the country's global reputation. But the boys and their bosses may be difficult to stop. Many are motivated not just by greed, but a desire to leave their country - or retaliate against Westerners for perceived injustices.
"You have no idea where Nigeria even is - you're just greedy and want the money," says Sonny, a former yahoo-yahoo boy who became a middle manager in a scam ring, speaking of the foreigners he targeted. He singles out Americans for special disdain. Canadians or Europeans tend to be cautious, but when Americans get e-mails promising millions, if only they'll pay a small up-front fee, "They just say, 'Send the money quickly,' " he says laughing.
Indeed, a strong undercurrent of sticking it to Westerners - particularly white Americans - pervades the yahoo-yahoo culture, also known as "419 fraud" after the section of Nigerian law it violates.
The scammers' anthem is a popular song called, "I Go Chop Your Dollar." A tongue-in-cheek comedian and singer named Osofia belts out, in local slang, a song that translates to, "419 is just a game. You are the loser, I am the winner. White people greedy.... I take your money and disappear.... You be the fool, I be the master."
It's payback, people here say, for everything from legions of West Africans once taken by Westerners as slaves, to millions of barrels of Nigerian oil now consumed yearly by rich nations.
It's channeled, Sonny and others explain, into the basic workings of the scam industry. Young yahoo-yahoo boys typically work on commission. They use programs like "Email Extractor 1.4" to create lists of recipients. They carefully craft letters, using shreds of truth to entice. One recent e-mail cites the real fact that Nigeria's First Lady, Stella Obasanjo, recently died after a botched tummy-tuck. The missive is supposedly an aide who wants to move the boss's ill-gotten gains out of the country - and needs to borrow your bank account for a few days. Join in and you'll be richly rewarded.
The yahoo-yahoos send thousands of messages out - and only get a few replies, which are forwarded to experienced conmen in their organization, who subtly reel in the foreigners. Some organizations reportedly even have US-based partners to verify the setup - or add pressure if the victim gets cold feet.
"The first fees are not huge - maybe $1,000," Sonny explains. "But then the stakes will be raised." Suddenly, the foreigner must wire money for "lawyers' fees" or bribes to get a government minister to approve a transaction.
There are few hard numbers about the industry. But the US Secret Service, which investigates and monitors these crimes, says they gross "hundreds of millions of dollars annually and the losses are continuing to escalate."