How Africa escapes the 419 scammers

Even as the email scams are increasingly becoming more sophisticated, few if any of the victims are being reported in Africa.

A cynic I know has suggested that it is when the email or 419 scams, as they are also known, start hitting Africa that we shall know we have come to our own in the internet age. He may have had a point.

When one looks at the scams, the pattern is consistent. Its victims are mostly in the west, often involves a large sum of money and the scams are internet-based. The scams are also perpetrated by international crime rings whose members often are West African, and frequently Nigerian.

It is the notoriety of the few bad Nigerians that gave rise to the term 419 scams, in reference to an article of the same number in Nigerian Criminal Code dealing with fraud.

Last week, US authorities charged 80 people with participating in a conspiracy to steal millions of dollars. Most of those charged are Nigerian nationals.

The BBC reported that they are accused of using business email fraud schemes and romance scams to con victims - many of them elderly.

To nab them, the FBI started investigating the case in 2016 in a single bank account but it later extended to cover multiple victims in the US and around the world.

The US prosecutors say it is one of the "largest cases of its kind in US history."

The scammers managed to fraudulently obtain $6m in a conspiracy aimed at stealing $46m, according to the US Attorney's Office.

A Quartz report goes on to show how tactics of online fraudsters have been evolving, and how this has seen them continue to dupe unwitting victims despite numerous awareness campaigns about the online scams.

In the past, the report says, internet scams associated with Nigerians (known locally as “Yahoo Boys”) were dominated by romance scams through dating sites as well as phoney email business propositions from infamous “Nigerian princes,” but their current tactics appear to have changed.

Through business email compromise (BEC) scams, fraudsters use hacked email accounts to convince businesses or individuals to make payments that are either bogus or similar to actual payments owed to legitimate companies.

The scams have become so rampant that in the first seven months of 2019 alone, the FBI received nearly 14,000 complaints reporting business email compromise scams with a total loss of around $1.1 billion—a figure that nearly matches losses reported for all of 2018.

One profile of the scam victims is suggested by a Japanese woman in the BBC report. Court papers indicate that she was conned out of $200,000 after being contacted by a fraudster identifying themselves as US Capt Terry Garcia who wanted to smuggle diamonds out of Syria.

She made 35 to 40 payments, receiving as many as 10 to 15 emails a day directing her to send money to accounts in the US, Turkey and the United Kingdom through the captain's many purported associates.

If there are Africans with even a shadow of that victim profile, they have not made the news yet. Either Africans are not gullible enough, or there are not enough Africans greedy enough to fall for the scams.

Cybercrime studies attest to human greed being among the factors to victims’ gullibility, and Africans are not exempt. There must be something else.

This brings back the initial observation about the consistent pattern of victims being mostly in the west, the large sums of money involved and the scam being internet-based.

The two latter factors, level of internet use and the vast majority not being rich enough to attract attention conspire to keep the continent largely safe from the scammers.

The proof is in the numbers. The average GDP per capita in Sub-Saharan Africa is $1573, according to the World Bank’s 2018 figures. This does not amount to much, even if one was to take a country like Equatorial Guinea whose GDP per capita is over $10,000.

Likewise, the International Telecommunications Unions (ITU) reports that only 24 per cent of the population was using the internet in 2018. Figures for Europe and the Americas were 79 per cent and 69 per cent respectively.

However, the scammers will be with us yet. Studies also note the glorification the scammers receive in popular culture including through music, recruiting of ever more sophisticated scammers.

The well known Nigerian tune, I go chop your dollar, is just such a cultural artefact. It glorifies the scammers without inhibition. Words in the lyrics say: I go take your money and disappear / 419 is just a game / You are the loser, I am the winner.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.