Online scams create "Yahoo! millionaires"
In Lagos, where scamming is an art, the quickest path to wealth for
the cyber-generation runs through a computer screen.
By Leonard Lawal, FORTUNE
(FORTUNE Magazine) - Akin is, like many things in cyberspace, an
alias. In real life he's 14. He wears Adidas sneakers, a Rolex
Submariner watch, and a kilo of gold around his neck.
Akin, who lives in Lagos, is one of a new generation of entrepreneurs
that has emerged in this city of 15 million, Nigeria's largest. His
mother makes $30 a month as a cleaner, his father about the same
hustling at bus stations. But Akin has made it big working long days
at Internet cafes and is now the main provider for his family and
legions of relatives.
Call him a "Yahoo! millionaire."
Akin buys things online -- laptops, BlackBerries, cameras, flat-screen
TVs -- using stolen credit cards and aliases. He has the loot shipped
via FedEx or DHL to safe houses in Europe, where it is received by
friends, then shipped on to Lagos to be sold on the black market. (He
figures Americans are too smart to sell a camera on eBay to a buyer
with an address in Nigeria.)
Akin's main office is an Internet cafe in the Ikeja section of Lagos.
He spends up to ten hours a day there, seven days a week, huddled over
one of 50 computers, working his scams.
And he's not alone: The cafe is crowded most of the time with other
teenagers, like Akin, working for a "chairman" who buys the computer
time and hires them to extract e-mail addresses and credit card
information from the thin air of cyberspace. Akin's chairman, who is
computer illiterate, gets a 60 percent cut and reserves another 20
percent to pay off law enforcement officials who come around or
teachers who complain when the boys cut school. That still puts plenty
of cash in Akin's pocket.
A sign at the door of the cafe reads, WE DO NOT TOLERATE SCAMS IN THIS
PLACE. DO NOT USE E-MAIL EXTRACTORS OR SEND MULTIPLE MAILS OR HACK
CREDIT CARDS. YOU WILL BE HANDED OVER TO THE POLICE. NO 419 ACTIVITY
IN THIS CAFE.
The sign is treated like a joke; 419 activity, which refers to the
section of the Nigerian law dealing with obtaining things by trickery,
is a national pastime. There are no coherent laws relating to e-scams,
the police are mostly computer illiterate, and penalties for financial
crimes are light.
No penalties for breaking the law
"The deterrent factor is not there at all," says Thomas Oli, a Lagos
lawyer, citing the case of a former police inspector general who was
convicted of stealing more than $100 million and got only six months
"What do you want me to do?" Akin asks in pidgin English, explaining
why he turned to a life of Internet crime. "It is my God-given
talent. Our politicians, they do their own; me, I'm doing my own. I
feed my family -- my sister, my mother, my popsie. Man must survive."
The scams perpetrated by Akin and his comrades are many and varied:
moneygram interceptions, Western Union hijackings, check laundering,
identity theft, and outright begging, with tall tales of dying
relatives and large sums of money in search of safe haven. One popular
online fraud often practiced by women (or boys pretending to be women)
involves separating lonely men from their money.
Attempts to speak to government officials about Internet crime were
futile. They all claimed ignorance of such scams; some laughed it off
as Western propaganda.
But last November the Economic Fraud and Financial Crimes Commission
won a high-profile case that had dragged on for years against Emmanuel
Nwude, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 25 years for bilking a
Brazilian bank out of $242 million using an Internet scam involving
phony bank drafts. The commission is also pursuing a case against 419
kingpin Fred Ajudua, a lawyer and businessman accused of using the
Internet to steal $1 million from a victim in Germany.
Some officials, who asked not be identified, said young people are
drawn to Internet crime as a way of getting back at a society that has
no plans for them. Others see it as a form of reparation for the sins
of the West.
Or as Akin puts it, "White people, especially in the United States,
are too gullible. They are rich, and whatever I gyp them out of is
small change to them."
(Fortune Editor's note): The term "Yahoo Millionaire" is frequently
used by scammers in Nigeria. They are not affiliated in any way with
Yahoo! the company.