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Worldwide Slump Makes Nigeria's Online Scammers Work That Much Harder

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 2009

LAGOS, Nigeria -- Online swindling takes dedication even in the best of times, the scammer said earnestly.

The spinal cord aches from sitting at a desk. The eyes itch from staring at a computer. The heart thumps from drinking bitter cola to stay awake for chats with Americans in faraway time zones. The wallet shrinks from buying potions that supposedly compel the Americans to pay.

Succeeding in the midst of a worldwide economic meltdown? That, he said, takes even firmer resolve.

"We are working harder. The financial crisis is not making it easy for them over there," said Banjo, 24, speaking about Americans, whose trust he has won and whose money he has fleeced, via his Dell laptop. "They don't have money. And the money they don't have, we want."

Banjo is a polite young man in a button-down shirt, and he is the sort of guy on the other end of that block-lettered missive requesting your "URGENT ASSISTANCE" in transferring millions of dollars. He is the sort who made Nigeria infamous for cyberscams, which experts say are increasing in these tough times.

U.S. authorities say Americans -- the easiest prey, according to Nigerian scammers -- lose hundreds of millions of dollars a year to cybercrimes, including a scheme known as the Nigerian 419 fraud, named for a section of the Nigerian criminal code. Now financially squeezed, Americans succumb even more easily to offers of riches, experts say.

Though statistics are fuzzy, the FBI-backed Internet Crime Complaint Center says that scam reports by Americans grew 33 percent last year, and that after the United States and Britain, Nigeria housed the most perpetrators. Ultrascan, a Dutch research firm that investigates complaints of 419 fraud, says online scam offers from Nigerians in and outside their homeland have mushroomed this year.

Nigerian officials dispute their country's prominence in online fraud, noting that scam networks rely on agents around the globe. But 419 is cemented in Nigerian popular culture. The scammers, known as "yahoo-yahoo boys," are glorified in pop songs such as "Yahoozee," which gained even more fame after former secretary of state Colin L. Powell danced to it at a London festival last year.

"My maga don pay/Shout alleluia!" goes another Nigerian anthem, which celebrates, in slang and pidgin English, that a victim -- maga -- sent money.

Wireless Internet has allowed scammers to move from cybercafes into private residences to churn out e-mails. Nigerian scammers are mostly young men who learn from one another, often as apprentices of cartel-like schemes.

"I'm selling greed," said Felix, 29, an e-mail swindler. "You didn't apply for any lotto, and all of a sudden you just see a mail in your mailbox that you're going to win money? That means you have to be greedy."

Some e-mails promise wealth, perhaps in the form of jewels trapped in the bank box of a deceased dictator, but later require victims to wire "fees" for paperwork or insurance. Dating scams promise love, but eventually the sweetheart needs cash. The most sophisticated lure investors to view venture opportunities in foreign lands -- and persuade them, over fake business meetings, to sink millions.

Felix, like four other self-proclaimed scammers interviewed, did not want his full name published for fear of arrest or angering allies. But the swindlers spoke as if conning were an ordinary trade -- one made more cutthroat in challenging times.

Felix and Banjo said they started as college students. Their campus, one state away from Lagos, teemed with young men with fancy cars, designer clothing and beautiful girlfriends -- scammers all.

In the lingo of swindlers, Felix said he went "on the street." He got "tools": formats, or "FMs," for letters; "mailers," or accounts that send e-mails in bulk; and huge lists of e-mail addresses, bought online.

In good months, he said, he has made $30,000, which he blew on clothes, hotel rooms and Dom Perignon at "VVIP" clubs. These days, he lamented, proceeds are down 40 percent.

Chidi Nnamdi Igwe, a professor at the University of Regina in Canada, said jobless young Nigerians got the idea in the 1970s from news reports about corrupt politicians funneling oil proceeds to foreign bank accounts. Scammers began posting letters in the 1980s and later moved to e-mail, said Igwe, author of "Taking Back Nigeria From 419."

Nigerian authorities insist they are tough on 419 perpetrators. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission says the cases made up 45 percent of its prosecutions from 2003 to 2006. Commission spokesman Femi Babafemi said authorities nab scammers in frequent cybercafe raids. The commission also is adopting software that sifts through e-mails sent from Nigeria to block scams, he said.

"These things are giving Nigeria a bad image," said Babafemi, adding that scammers' overseas partners and victims lured by promises of wealth should share blame.

Frank Engelsman, an Ultrascan researcher, said curbing e-mail scams requires better cross-border cooperation among law enforcement. Others say public awareness is the key. But online victim support groups abound. U.S. embassy, bank and money-transfer-agency Web sites display warnings about scams.

Still, people get duped.

"My fiancee is there in Lagos. . . . She is an American . . . she speaks with a heavy African accent after being there for two years," one smitten American wrote to the U.S. Consulate in Lagos, pleading for help. "I have attempted to send her money so that she can leave the country, and both times the guy at Western Union stole the money."

Banjo said his most lucrative swindle is the work-from-home scam, which authorities warn is flourishing as the world sheds jobs. In U.S. newspapers and on the Web, he places ads for "pickup agents" or "correspondents." They print out counterfeit corporate checks -- Honeywell is one company whose checks Banjo said he faked -- at $10 apiece and mail them to other unsuspecting folks.

Those victims then cash the checks and wire the funds to the scammer's accomplice in Britain or South Africa -- places less likely to elicit the sender's suspicion. After taking a cut, that person wires the rest to Banjo. Days later, when the bank deems the check phony, the casher must pay.

In good months, Banjo said, he has made $60,000.

But in these tough times, the scammers said, they are relying more on a crucial tool: voodoo. At times, Banjo said, he has traveled six hours to the forest, where a magician sells scam-boosters. A $300 powder supposedly helps scammers "speak with authority" when demanding payment. A powder, rubbed on the face, reportedly makes victims viewing the scammer through webcams powerless to say no.

"No matter what, they will pay," said Olumide, a college student, adding that he is boosting his romance scams by wearing a magical, live tortoise hanging from a cord around his neck.

Sometimes, Banjo said, he has so pitied victims that he returned their money. There was Katrina, in Cleveland, who wanted to go to after-Christmas sales. And there was Jimmy.

"Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy," Banjo said over a Red Bull, straining to remember. "Somewhere in Florida? Florida. Yes, Florida."

Jimmy was a truck driver. Banjo was Monica, the American owner of a boutique in Nigeria. The boutique burned down, and Jimmy wired money. Jimmy sent money for Monica's flights to the United States, which she missed three times. Jimmy broke it off after dispatching a total of $25,000, Banjo said, but could not stay away.

"He was still asking, 'Just come home. Just come home, baby,' " Banjo recalled.

Banjo said he wired $1,000 to Jimmy and told him that he had been duped.

"There is another thing scammers always say in Nigeria," Banjo said, "that every day, another maga is born in America."

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