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.
(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 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 in jail.
"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 are too gullible. They are rich, and whatever I gyp them out of is small change to them."
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.
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From the May 29, 2006 issue