“Poverty no good at all, no,” croons Nigerian comedian Nkem Owoh in his catchy 2005 tune “I Go Chop Your Dollar”, celebrating a fictional Internet conman. “I go take your money, disappear.”
The song typifies one side of Nigeria’s ambivalence toward its notorious email scammers; others lament the fraudsters as a national embarrassment.
Whatever the perspective, the global impact of Nigeria’s 419ers—the nickname comes from a Nigerian legal code for fraud—is undeniable. Their specialty is the advance fee fraud, in which a large (usually ill-gotten) sum is promised after a few thousand dollars are wired to Nigeria to handle logistics.
Typically netting a few grand at a time, the scams add up. The FBI estimates that Nigerian financial fraud costs the US up to USD 2 billion a year, and the term “Nigerian scam” is now used to describe advance fee fraud originating anywhere. With Internet penetration in Nigeria exploding from around seven percent in 2007 to 30 percent today, it seems unlikely to abate.
In 2009, I visited Festac Town, the purported nerve center of Lagos email scams. In air-conditioned cafes, the draw of scammer life was clear. While hawkers toiled for pittances in traffic and heat, a 419er could blast crafty solicitations for wire transfers to distant lands, a cold soda at his elbow. Anonymity made the work low-risk; remoteness of victims probably made the moral consequences easy to discount.
The managing director of Steadylink cafe, Prince Kenneth Okonedo (his given name, not scammer royalty), stood beneath a sign promising “zero tolerance” for cybercrime as he explained his policies. “If we catch someone doing illegal things on their computers, we kick them out,” he told me. Moments later, a patron in a cafe next door was observed composing a lengthy appeal for money.
Nonetheless, Okonedo was probably right that scammers were becoming infrequent in the cafes. Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has cracked down, scaring 419ers out of public spaces.
But the EFCC faces new challenges. Personal computers and smartphones allow scammers to work from home. And pop culture icons like Nkem Owoh influence public perception by casting scammers as resourceful hustlers, scraping their way out of poverty by conning greedy, rich foreigners.
Perception and reality diverge, however. In 2011, university of Ibadan sociologists Oludayo Tade and Ibrahim Aliyu found that “Yahoo Boys” at Nigerian colleges hailed from both rich and poor families. And pulling off big scams requires more than a laptop and a dream. There are officials to bribe and bank employees to cut in. What’s more, many scams are directed at fellow Nigerians. A popular one entices job hunters to pay a fee for a nonexistent opportunity.
Most agree that lack of opportunity—unemployment remains at 24 percent—drives the fraud. As one 419er in their study put it, “The forgotten brains… are the ones involved in online fraud. The Nigerian youth cannot allow their brains to be wasted.”
When was the last time you fell for the old Nigerian prince routine? Earlier this year, Microsoft researcher Cormac Herley published findings that scammers stick to the same Nigerian template on purpose—even if they’re not from Nigeria. Extracting cash from a victim requires significant buy-in, so the emails weed out all but the most gullible targets. While a less outlandish scenario from another country would yield more responses, it would generate less profit. Still, the scams have evolved. In 2009, Business Insider contributor Dan Frommer related his experience with a 419er who hacked a friend’s Facebook account and targeted him by instant message. And this year, Makeshift received a poorly disguised request through Kickstarter to host donations for a Yemeni start-up in our bank account.