Yahoo Plus: The New Face Of Nigerian Scams (419)

To Adeolu Alabi, a 28-year-old university dropout, crime pays–and in hard currency, too. The young man, who abandoned his studies–for reasons he was reluctant to disclose–at the Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye in Ogun State, seems to have everything he needs. He owns an apartment in FESTAC Town in Lagos, owns three cars, dresses trendily and he is widely admired by youths in his neighbourhood. Members of his family treat him like a king. He is, indeed, the king because he is the breadwinner of his family. Among his friends, Alabi is affectionately called Chairman. In his church, Alabi, who is taken for a banker, is often approached for financial assistance and does not disappoint.

Alabi believes that his generosity is working well for him and he plans to remain generous because “God has been good to me in my business”. He also disclosed that he pays his tithes regularly and has been blessed accordingly.

But business to Alabi, this medium learnt, means swindling unsuspecting victims of their money through the Internet. This is made easier, said sources, through the use of charms.

Alabi typifies the latest trend in cyber fraud, known variously on the streets as Oracle Plus Plus or Yahoo Plus Plus.

Yahoo Plus is an elevated form of Yahoo Yahoo, one of the traditional modes of cyber fraud. It involves performing various rituals, including sleeping in a cemetery and bathing in a river to brighten the swindler’s chances of getting his victims hypnotised. Once this is successfully done, the victim is guaranteed to keep remitting money from wherever he or she is in the world.

This, according to Nkechi Obioha, Alabi’s former lover and accomplice, is what he did before he made it big. She claimed that since he returned from a ritual session in Ijebu-Igbo, Ogun State, last year, he has not stopped receiving money. “He has a small tortoise he keeps under his feet whenever he is chatting on his laptop with a maga (a potential victim). His fingertips also bear incisions and he has a charm-filled animal horn prepared for him by one of the numerous fetish priests he visits. His wish is their command. I became scared of him. It is for this reason that we went our separate ways,” she said.

Alabi, however, denied Nkechi’s claims. He swore that he has never involved himself in fetish practices even when his friends were doing such. “I am a very good Christian,” he said. He added that Nkechi is only out to destroy him because he stopped giving her money after she betrayed him. Nkechi, admitted Alabi, had helped in defrauding an American male who was in need of a female partner.

Alabi met the American online. For the scheme, he posed as a beautiful companionship-seeking female, using Nkechi’s pictures to deceive the American. Nkechi was the perfect foil. She frequently posed nude for the American on web camera and was in charge of speaking with him on phone. All Alabi did was to direct her.

But midway through the scheme, Nkechi began chatting with the American without Alabi’s knowledge and was said to have revealed to the American that Alabi was a fraudster. The American stopped replying Alabi’s mails and taking his calls. Alabi claimed to have investigated the cessation of communication between him and the American and discovered Nkechi had taken his victim over. But he could do nothing to Nkechi because she threatened to report him to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC. That marked the end of the buisness and romantic liaision.

Alabi moved out of the house they both shared to live with friends at Okota in Lagos. It was while he was living in Okota that he was introduced to another fetish priest, who prescribed another round of rituals for him. He performed them. A month after, he got a control (the information required to collect money from Western Union) to pick up $20,000. Since then, Alabi has not lacked.

Early last January, he collected another $50,000 through Moneygram. He bought a three-bedroom flat for his father and a two-bedroom flat for himself. He also bought a Honda Baby Boy, a Toyota Camry and a Volkswagen Golf for himself. He immediately became a star and every youth in the neighbourhood aspired to be like him. But he did not reveal his ayaj (mode of operation) to them.

To many, Yahoo Plus is just another term for money ritual. It is common among youth in Festac Town, Shomolu, Opebi, Allen Avenue, Ojodu, Oke-Ira, Akiode, Bariga and the Akoka areas of Lagos. Shagamu and Akute in Ogun State are also said to be hotbeds. The new fad is thought to have started in 2006, when the regular Yahoo boys began experiencing a lull in their business. This was largely as a result of the wariness of victims, leading to their refusal to accept cheques from the Yahoo boys, since most of the cheques coming from Nigeria were found to be fake.

But since they had been used to living large, they had to find a way back into the boomtime once more. They then resorted to consulting spiritualists on how to fleece their victims. A source told this magazine that these spiritualists are based mainly in Shagamu, Ijebu-Igbo and Ago-Iwoye in Ogun State as well as Ilorin in Kwara State and Shaki in Oyo State.

“After taking them through the rituals, the spiritualists ask them to bring the particulars of their victims,” said the source. Sometimes, he added, spiritualists tell the fraudsters to buy tie-and-dye fabrics (adire). These are made into apparels, worked on and sent to prospective victims as gifts. Once a victim puts on the apparel, explained the source, he is under a spell and begins to send money.

Some fraudsters are also said to use their female companions or even friends for such rituals. Sometimes, said a source, the rituals backfire. According to him, a fraudster in Ojodu, Ogun State, was said to have almost run mad when he could not come up with enough cash to complete the required rites. While he was making it big, he consulted a spiritualist who told him to bury two live cows monthly. He complied and money was rolling in. For some strange reasons, he stopped and the money dried up. Worse was to follow when he started manifesting signs of insanity. A few of his friends came to his aid by raising money to provide him with the cows. He quickly performed the ritual and regained his sanity.

Yahoo boys are also known to gratify policemen who offer them protection and turn their gaze away from them. TheNEWS gathered Yahoo boys in a particular area–as an occupational group–normally befriend Divisional Police Officers, DPOs, in their respective areas. The friendship is oiled with money. That way, protection is guaranteed. Often, DPOs give them their complimentary cards. These are then shown to policemen who arrest them. The cards are expected to announce to zealous cops that the bearers are friends to their bosses and are therefore insulated.

It is not only policemen who abet Yahoo boys. Apart from using female friends or lovers to withdraw the proceeds of their scams from banks, many Yahoo boys are said to have bank staff as agents who, rather than alert law enforcement agents when suspicion arises, help the fraudsters to collect their money for a certain percentage.

Alabi may be the toast of his neighbourhood, but elsewhere, he is small fry. In such places, those involved in Yahoo Finale or Yahoo Extra are kings. Those involved in this strain are said not to think anything of providing a child for sacrifice to boost their chances of success. Recently, an undergraduate was caught in Akute, Ogun State, while attempting excise the tongue of a child who was sent on an errand. He was later identified as an Internet fraudster.

In April 2008, four undergraduates of the Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife in Osun State were apprehended while performing rituals in a cemetery. They were later released on bail. The quartet was known to live big on campus, and which many attributed to Yahoo Extra. But Olaolu Adegbite, Head of the Advance Fee Fraud Unit of the EFCC, said claims that fraud is assisted by fetish means are frivolous and unscientific.

He said the commission has been able to stem the tide of cyber crime. According to him, out of the 460 cases of cyber crimes in Lagos alone, 220 convictions were achieved and none was linked to fetish. The success of the commission, he said, has forced many Internet fraudsters out of the country. “Accra, South Africa, Dubai, London and the United States of America, USA, are some of their preferred hubs,” he said.

He added that university towns, especially in the southern part of the country have high populations of Yahoo boys. Adegbite blames the society for the rise in cyber fraud. He wondered why parents will refuse to confront their children who come home with expensive cars and other materials, even when they know such children are unemployed. “That means anyone can just go and rob and claim he did Yahoo scam,” he said.

Adegbite noted that though fraud did not begin in Nigeria, once it was introduced into the country in the 1980s, it assumed a dangerous dimension. This, according to him, is so much that genuine Nigerian businessmen are beginning to be fleeced in what he described as “reversal scam”.

He told a story of how a Nigerian businessman interested in an online transaction, paid for goods and never got such goods in return. The EFCC official noted that unlike in 2003, when Nigerian scams were prevalent and all eyes were on Nigerians, the frequency of cyber crime has dipped, largely due the efforts of the EFCC.

He warned that cyber criminals and their dubious art should not be glamourised and thinks Nigerian cyber criminals are still not as computer savvy as the public presents them. For example, he argued, they are still incapable of skills required to hack into a computer, using materials such as key loggers that are capable of stealing identities of victims. “What they do is to go to the social networking sites, particularly the free dating sites, to look for victims,” he said.

Adegbite explained that rather than e-mailing millions of spam messages in hope of luring and trapping a fraction of targeted recipients, web criminals are getting more personal in their attacks, using social networking sites like Facebook and other databases to make their story lines or format much more believable.

Once a communication line is established and both parties have begun chatting, Adegbite reckons, it is likely that the victim will part with some money. Stanley Akpeki, an Internet fraudster is a firm believer in this hypothesis. Since graduating from secondary school in June 2002, Akpeki has successfully swindled more than 20 victims, using the chat rooms.

Akpeki’s success is based on the plausibility of his pitches–and, according to him, the use of fetish aids. He claims that a ring he wears on his right index finger and a black powdery substance, which he mixes with honey and licks before speaking with his victim on phone, have worked like magic. “When you lick this substance, whatever you tell the maga is what they do. He or she will be passionate about you and will start having good feelings towards you right from that moment. If you are smart, you can immediately commit him or her to send some money,” he said.

Yet, there are other ways to perpetrate cyber fraud. They include phishing and the use of malicious tools. Phishing is the criminal process of attempting to acquire sensitive information such as usernames, passwords and credit card details by masquerading as a trustworthy entity.

For instance, a victim gets an e-mail purporting to be from his bank. The message warns that the victim’s Automated Teller Machine, ATM, card is having problems. To solve the problems, the victim is asked to give full details of the ATM card. Through a link, the phishing e-mail leads the victim to a fake website of the bank, which almost mirrors the original official site. Once the information has been used to steal the victim’s identity, the victim’s account is drained.

In using malicious tools, malicious programmes such as trojans, worms and viruses are used to tamper with the security of a victim’s computer data. Once this is done, the victim’s identity is stolen. The entries on the victim’s network page is then changed at will. The login password is changed so that the true owner of the account cannot get in to resolve or dispute it.

The fraudster then fabricates and posts a dire financial problem, like being robbed or needing help to pay for an emergency surgical operation. The posting begs for money to be sent. The con artist also copies friends of the true account holder, thanking them in advance for their help and promising to pay the money back.

It was this method that was recently used to change the Facebook account of Linda Ikeji, a Nigerian model. Ikeji was said to be stranded outside the country and needed money to return to Nigeria. Many had already parted with some money before finding out that the model was not even aware of the message. She had to warn her friends to ignore such messages.

Some observers, however, argue that the EFCC is way behind the fraudsters because the frequency of occurrence, rather than abate, has risen, as fraudsters take advantage of new technologies to evade scrutiny of law enforcement agents.

Unlike before, cyber cafes are considerably less patronised.

The availability of Internet modems, Blackberry technology and smart phones has ensured that fraudsters, like scrupulous members of the society, can have Internet access in the privacy of their homes or on the go.

The result has been a boom in their illicit activity. “You find these boys moving about in cars like Infiniti, Murano and Armada with chrome alloy wheels, unhindered. They hang out in upscale pubs and drink choice champagne. Some spend as much as N150,000 every night,” one of them said.

He added that if indeed the EFCC is capable of clamping down on cyber criminals, many youths would have been deterred. He reckoned that the boys are rather getting bolder and gave an example of a fraudster who, after obtaining money from his victim, changed his identity and appeared to her as a law enforcement officer.

He told her how she was swindled and offered to help her recover her money. To nab the purported perpertrators, he suggested that she should send some money to the fraudster.

This, the fraudster suggested, would make the arrest of the purported fraudster easy at the point at which he would receive the money. She sent about $5,000, but was told that the con man picked up the money before they could reach him. She had to send some more money. By the time she realised that a game was being run on her, she had lost about $18,500.

The tremendous success rate of the Yahoo Boys is the reason why more and more young men are joining the fray. And this is despite the fact that the country is already ill-reputed for cyber crimes and people all over the world are often alerted to the fact that if they are not careful they could fall victim of scamsters in Nigeria.

But boys as young as 14 are known to hit jackpot in the ignoble business. This only serves to encourage others. Some of these boys after hitting it big build impressive homes for their parents. This is one reason why many parents do not discourage their wards from taking to cyber crime. There is a particular 14-year-old boy in Ojodu, Ikeja area of Lagos State, who after ‘‘winning big,’’ bought a home for his parents and in place of his mom’s former job of grinding pepper, he opened a superstore for her.

EFCC is evidently losing the war because, in Lagos alone, it is estimated that there are at least five million scamsters with an impressive success rate. And they are reluctant to give up the ignoble pastime. Compare this figure with the EFCC’s rate of arrest and conviction of these con artists and it will be clear that the EFCC is losing the war.

With cyber crime on the ascendancy, more and more students of tertiary institutions are taking to it. Schools like Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye, University of Lagos, Lagos State University, LASU, Ojo, and LEAD City University, Ibadan come to mind. It is said that the fact that LEAD City University allows off-campus hostels is reason why its students get easily influenced to take to cyber crime. The students would definitely find it difficult to indulge in it without detection by their minders if they were kept in dormitories like some top-notch private universities.

On campus, the Yahoo Boys live like kings, riding the best automobiles that cost millions of naira. Every semester, some of them are known to change their “rides” to the envy of all.

But Adegbite thinks that most Nigerians, especially the affluent ones, are careless with personal information. “The e-mail account take over is caused mainly by these so-called big men. They give their e-mail addresses to their secretaries to help check their mails. While doing that in a cyber café, a criminal may get hold of the password and use it to fleece the big man,” he said.

Cyber crimes are also perpetrated through fake financial instruments, for which Nigerians have become adept manufacturers. These include counterfeit cheques, bank statements and money orders. These are then exported for use abroad. “They smuggle the financial materials through the land borders into neighbouring West African countries where they are eventually posted,” he said. On 20 February, Sharon Denis Thorpe, a 25-year-old American lady, was arrested at the check-in section of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport by EFCC officials, while attempting to export fake financial instruments worth $760,668 to the US.

Sharon was said to have come to Nigeria to visit her fiancé, Musediku Akorede Kehinde. She claimed that one Femi Atoms, her fiance’s friend, requested her to assist him convey the materials to another friend in the USA. But the EFCC could not locate Atoms. Sharon was charged to court and convicted on a 12-count charge of conspiracy to steal. She pleaded guilty and was jailed for two years, while her fiancé, who was with her at the airport, is in detention awaiting trial.

Also successfully prosecuted by the EFCC is the case of Dauda Jamiu Abayomi. On 23 September 2008, Abayomi, a 27-year-old who claimed to be Nikky Smith, was arrested at Ijoko in Ogun State, while attempting to receive proceeds of fraud from Ralph Tomason, an Australian. Abayomi met Tomason on a dating site. He posed as a single female looking for a male partner and claimed to hail from Melbourne, but was living in Nigeria.

As time went on, they started chatting. Abayomi, posing as a woman, then sent photos of a white lady and a little girl, her child. He discussed the possibility of returning to Australia and demanded for flight tickets, insurance, hospital bills and treatment for the little girl who was purportedly hit by a car. His demand amounted to $23,300.

Tomason made the money available, but the persons he paid for never came to Australia. Suspecting foul play, Tomason petitioned the EFCC. The agency advised Tomason to play along by sending Abayomi a gift through a courier service. The gift was sent and the EFCC agents posed as the courier service men. As Abayomi made to collect his gift, he was nabbed.

Like Abayomi, Lawal Adekunle Nurudeen, a final-year student of Survey and Geo-Informatics Engineering at the University of Lagos, was in November, 2009, sentenced to 19 years in jail for obtaining $47,900 from Pee Loo Rosalind Summer, an Australian lady. Nurudeen met Summer on a dating site in 2007 and introduced himself as Benson Lawson, a Briton working with a multinational in Nigeria.

They began chatting and Summer, 56, told Nurudeen she needed a husband and that all the men she had met disappointed her. In return, Nurudeen claimed to be a 57-year-old widower, who lost his wife and only child in a car crash. A few weeks later, he called the woman and introduced himself as Dr. Saheed Bakare, informing her that her fiancé, Lawson, had an accident and needed money for treatment. She obliged.

Two weeks after, Nurudeen called Summer to thank her for the assistance. He then told her he would like to visit her in Australia so that they could get married. He demanded money for flight ticket, police and customs clearances. As he got the money, he bought a Honda car and two plots of land in Ikorodu. All have since been impounded by the EFCC.

Wasiu Ogunbadejo, aka Donald Lawrence, a 40-year-old scammer. Using love mails, he was able to fleece one Carmen Santiago of Carmen Island of $4,650, for the purchase of ticket and accommodation. He collected another $58,000 from Dory Curan, an Australian. By the time he was apprehended by the EFCC, he had collected about $365,000.

Out of his proceeds, he bought a Honda Baby Boy, a Toyota Camry and a Sienna. He is also building two houses in Ikorodu. When his house was raided, the EFCC found incriminating materials on his laptop. His case is similar to that of Etim Akpan, Titi Dada and Ferdinand Iheasirim. Iheasirim had claimed to Reverend Robert McArdle, an Australian, that he was Ben Agwu, security adviser to Nigeria’s president. McArdle was told that $2.5 million was about to be sent to his account. He was asked to send $300,000 to take care of clearance fees and tax. He quickly did. But when he discovered that it was a hoax, he alerted the EFCC, which found that Ben Agwu is Iheasirim, a 1993 graduate of Accountancy of Abia State University.

In his house, a Nigerian passport, with the name Ferdinand Dede, was found. On the passport, he claimed to have been born in 1958. Even though he claimed he got just $1,000 from the deal, he was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.

Adegbite reckons  some cyber criminals prefer to go outside the country because of the fear of the EFCC.

Despite the arrests and prosecutions, Adegbite believes that the agency could do better if certain measures are put in place. They include the enforcement of the recent Central Bank of Nigeria policy that bars individuals from just picking up money at Western Union Money Transfer points, except through an account and compulsory registration of SIM cards.

Adegbite added that enforcement agents need to be highly advanced in the application of technology to catch up with the scammers, who increasingly get more sophisticated in their approach, especially with the availability of new technologies. “How do you expect an enforcement agent that can’t operate a computer to catch a cyber criminal?” he wondered.

He advised that a separate cyber crime legislation be established to dissuade perpetrators. “The Evidence Act of 1945 is old. It needs to be reviewed along with the 419 legislation to help the agency,” he said, inferring that the crime is becoming more rampant because the laws are not rigid enough to rein in scammers. “It is getting widespread. Those who cannot do it move into kidnapping, armed robbery and other vices,” he said.

Adegbite revealed that many cyber fraudsters who have since relocated to Accra and South Africa now lure their victims to join them. Some of the victims are reported to end up being kidnapped. “My fear is that this generation of young men would one day hold positions of authority in our churches, mosques and even government,” he said.

Adegbite averred that some Yahoo boys are not clever. To him, what they have done is to employ the old method of posting scam letters, using the Internet. The stories are usually similar, but the format could be different. He agrees that the better the format, the more likely a victim will fall for the prank.

But that was not the case for Collins Akapojotor, 23, and his accomplice, Onos Igbudu, 25. Both unemployed Nigerians who live in Nungua, Accra, had thought they had the perfect format to swindle a Swede. In one of their e-mails to the Swede, they claimed that under their supervision as the Inspector-General of Police and a senior police officer respectively, they arrested five men at the Kotoka International Airport trying to illegally export a box containing $5 million and 50 kilogrammes of gold.

They added that following investigation, it was discovered that the gold and money belonged to the Swede. They then advised the Swede to send some money so they could reward the arresting police officers in Ghana and ship the consignment from Ghana to Sweden.

Suspecting foul play, the Swede asked them to send copies of their identity cards and passport to show that they were real. They then sent copies of forged police identity card with number GPS 2216 H and biometric data page of passport number H 1527864, all bearing the pictures of the Inspector-General. The Swede alerted his friend, a retired police officer in Ghana, to his ordeal and the Ghanaian police swung into action.

Akapojotor and Igbudu were lured and arrested at Osu, a highbrow area in Accra, while waiting in a car. On 2 July, they were charged to the Circuit Court in Accra on four counts of conspiracy and forgery of official documents. The court, headed by DEK Daketse, adjourned the case till 16 July, while the scammers remained in detention.

In spite of the notoriety of cyber crime, wash-wash is said to be more prevalent and profitable. In this case, the victim is shown a machine that washes counterfeit currencies, making them genuine. Once the victim swallows the bait, the victim is told to provide money for the chemicals with which the currencies are washed. The victim keeps paying until there is no more money to pay.

Adegbite cited the case of a gang of international fraudsters, including Harrison Odiawa, a Nigerian, based in the USA. They were said to have taken their victim to Spain, through London, where he was shown the money mill. He fell for the ploy and lost $2.1 million, but Odiawa was arrested and extradited to the USA for prosecution.

But the arrests and convictions seem incapable of reining the fraudsters in. What will?

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