Run-down town where scammers target the West
THE young men are as patient as fishermen, toiling day and night to trawl for replies to the e-mails they shoot to strangers half a world away.
Most of the recipients hit 'delete' without ever opening the messages that urge them to claim the untold riches of a long-lost deceased second cousin and the messages that offer millions of dollars to help smuggle loot stolen by a corrupt Nigerian official into a British or American account.
But the few who actually reply make this a tempting and lucrative business for the boys of Festac, a neighbourhood of Lagos at the centre of the cyber-scam universe. The targets are called maghas - scammer slang from a Yoruba word meaning 'fool' - and refers to gullible white people.
A good cyber-scammer can make up to $7,000 a month - 22 times the average Nigerian wage - from milking gullible Westerners. His controlling boss, with an army of trained scammers under his wing in both America and Europe, will be raking in many times more.
Though the fraud is apparent to many, some people think they have stumbled on a once-in-a-lifetime deal, and scammers can string them along for months with mythical difficulties. Some victims eventually contribute huge sums of money to save the deal when it is suddenly "at risk".
Samuel is 19, handsome, bright, well-dressed and ambitious. He has a special flair for computers and until he quit the game last year was one of Festac's best-known cyber-scam champions.
Like nearly everyone in Festac, he is desperate to escape the run-down, teeming streets, the grimy buildings, the broken refrigerators stacked outside. It's the kind of place where plainclothes police prowl the streets extorting bribes and where mobs burn thieves to death for stealing a mobile phone.
It is here that places like the Net Express cyber cafe thrive. The atmosphere of silent concentration inside the cafe is absolute. The doors are locked from 10.30pm until 7am, so the cyber thieves can work in peace without fear of armed intruders.
In this sanctum, Samuel says, he extracted thousands of e-mail addresses, sent off thousands of fraudulent messages and waited for replies.
The e-mail scammers here prefer hitting Americans, whom they see as rich and easy to fool. They rationalise the crime by telling themselves there are no real victims: Maghas are avaricious and complicit. To them, the scams, called '419' after the Nigerian statute against fraud, are a game.
They even have an anthem - 'I Go Chop Your Dollars' - hugely popular in Lagos a few months ago when released as a CD penned by an artist called Osofia.
Scammers, Samuel says, "have the belief that white men are stupid and greedy. They say the American guy has a good life. There's this belief that for every dollar they lose, the American government will pay them back in some way."
What makes the scams so tempting for the targets is that they promise a tantalising escape from the mundane disappointments of life. The scams offer fabulous riches or the love of your life, but first the magha has to send a series of escalating fees and payments. In a dating scam, for instance, the fraudsters send pictures taken from modelling websites.
"Is the girl in these pictures really you? I just can't get over your beauty! I can't believe my luck!" one hapless American wrote recently to a scammer seeking $1,200.
The real push comes when the fictional girlfriend or fiance, who claims to be in America, goes to Nigeria for business.
In a series of "mishaps", her wallet is stolen and she is held hostage by the hotel owner until she can come up with hundreds of dollars for the bill. She needs a new airline ticket, has to bribe churlish customs officials and gets caught. Finally, she needs a hefty get-out-of-jail bribe.
Samuel was recruited at the age of 15 by one of Festac's cyber-crime wizards. After noting his speed and skill, the crime boss, nicknamed Shepherd, invited him to his mansion to try extracting e-mail addresses using search engines. Then, to make Samuel feel special, he took him shopping for designer clothes.
"He said every hour I spent online I could be making good money," Samuel recalls. "He said: 'The houses I own, I got it through all this.' And they're not just ordinary houses, they're big, made of marble. He's got big-screen TVs, a swimming pool inside. He lives like a prince. He's the biggest guy in this town."
Scammers, who are promised 20% of the take, although they rarely get it, work for six-hour stretches extracting e-mail addresses and sending off messages that have been composed by a college graduate also working for Shepherd.
They send 500 e-mails a day and usually receive about seven replies. Shepherd would then take over. "When you get a reply, it's 70% sure that you'll get the money," Samuel says.
"Most of the time you look for American contacts because of the value of the dollar, and because the fraudsters here have contacts in America who wrap up the job over there," Samuel explains. "For example, the offshore people will go to pose as the Nigerian ambassador to the US or as government officials. They will show some documents - this has presidential backing, this has government backing - and you will be convinced because they will tell you in such a way that you won't be able to say no."
After a scam letter surfaced this summer bearing the forged signature of Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, police raided a market in the Oluwole neighbourhood of Lagos, one of six main centres that provide documents used in the 419 scams.
They seized thousands of foreign and Nigerian passports, 10,000 blank British Airways tickets, 10,000 US money orders, customs documents, fake university certificates, 500 printing plates and 500 computers.
Shepherd employs seven Nigerians in America to spy on maghas and threaten any who get cold feet.
"They're all graduates and very smart," Samuel says. "If the white guy is getting suspicious, he'll call them all in and say: 'Can you finish this off for me?'
"They'll try to scare you that you're not going to get out of it. Or you're going to be arrested and you will face trial in Nigeria. They'll tell you that you are in too deep - you either complete it or you'll be killed."
US officials estimate such schemes net hundreds of millions of dollars annually worldwide, with many victims too afraid or embarrassed to report their losses.
Stephen Kovacsics, of American Citizen Services, an office of the US Consulate, spoke to a victim who had lost $200,000.
Kovacsics says he is awakened several nights a week by Americans pleading for help with an emergency, such as a fiance - whom they have only met in an online chatroom - locked up in a Nigerian jail. He has to tell them that there is probably no fiance, no emergency.
Victims, he adds, can't believe that a scammer would spend months of internet chat just to net $700 or $1,000, not realising that is big money in Nigeria and fraudsters will have many scams running at the same time.
The Nigerian government claims it is not just turning a blind eye. Basil Udotai, of the government's Nigerian Cybercrime Working Group, said 419 fraud is taken seriously by authorities because of the damage it does to the country's reputation.
"The government is not just sitting on its hands," he insisted. "We are putting together measures that will tackle all forms of online crime and give law enforcement agencies opportunities to combat it."
The Nigerian Crimes Commission claims it had seized $700m relating to 419 crime over the last two years but concedes there have only been 12 convictions secured. Critics say the courts are too slow and corrupt.
The main defence of the Nigerian authorities is to claim that the scammers are mostly from other countries and that any Nigerians who participate do so because of high unemployment and, above all, the greed of victims.
Samuel said his mother, widowed when he was 16, was devastated when she saw him in the street with Shepherd and realised what he was up to.
"She tried to force me to stop," he said, "but the more force she applied, the more hardened I became. I said: 'You can't give me what I want. I want a good life.'"
But Samuel began having second thoughts when a friend of his was arrested after conning a boss out of $17,000. The friend was badly beaten before disappearing into the depths of the labyrinthine Nigerian justice system.
Samuel thought of his mother and how she would be left alone if something happened to him.
He has now quit the 419 rackets but still sees Shepherd swaggering around a neighbourhood where police involvement in the scams is widely alleged.
His former boss just grins when he sees him. "He says: 'Don't worry. You'll come back to me.'" Given the rewards, the chances are he will.
TECHNIQUES OF THE '419' FRAUDSTERS
The 'next of kin' scam, tempting you to claim an inheritance of millions of dollars in a Nigerian bank belonging to a long-lost relative, then collecting money from you through bank and transfer fees.
The 'laundering crooked money' scam, in which you are promised a large commission on a multi-billion-dollar fortune, persuaded to open an account, contribute funds and sometimes even travel to Nigeria.
The 'Nigerian National Petroleum Co' scam, in which the scammer offers cheap crude oil then demands money for commissions and bribes.
The 'overpayment' scam, in which fraudsters send a cheque overpaying for a car or goods by many thousands of dollars, persuading the victim to transfer the difference back to Nigeria.
The 'job offer you can't refuse' scam, in which an 'oil company' offers a job with an overly attractive salary and conditions (in one example, $180,000 a year and $300 per hour for overtime) and extracts money for visas, permits and other fees.
The 'winning ticket in a lottery you never entered' scam.
The 'gorgeous person in trouble' scam, in which scammers in internet chatrooms and on dating websites pose as beautiful Nigerian women, lure lonely men into internet intimacy then ask them to send money to get them out of trouble.
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