In economic tough times, cybercrime still paying

Americans falling prey more easily to promises of riches

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post / August 9, 2009

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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 earlier time zones.

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 specialists say are increasing in these tough times.

US 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 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 amiable 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.