The year is 2003.
Jiri Pasovsky, a 72-year-old pensioner from the Czech Republic, walks into the Nigerian consul in the Czech capital city of Prague. This isn’t his first time here—he has been to the consul on multiple occasions to lodge the same complaint with the embassy staff: how to retrieve his lifelong savings after being conned by Nigerian internet fraudsters posing as senior officials of the Nigerian government. It’s no meagre sum but nearly $600,000. Pasovsky has heard the same glib and unsatisfactory response from the consul time and again about how the Nigerian authorities are doing their best to track down the scammers albeit with no success. Today, however, Pasovsky has had enough. He enters the consular office, and he sees the faces he now considers familiar, but unbeknownst to them, things are about to unravel. He meets the receptionist under the pretext that he is there to discuss ‘business’ and is directed to the office of embassy officer, Michael Lekara Wayid. Not long after Pasovsky walks into the office, the receptionist hears raised voices followed by gunshots. Mr Wayid has been shot. Next, Pasovsky fires at the receptionist who manages to escape with an injury to the hand. Pasovsky is eventually apprehended, but the deed is done—Mr Wayid succumbs to his wounds. He was 51 years old.
I would like to say that this was an isolated event; that the Nigerian consul tragedy sounded a wake-up call to the Nigerian government to step up the fight against cybercrime; but both would be untrue. In fact, there are several victims of Nigerian scams who go as far as committing suicide, driven by shame, debt and despair. Advanced fee fraud, as in the case of Jiri Pasovsky, is known colloquially as ‘yahoo-yahoo’ or ‘419’, after the subsection of the Nigerian criminal code that deals with fraud and obtaining property by false pretences. But how did Nigeria become globally notorious in advanced fee fraud?
419: A BRIEF HISTORY
Long before the advent of the Internet and the mobile phone, fraud had already made a head start in West Africa through written correspondence. In This Present Darkness: A History of Nigerian Organized Crime, Stephen Ellis dates the earliest documented case of such fraud back to 1920, with P. Crentsil (‘Professor of Wonders’) writing a letter to a contact in present-day Ghana, purporting he had magical powers, which he would use to help his correspondent for a fee paid in advance. Many of such letters were sent overseas promising talismans, potions and good luck charms in exchange for money. The increasing frequency of these letters forced the British government to intercept 9,570 letters and recover just over £1200 by 1947.
This scam became quite popular in Nigeria during the eighties, an era remembered as, among other things, a period of economic decline coupled with an increase in government corruption. The Shagari Administration was particularly notorious, with pervasive corruption, poor resource management and little to no accountability. The state of affairs brought about by overspending, mismanagement and a general economic downturn created a breeding ground for all sorts of malfeasance, including fraud. Laws and deterrents meant to nip such behaviour in the bud were ignored, and various other scams (referred to as ‘format’ among scammers) popped up, the most popular being that of the wealthy Nigerian prince requesting help to transfer a large sum of money out of the country in exchange for a percentage. Then came the era of the Internet.
THE PROBLEM OF THE INTERNET
‘The new freedom of expression brought by the Internet goes far beyond politics. People relate to each other in new ways, posing questions about how we should respond to people when all that we know about them is what we have learned through a medium that permits all kinds of anonymity and deception.’ – Peter Singer
Globally, cybercrime rates have risen almost exponentially from when the World Wide Web began in the early eighties. The Internet has always been a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly—the ‘bad’ and the ‘ugly’ sadly now more pronounced than ever. Just this month, Europol intercepted a cybercrime gang with an international web of hackers and programmers specialized in hacking into computers and stealing financial information. The group, known as GozNym, used malware to steal $100m (£77m) from more than 40,000 victims. These victims ranged from individuals to international corporations. While the apprehension of GozNym is good news, it also gives a frightening indication of the scale to which crime on the Internet has escalated.
In Nigeria, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) recently apprehended Naira Marley and four other local musicians for overt support for online fraud and alleged credit card fraud. This news has met mixed reactions on social media. While some are in support of the clampdown on fraud, others are of the view that it is hypocritical, seeing as financially dubious high-profile politicians are left to walk free, suggesting the fight against fraud is selective at best. Nonetheless, this has opened up discussions on whether the fight against yahoo-yahoo and other forms of advanced fee fraud is yielding positive results or whether it is simply propaganda. The Mobile Malware Evolution 2018 report by cybersecurity company, Kaspersky Lab, highlighted 116.5 million mobile malware attacks (versus 66.4 million in 2017) and ranked Nigeria as the third most attacked country, with 37.72 per cent of unique Kaspersky Lab mobile solutions users attacked in 2018. The 2017 Nigeria Cyber Security Report estimated that cybercrime-related financial losses in Nigeria increased by 35 per cent between 2016 and 2017; Minister of Communications, Adebayo Shittu, revealed in 2016 that Nigeria lost roughly ₦127 billion annually to cybercrime.
Despite the magnitude of these figures, they are conservative estimates at best. The inability to get a precise figure stems from the fact that many people are embarrassed to admit they are victims of fraud, to begin with. Corporations may be even more reluctant than individuals to relay such news for fear of the impact on investor confidence. These reasons aside, certain aspects of cybercrime are not covered due to their arcane nature or lack of reliable data, which may include statistics about victims of fraud on the dark web and scams from fake news. Nevertheless, the figures point to an undeniable truth: there is still a lot of work to be done to deal with cybercrime in Nigeria effectively.
What perpetuates and drives the yahoo-yahoo menace? The answers are varied. There is the anonymity that the Internet provides, coupled with the ability to assume any given identity. Unlike face-to-face transactions, an online transaction simply requires digital documents and rarely requires parties to reveal their identity. Once their credentials ‘check out’, financial exchanges can be made. Unfortunately, identity theft is so common that getting fake credentials is a walk in the park. Even when facial or voice recognition is required for identification, skilled scammers manoeuvre this with software that can mask voices and webcam applications that digitally alter facial appearances. Unfortunately, where there is a will, there is, indeed, a way.
Another factor to consider is the lack of any regulatory body on the Internet. Unless an act is considered as a threat to national security, there are practically no measures to prevent a fraudster from committing the act. It is an impossible task to monitor the millions of online interactions and transactions on a daily basis; computer security experts can only advise people to be vigilant against threats from fraudsters, particularly suspicious emails which may contain ransomware to extract financial information from the recipient. Another measure is to install and regularly update well-known antivirus software designed to identify quarantine threats before they can do harm. They also flag spambot emails and pop-up messages, employed by fraudsters to target large populations.
Cultural and public perception are also understated factors that may explain why there seem to be more and more young people engaging in cybercrime. The society we live in places value on success regardless of the means or cost. This success is weighted by how much wealth one accrues and how much of it is flaunted on social media. Hence, many youths aspire to be like socialites and social media personalities who may or may not have accumulated their wealth dubiously. The lack of regard as to how such wealth is amassed and a general acceptance of this lack of regard creates a social crisis wherein fraud is normalized and even encouraged. This is reflected, for instance, in songs such as Kelly Hansome’s 2008 ‘Maga Don Pay’, that extol the act of scamming as being ‘smart or streetwise’ and refer to the unfortunate victims as ‘mugu’ or ‘maga’. The broad justifications for this are either lack of jobs or poverty.
More so, there is also the justification of these scams as payback for the enslavement and suffering of black people by white people. The flaw in this premise is that yahoo boys will scam about anyone they deem a suitable target and are, on the whole, rather inclusive. As cliché as it sounds, two wrongs still do not make a right. Some may consider cybercrime to be relatively harmless, but we must acknowledge that crime itself is a vicious cycle and has a tendency to snowball. For instance, yahoo-yahoo may be considered a petty crime in some cases, but it has given rise to the variant ‘yahoo plus’, which deals in fetishes and often involves human sacrifice for the promise of untold wealth. This demonstrates how one graduates from false pretences to fraud to actual murder all in the name of making money.
By constantly justifying fraudulent acts, we create the negative perception of Nigeria as a hotbed for crime, and we have, consequently, become the butt of many jokes within and beyond our borders. I cannot count how many times I have heard the ‘Nigerian Prince’ scam being used on an American or British television series as a stick to beat the Nigerian government and generally ridicule Nigeria. The embarrassment goes further and has more serious implications. This perception of Nigerians as fraudsters works against Nigerians in the diaspora seeking employment; disclosing one’s nation of origin as Nigeria instantly raises red flags and might cost the job seeker a job. Multiple social media discussions highlight that this negative perception is a cause for concern for Nigerians both at home and abroad. I have, on occasion, applied for opportunities overseas via oline applications where Nigeria is conspicuously absent from the nationality drop-down options, excluding Nigerians from applying based on their nationality from the outset, and effectively prioritizing nationality over merit. Where other African countries are present in said drop-down options, it is plausible that the perception of Nigerians as fraudsters precedes merit.
Yet another issue that gives impetus to online fraud is the wavering and seemingly insincere commitment of the Nigerian government in tackling this issue head-on, coupled with corruption and impunity. It is interesting to note that the same officers tasked with ensuring sanity in the polity are, unfortunately, the ones who turn a blind eye to the crimes perpetrated by fraudsters. From what I gather, a yahoo boy in police custody may only have to pay a fee to be released after a few hours or a few days at most, to promptly resume their nefarious acts. Apprehended yahoo boys are in fact cash cows to milk whenever the need arises—a point they were quick to point out on social media platforms, apparently tired of being ‘persecuted’ by the police. Yes, you read that right—active criminals publicly complaining about being persecuted for their crimes. The Yahoo boys claimed that police officers wined and dined with them and even collected a percentage of proceeds from successful scams. Statements like these make one wonder if there is a genuine fight against cybercrime or if it is all just an elaborate ruse.
In response to fighting cybercrime in Nigeria and addressing the issues above, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission must take centre stage. Established in 2003 by President Olusegun Obasanjo and following international outcry, the EFCC was set up to tackle the alarming rate of Internet fraud in Nigeria. EFCC’s remit may cover cybercrime, but, in reality, cybercrime is not a focal point to the commission as yahoo boys are, in principle, ‘small fish’. The purview of the EFCC appears to be more around financial impropriety by government officials—after all, it is more profitable and perhaps even prudent to prioritize governors or senators embezzling billions over yahoo boys stealing millions.
So far, EFCC’s efforts have led to the arrests of high-profile individuals but not much else, as most of them walked free. The EFCC itself has been accused of being a political tool to attack opponents of the government— coincidentally, some high-profile cases went ‘cold’ once the accused individuals decamped to the ruling political party. A poignant case that demonstrates this was the James Ibori saga. The EFCC had him on 170 charges and yet failed to bring him in on a single one. Scotland Yard, on the other hand, investigated and apprehended the former Delta State governor, who was, subsequently, convicted on just ten charges. James Ibori was sentenced to 13 years in a UK prison, of which he served four. The same case also epitomizes the trivialization of fraud convictions; despite being convicted for fraud and financial misappropriation, James Ibori received a hero’s welcome in Delta state after his release from prison.
This focus on government officials has inadvertently fostered the neglect of cybercrime—cybercrime goes unabated unless the cases gain enough media traction to go viral. The Cybercrime Act of 2015, which covers a wide gamut of cyber offences including cyberbullying, cyberstalking and child pornography in addition to internet fraud, signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan was a welcome development, but the key question remains: are such laws enforceable? Your guess is as good as mine. Despite being enacted in 2015, there are yet to be any major convictions related to any of the aforementioned offences. For laws to be effective, they must be backed by action. I opine it is time to empower a separate legalized body dedicated specifically on cybercrime in its many forms.
Addressing cybercrime in Nigeria will not be an easy task seeing as the rot has set in deep, but it will be achievable with the right level of persistence and with the right initiatives. From the societal standpoint, it is clear that cybercrime will continue to fester and evolve as long as we tolerate it. We owe it to ourselves to continuously raise awareness on the dangers of fraud and ill-gotten wealth. We need to stop condoning and justifying fraud and ostracize the individuals who extol it. The government must also address fraud and cybercrime with sincerity and with the cooperation of relevant stakeholders. Laws must be properly enforced, ideally by a separate body dedicated to tackling cybercrime. Advocating for and implementing more whistle-blower initiatives and continued media awareness are important to encourage more people to report fraud without fear of blowback. To address cybercrime committed as a means to escape poverty, particularly by the youth, a beneficial strategy could be the creation of more jobs to redirect youths towards noble and rewarding enterprises. Instituting social welfare packages as a temporary support system for unemployed but determined youths could deter them from a life of cybercrime. At the end of the day, tackling cybercrime is a collective issue; to restore our global reputation and make this country our pride, we must fight all the different forms of cybercrime together⎈