Monday, February 13, 2012

Meet the Yahoo Boys: Nigeria's email scammers exposed

Jim Giles, consultant
(Image: AP Photo/Sunday Alamba/PA)

Anyone with an inbox knows about "419 scams". They are the messages from mysterious strangers in possession of vast wealth and in need of a bank account to transfer it into. The senders are often assumed to be Nigerian, hence the name - 419 is a section of the Nigerian criminal code pertaining to fraud.
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But what about the people behind the scams? They are known locally as "Yahoo Boys", a nod to their preference for Yahoo email accounts. Journalist Sarah Lacy tracked a few down and reported that times are hard, in part because westerners have become suspicious of emails that offer them massive lottery wins. Yet, beyond the occasional encounter with an intrepid journalist, we know little about a group of people who seem intent on trying to scam the entire planet.
Thanks to Joshua Oyeniyi Aransiola, a sociologist at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, the 419ers are now a little less mysterious. He and colleagues spent six months earning the trust of a group of Yahoo Boys, eventually managing to conduct detailed interviews with 40 of them.
In some senses, Aransiola reveals the Yahoo Boys to be much as expected. They tend to be in their 20s and, since the scams often require computer skills, have an undergraduate education. They are also showy, noted for driving flashy cars, playing loud music and wearing expensive clothes.
Given Nigeria's endemic levels of corruption -- the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International rates the country 143rd out of 182 worldwide -- it is no surprise that the Yahoo Boys have to grease palms in order to get goods through customs and move money between bank accounts.
Bribes are even paid to members of the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC), which is tasked by the Nigerian government with stamping out 419 scams. According to one interviewee: "Police, officials and postal and courier agents in this part of Nigeria are all aiding us. In Lagos, one might find it difficult, especially with the EFCC. But it all boils down to settlement with money."
Those unfamiliar with Nigerian culture might find one of the study's findings particularly surprising - scammers make regular use of voodoo. As one Yahoo Boy put it: "The Voodoo thing exists for real, I have used it but I have stopped because of the fear of repercussion. With the aid of Voodoo the money comes faster. I have friends that still use it, they can collect money twice or thrice a week and it helps. I have a friend that uses a calabash filled with black substance; he hides it in his room and says incantations."

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