#YNaijaEssays: Robbery and Fraud – Nigeria’s favourite side hustle

fraud

Last weekend, the internet went crazy about Yahoo boys, after information surfaced on the internet that some suspected yahoo boys had been arrested by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). The circumstances around the arrest (like everything else here) was incredulous. The EFCC operatives waited in the parking lot for the suspected Yahoo boys, identifying them by the flashy cars they drove to the party at Club 57 in Lagos. As the debate online deepened about the legitimacy of the EFCC’s actions, we started to see a worrying trend; overwhelming support several factions on the internet had for the fraudsters. The arguments these supporters raised in favour of fraud, ranged from the sensible perspective that Nigerian fraud primarily targets Europeans and Americans and such, is a kind of social redistribution, to the ridiculous that the cohort against fraud was only jealous. But in reality, none of this new. Not fraud or the arguments raised in support of it, and if we are going to weigh the arguments, then it is important we map its history.

Internet, fraud and robbery are three words that will reign in our dictionaries as long as the internet and fraud – conjoined twins – continue to exist. 

Internet fraud takes different forms, from email spams to online scams and these days, social media scams. Sometimes, you can just say… internet 419 – in the Nigerian sense.

One peculiar form of internet fraud is the advance-fee scam, which involves promising the victim a substantial share of a relatively large sum of money, in return for a small up-front payment, which the grifter requires in order to obtain the large sum. When the payment is made, the fraudster begins to invent excuses for more advanced payments or simply disappears.

Confidence scams are a global problem but somewhere in the last 200 years, Nigeria became the foremost malefactor when the debate on internet fraud comes up. It is a global problem with a very Nigerian face. Internet scams in Nigeria first became a thing in the 1980s. Nigeria had begun to really peak as an oil producing country and its succession of military dictators meant that the country’s foremost resource and the process associated with it were shrouded in mystery and corrupt practices. Fraudsters saw the opportunity in this and went to town. With instances of official-looking letters sent from a person claiming to be a director with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), saying he wanted to transfer an unspent but budgeted $20 million to the now victim’s bank account. In return for the transfer – out of Nigeria – the recipient would keep 30 percent of the total.

In some other historical instances, there are mentions of a Nigerian prince or other member of a royal family seeking to transfer large sums of money out of the country. The reason these scams are sometimes called ‘Nigerian Prince emails’.

The Nigerian Prince emails, just like any other brand of internet fraud, comes in different forms. The prince usually contacts the victim saying there is a huge sum that needs to be moved out. But, an African bank account would be opened with a relatively large sum so the recipient becomes qualified to receive the intended sum.

The internet scams of the 1980’s were simply a time-tested format scaling as a new medium presented itself. There was an outbreak of financial scams in the 1940s perpetrated by people later called “Wayo tricksters”, who operated by posing as agents of a New York Currency Note Firm, selling to potential and later victims, boxes of blank papers promising that this could be turned into banknotes when a special chemical is applied. Unsurprisingly, this scam is still being used today. 

Even earlier than that, in the 1920s, scammers were already growing in numbers. One of the earliest examples is a letter written by one P. Crentsil to a contact in the British Colony of the Gold Coast, now Ghana. Crentsil, in his letter, talked about his magical powers and how these powers could be transferred to the recipient upon the payment of a fee. Interestingly, he signed himself “P. Crentsil, Professor of Wonders”.

Early documentation reveals that Crentsil can be ably regarded as the first-known exponent of the modern 419 frauds. In 1921, he was charged by the Police with three counts under various sections of the criminal code including section 419 – the now popular number combination for fraud. Crentsil was, however, discharged with a caution on the first count and acquitted on the two others for lack of corroborative evidence. You don’t need to be told that he said his voodoo powers saved him in that situation.

Crentsil and some other documented scam masters were older men compared to the ones that took over the “Trade” later on. Like in 1949 when the U.S. consul-general in Lagos reported the existence of one Prince Bil Morrison who turned out to be a 14-year-old boy who specialised in writing to correspondents in America to solicit funds.

These young Nigerians are stated by the police to be excellent psychologists,” the U.S. consul-general wrote.

This innate understanding of the innate desires and the ability to manipulate others based on these desires created the most insidious of the Nigerian scams, the love scam. Driven by the fear of getting caught as Interpol and the FBI began to investigate the meteoric rise of Nigerian prince scams in the 1990’s, fraudsters moved from email to dating sites. The internet had opened new vistas to an otherwise forgotten demographic desperate for love. American and British Baby boomers at that time suddenly entering retirement after bitter divorces and lives lived in drudgery.  Pensions and inheritances meant these men and women were financially stable but extremely lonely because the Western world had moved away from extended families to a nuclear, isolated one. The scammers preyed on this loneliness and the entitlement that these men and women had, their desire for young, virile partners who were heads over heels in love with them. Manipulating the greed is easy, and the money quickly follows. 

Many of these scammers visit regularly used dating sites, create fake profiles using photos of other people, both men and women alike. Recently, the fraudsters lift photos of attractive Nigerian men and women from social media platforms to up their game. They stalk women and men (most times older ones) professing love almost immediately. These unsuspecting victims fall from their high ladders and the game begins. They do everything possible to build trust with these victims, from showering the victims with loving words, to sharing personal information. They use several emails, photos, sometimes sexual orientations (posing as homosexual men) so their net gets to as much ‘fish’ as possible.

In actual fact, their selling point is offering the victim the opportunity of finding love again. And because these victims are people looking for romantic partners, it is usually easy to get through.

Believe it or not, just like internet fraudsters, dating and romance scammers have the required skills to establish a strong bond with the victims. From the dating sites, these scammers lure their victims – maga’s or mugu’s – away from the public eye requesting the conversation continues on a private level such as via phone, email or SMS.

When the love is established, the scammers then make up stories of money needed for emergencies, hospital bills or to be more advanced; clearing goods from the ports. As if that is not bad enough, romance scammers are now involving their victims in online bank fraud.

After building the supposed relationship, the scammers make up reasons to ask their love interest to open a new bank account. They then transfer money into the new account and tell their victims to wire the money out of the country. This way, the victims think they are helping the love of their lives, never realising that they are aiding a crime.

Internet fraud is increasing prodigiously and while we cite poverty, unemployment as causes for these crimes, we must note that that fraud has evolved from isolated incidents into pirate-like communities with defined hierarchies and a structure that involves adjacent criminal communities like sex work, torture and hired killers. They move to a cashless, virtual economy in the West and around the world will, whether we want to accept it or not, make it easier for these.

Nigerians love to posture that they are above the traps of yahoo boys but that is a dangerous inaccuracy. Like the Westerners we scam en-masse, we are susceptible to greed. Nigerians are the first to rush headlong into a ponzi scheme; driven largely by the desire to turn over a quick buck. After all, isn’t that the whole essence of multiple income streams? So more often than not, they walk into these schemes with open eyes, hoping to make serious profit before it all comes crashing down on the late entrants. This, really, is the Nigerian dream way: make money off other people’s pain or ignorance.

Curiously, ponzi schemes are modeled closely after pyramid schemes, another favourite venture of Nigerians. Pyramid schemes are basically multi-level marketing, which means there is someone at the top of the ladder who earns money from bringing people on. These recruits are called downline. When his downline also succeeds in getting recruits, the oga at the top gets a cut. And on and on it goes so that the people at the top of the food chain keep getting richer and richer. Forever Living Product, a company that boasts over a 30-year track record of success, works by offering new entrants a certain worth of goods to sell. That’s the registration fee. Selling those products give you a commission as well as referring people to join the business. Good sales people who sell extensively grow in rank and are rewarded with certain perks like free trips, laptops etc. The real MVPs are those who sell well and get members in, too.

Ponzi schemes take a slightly different turn by offering incredible returns on investment up to 40% or more. The most notorious ponzi scheme in recent times is the defunct (in Nigeria) MMM. Although established in the 1980s by the Russian Mavrodi brothers, MMM (Mavrodi Mundial Moneybox) reached Nigeria’s shores in 2015. Its broad appeal was the seductive 30%-75% return on investment. Nigerians rushed into MMM in droves. Those who got in early made payday before MMM took a break just before Christmas of 2016. It reopened in the new year, a day before the scheduled date – January 14th – as a way of proving its trustworthiness, urging participants not to panic, but the poor would get paid first.

Recall Sergei Mavrodi’s cheerfully teasing statement:

“The holidays are over, and we’re now open. Just as promised. (You might have already noticed that we always stick to our promises). “It’s related to the hysteria raised by the authorities and the mass media around MMM. By joining forces, they’ve managed to nearly give the members of the System a heart attack and have frightened them out of their wits.

“Poor souls don’t know what to expect. Will we open again or not? This is why we’ve decided, considering the situation, to reach out to the members, reassure and cheer them up by opening a little earlier.

“As of this notice, MMM resumes its usual operation. You can now create your GH-requests. However, it’s obvious that panic will reign in the first few days after the re-opening of the System. We’re likely to be deluged by GH-requests.

“Therefore, we’re going to make gradual paybacks by setting internal output limits. In other words, we will only pay a certain amount per day.

“As the System is socially oriented, we will make paybacks to the poor and the economically disadvantaged in the first place: it means to the members with small PH amounts.

“The richer can wait. Moreover, we’ve warned you repeatedly to only provide help with amounts that are not critical for you. Therefore, if these large amounts are not critical for them (the richer), they can wait a few days. No need to be tragic about it.

Tragically, it was all a scam. And its over three million participants never got any return. According to the Nigeria Deposit Insurance Commission (NDIC), Nigerians lost N18 billion to the MMM in 2016. Thing is Nigerians were warned – by the federal government through the Central Bank of Nigeria, by prior MMM crashes in South Africa and Zimbabwe but we never learn.

So, hello Twinkas.

Because Nigerians believe in having their fingers in every pie, many joined Twinkas while running MMM investment. Unfortunately, the outcome was the same. Twinkas (MMM’s younger brother), launched in 2016 and still runs its website, after rebranding and relaunching twice. Its modus operandi is no different from MMM. Participants are required to donate to those who need help and get reimbursed to the tune of 40% – 50%  based on the system On-Demand (OD). Participants complained about not receiving compensations despite giving help and it died a natural death.

Swiss Golden is the only networking business in Nigeria that differs from the ones above as it pays participants in gold.

By way of marketing spiel, Swissgolden’s website which is still live says it has over 481,164 users, 4 marketing programs and has partners in 196 Countries. Its modus operandi is complex, and there’s still a running argument as to its legitimate status. Thing is, although it claims to pay out in gold bars, you can only get gold bars if you reside in or frequent Europe.

It is also important to note that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, recovered N 216,402,565.05 from Swissgolden fraudsters following a petition from seven thousand Nigerians who alleged that the company refused to pay them either dividend or capital after investing more than 1billion naira. Based on the petition, the EFCC arrested a Russian named Maxim Lobaty,  and two Nigerians Austin Emenike and Dickson Nonso Onuchukwu in Lagos.

While it would not be out of place to say that the issue of fraud in Nigeria is as old as the country itself, mapping out the history of fraud would be incomplete without the mention of the various dimensions in which this vice has been carried out for decades.

From the ‘Traditional physical fraud’ which usually occur in vehicles where victims on boarding a vehicle heading to their location are met with a discussion among the previous passengers in the same vehicle, about a bag in the car trunk containing a huge amount of money (often described as hard currencies) belonging to one of them. With this discussion leading to a sharp division among the passengers as to what should be done about the money since it has been charmed, an agreement is then reached and each passenger is expected to contribute some amount of money to neutralise same and shared amongst all. The victim here gets defrauded when he engages in the discussion and is later led to withdraw some money as contribution towards the rite.

There is also the method involving someone who is allegedly a friend or relative who is in some sort of trouble, ranging from detention to extortion or hospitalisation and needs some amount of money for help. Owing to some form of emotional pressure as expected of them by their cultural values, the victims are inevitably persuaded to send some amount of money to unverified bank accounts in order to relieve their supposed friend or relative from trouble.

Most recent, however, are those who came up with scams following the introduction of mobile phones and other associated technological innovation in Nigeria in the 2000s. Notable in this category are the call scams from ‘abroad’. In this regard, it is uncommon to find a Nigerian who has attained adulthood and hasn’t on at least one occasion received a call from a ‘supposed relative’ (whose number is usually hidden), informing them of a parcel, gift or inheritance from such person from a ‘distant location’ where they are requested to send cash amount  to facilitate the redemption of same.

Another level of fraud are the ‘Banking Sms Scams’ (targeted at older citizens) where unsuspecting members of the public receive text messages on their mobile phones requesting them to send their financial information (Debit card information or Bank Verification Number (BVN)) in order to redeem prizes won at a lottery scheme, help them facilitate the troubleshooting process of an error on their account or unblock their account allegedly blocked by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). While a lot of Nigerians have become used to this scam, they hardly fall for such anymore.

Common to most of the aforementioned cases is the fact that scammers troll the Internet for victims, and spend weeks or months building a relationship. Once they have gained the trust of their victim, the scammers create a false situation and request for money. These scammers are usually very clever and deceptive, and as the experience is in many cases, create sad and believable stories that will make an unsuspecting victim want to part with some money.

On Instagram scams’, there are quite a number of entrepreneurs as well as scammers who use the social media platform to sell or promote their goods. Just like the genuine ones would do, the scammers typically display photos of what is available for sale, include an email address and/or phone number (for calls and WhatsApp) where they can be contacted and have buyers pay into their bank accounts. Although in many cases, these transactions work well without issues, cases exist where victims are defrauded of their money in a bid to purchase wares from these online boutiques and are requested to send cash for the purchase and delivery of the said goods to them. While they make these transfers, they never get any good in return.

Other categories of fraud include ‘Housing scams’ where a plot or several plots of land or houses are sold or rented to multiple persons. This like the other traditional scams discussed earlier has gone on for years and many Nigerians can relate with this as it readily brings to mind, the popular tag ‘This house is not for sale, buyers beware!’ which are commonly found on buildings across the country and known to many as a response to preventing cases where children sell off building plots or landed properties belonging to their family without due approval by the owners of the property and as such, sold with fake documents to the victims.

Rental scams which are quite common also feature under this category, and a lot of people especially in densely populated areas where houses are few in comparison to the population in need of them, lose a good amount of money in the process. In this case, a property, complete with a description and photographs, is advertised on a website. More often than not, the rent is lower than average and the photos depict a really nice-looking home.

He or she then reaches out to the property owner who then, asks the applicant to fill in an application form and to provide various documents. All seems above board until the advertiser starts demanding for an application fee as well as a deposit to secure the property before the applicant can view it.

‘Marriage scams’ where women are mostly tricked into marriage by men who are already married and in most cases have children or have been previously married to a woman who has been unable to bear children but unknown to the unsuspecting spouse, only to find out years after, that they have been deceived by their partner.

The variant to this form of scam are cases of ‘Holiday or arrangee-marriages’ where foreigners or Nigerians (as the case may be), in a bid to cheat the conditions for citizenship, issuance of residence or work permits to foreigners by immigration authorities in foreign countries (or vice versa) participate in, or arrange a marriage on temporary ground that gives them permission to stay in the country without much liabilities or acquire its citizenship without hassles.

In Nigeria, the advantage for the foreigner who marries a Nigerian spouse is that it has no limitation on the job they will do; since they don’t have to pay residence permit fees and it makes it easier for them to reside undisturbed.

Indeed, as it relates to the various forms of fraud in the country or scams in which Nigerians participate in, the list is inexhaustive.

Confidence scams is a favourite past time in Nigeria. Many Nigerians have been swindled by friends, relatives and family members. These scammers use different techniques. Some come up with ridiculous tales of some misfortune they or someone close to them may be facing. Others create imaginary fables about being troubled. These kind of scams can also be noticed when people borrow money and refuse to pay. These chronic debtors are no different from internet scammers, as many times they tend to use their ‘close relationship’ with the lender as a reason for defaulting in payment. They employ emotional blackmail, manipulation and family ties in this trade.

Internet scam, also called Yahoo-Yahoo became popular during the early days of Yahoo Messenger, an instant messaging application developed by Yahoo! The messenger application provided users with the opportunity to interact, socialise and relate with various people from around the world void of the barrier of distance or location. Users joined different groups engaging in conversations with one another. Many users took their discussions private and hence a ‘relationship’ was formed. Yahoo boys used the platform to perpetrate fraudulent scams to unsuspecting users looking for love and companionship. Many people saw this as a viable means of income as all they needed was to be creative with stories, lure their victim, and rip them off their hard earned money. The situation worsened as the internet scammers and their beneficiaries told themselves the lie that they were not hurting anyone since they had no physical interaction with their victims. The perpetrators are detached from their victims as they feel they are just helping themselves to their resources and not (physically) harming them in any way.

Scammers also believe that their victims should know better. This is because many of the stories told by fraudsters range from bizarre, outrageous to the outright ridiculous. According to some scammers, their victims fall to their schemes due to greed and sometimes gullibility. Scammers ensure victims assume there’s a form of connection, attachment and feelings involved. But this is not the case. The fraudster is a cold-hearted thief devoid of any form of compassion that his or her action has ruined lives, families and led to the suicide of many.

Nigerians have over the years glorified scammers. And this is in no way strange. Many Nigerians have a predilection for avarice. Greed is the motto of the average Nigerian. A situation not helped by government officials, who rather than meet the needs of the citizenry with public funds amass wealth for generations yet unborn.

Nigerians have proven to be gullible when partaking in confidence scams. This is because many of those involved in the scams – the recent MMM crash is a case in question – were just sheer greedy. Their greed made them continue making their resources available into a scheme that was clearly heading for the doldrums. But the lure for more made many continue rather than heed the voice of reasoning by cashing out when the handwriting was clearly written on the wall. Those who severed associations with MMM early escaped heartbreak and a loss of funds, others were not so lucky. Some suffered nervous breakdowns, others committed suicide as people invested all their life savings in the scheme.

Robbery and Fraud is our biggest side hustle, it is our national sport, it has given us our biggest heroes. And until we acknowledge that it has come to define us, we cannot reject it.

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