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.

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."

But not if Nigerian authorities have their way. A new Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) is targeting "not just the scammer, but the ring around him," says Osita Nwajah, a spokesman. This includes banks, owners of cyber cafés, even café-building landlords. Eventually, "Everyone will become a sort of cyber-guard" to prevent e-mail crime, he says, perhaps optimistically.

The EFCC also prosecutes swindlers - and repays victims. It locked up crooks who swindled $242 million from a Brazilian bank - and have repaid the bank an initial $17 million. "We are getting them to vomit what they've swallowed," says Mr. Nwajah. The EFCC also recently repaid an elderly Hong Kong victim $4.4 million.

The efforts appear to be having some deterrent effect. "People are scared now," says Sonny.

But the larger issue is societal: Why do so many bright young Nigerian men pour such creativity and initiative into this type of criminality?

In a country with high unemployment, few computer firms, and many technical schools that teach computer skills, there are few other options, explains Chris Ola, head of the national police fraud squad.

There's no social safety net and so much corruption that "You can't actualize" - become financially secure - "by working within the system," he explains. "Even straight people end up going wrong." When yahoo-yahoos graduate from school, they can't get a real job - and dream of going to America for one. "They're smart, so they have to do something to survive," Mr. Ola says. That's why, "In any cyber café, you see people plotting their way out of Nigeria."

Political corruption under fire, too

Is corruption really being curtailed in one of the world's most graft-ridden nations? Consider:

• A powerful governor of an oil-rich state is speedily impeached, arrested, and faces extradition to Britain on money-laundering charges.

• The federal police department's inspector general is convicted and fined $30,000 for corruption, including accepting kickbacks - and jailed for six months.

• In 2005, Nigeria moved to the sixth-most-corrupt nation spot in Transparency International's corruption-perceptions index, from second-most corrupt in 2004.

Indeed, Nigeria is in the midst of an anti-corruption campaign, powered mostly by the country's tough-talking president, Olesegun Obasanjo. In a nation where nearly all politicians are assumed to be corrupt, critics say he's using graft-busting as a way to pick off his political enemies. Yet there's a growing sense here that graft is on the agenda in a new way.

Most important, the powerful governors of the country's 39 states felt the pinch when one of their own was impeached and arrested. It's the first time a governor has been impeached in many years. Governors are used to hiding behind constitutional immunity from prosecution. "But they're all scared now, because they're all in the same business," says Annette Edo, a political reporter for Newswatch, a Lagos newspaper.

It started in September, when Gov. Diepreye Alamieyeseigha was arrested by British authorities, who found about $3 million in his London home and charged him with money laundering. He was let out on bail - and escaped the country, reportedly dressed in women's clothes, using a fake passport. But the ensuing uproar led to his impeachment and arrest.

Mr. Alamieyeseigha is allied with the vice president, who is in a very-public power struggle with the president. Critics say Alamieyeseigha's woes are a symbol of political games at the top. But others argue his arrest sends an entirely different signal. "No matter how big you are," says anti-corruption commission spokesman Osita Nwajah, "the law will catch you."

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