Nigeria wages war against 419 scams

The first and only victim so far snared by Kele B was an American he e-mailed along with tens of thousands of others saying: “Congratulations! You are our lucky winner!”

Recipients were told their e-mail addresses had been randomly selected in a £3,5-million British government “internet lottery”. When the American responded, he was told he’d have to pay fees and taxes of more than $5 000 before he could collect.

“After he paid up, I stopped answering his calls,” summed up Kele B (24), who refused to give his full name.

Nigerian police say they have scored results in a crackdown launched by President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government in the past three years on such crime—which has grown to the point that it is associated with Nigeria all over the world.

But much of their work has been on old cases, while new scammers like Kele B are appearing and evolving new ruses to trap victims and evade detection.

Nuhu Ribadu, head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission set up in 2002 by Obasanjo to tackle financial fraud, said cash and assets worth more than $700-million were recovered from suspects between May 2003 and June 2004.

More than 500 suspects have been arrested and more than 100 cases are currently being tried in court, while another 500 cases are now under investigation, he said.

The agency won its first major court victory in May when a Lagos court sentenced Mike Amadi to 16 years’ imprisonment for impersonating Ribadu himself and setting up a website in the name of the financial agency that offered juicy but bogus procurement contracts.
Amadi was, fittingly, caught by an undercover agent posing as an Italian businessman.

Faced with the consequences of economic decay and massive unemployment caused by plunder of the country’s oil wealth by successive regimes, millions of jobless or underemployed Nigerians are tempted to make a living dealing drugs, trafficking in humans or smuggled oil, or by fraud.

A recent World Bank study found a 17% national unemployment rate, reaching 25% for university graduates in cities such as Lagos.

People from other countries are also responsible for international financial fraud. But Nigerians have become so associated with the crime that certain schemes, no matter who is behind them, are known as “Nigerian scams” or “419 scams”, after the Nigerian penal-code section criminalising them.

Such scams added to a reputation for lawlessness that helped keep foreign investors away. Obasanjo’s 1999 election ended more than 15 years of brutal and corrupt military rule under which the fraud rings flourished. Under Obasanjo, top government officials as well as big-time scammers have been put on trial.

“We reached a point when law enforcement and regulatory agencies seemed non-existent. But the stance of the present administration has started changing that,” said Ribadu.

Police spokesperson Emmanuel Ighodalo credited global collaboration involving Interpol, the FBI and other Western security agencies. Nigerian police officers have also received equipment and training in Western countries on how to deal with internet crime and money laundering.

The United States has taken note.

“Nigeria is working very hard toward lessening the incidence of financial crimes. And we applaud that,” said Rudolf Stewart, US embassy spokesperson.

New scams

Gone are the days when criminal kingpins bribed police and were rewarded with official security details. In addition, worldwide publicity has made it difficult to fool potential victims with old tricks—which often revolved around a scammer masquerading as a fallen dictator or corrupt official seeking help to transfer millions abroad.

But new scams have evolved, such as Kele B’s fake internet lottery, or credit-card and identity-theft schemes.

A day spent in Festac Town, a district of Lagos renowned as a centre of internet scammers, revealed a criminal community that wakes up late daily after “overnight browsing” of the internet, sending millions of e-mails with all manner of propositions.

The rest of the day is spent driving around in flashy cars or hanging outside favourite internet cafés while dressed in designer clothes, trading stories about successful heists and near-misses while hatching new plots.

Festac Town’s communication specialists sell services such as foreign telephone lines with which a scammer can purport to be calling from any major city in the world. Kele B convinced his victim he was in London.

Others in Festac Town are master forgers. Still others market software for internet surveillance, the most popular of which is the “e-mail extractor”, with which millions of e-mail addresses can be harvested.

A chubby-faced 28-year-old driving a Lexus jeep who gave his name only as Elekwa said he earned a diploma in computer science and was without a job for two years. Then, a man who turned out to be the chief of a fraud gang saw him solve what seemed like “a complex computer problem” at a business centre four years ago in the south-eastern city of Umuahia, and lured him to Lagos promising to make him rich.

“Now I have three cars, I have a two houses and I’m not looking for a job any more,” Elekwa said, beaming with satisfaction. He refused to give details of his role.

Court action

The Nigerian financial crimes agency insists it is catching up with the latest schemes.

Ibrahim Lamorde, who directs the agency’s operations, said a raid on a Lagos hide-out early this year turned up 5 000 forged bank cheques and international money orders for the US and countries in Europe and South America.

In another case, three high-school students who used a stolen credit card to buy Sony Ericsson cellphones from Australia worth Aus$16 000 were arrested when they went to a courier company’s office to collect the package.

But the biggest cases now in court go back to the 1990s.

Lawmaker Maurice Ibekwe died in custody last year while facing trial for defrauding a German businessman of more than $300 000 in 1992. His alleged accomplice is still facing trial.

On Friday, following charges filed in February last year, a court convicted Amaka Anajemba of helping defraud a Brazilian bank of $242-million in the West African country’s biggest international scam case, sentencing her to prison and ordering her to give up $25,5-million in cash and other assets.

The trial of Anajemba’s four co-defendants is expected to start in September.

Fred Ajudua, a flamboyant lawyer and businessman who once enjoyed official police security, is now in custody for several fraud cases including tricking more than $1,69-million out of two Dutch nationals between 1999 and 2000.

The financial crimes agency has often expressed frustration at what its agents see as deliberate efforts by suspects to delay their cases.

“It’s not really in their interest to see the cases go quickly because of the overwhelming evidence against them,” said Osita Nwajah, spokesperson for the agency.—Sapa-AP

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