Meet the ‘Yahoo boys’ – Nigeria’s undergraduate conmen

Internet scamming is proving to be an attractive career to a considerable number of Nigerian students. Shutterstock

Many undergraduates in Nigerian universities dabble in internet fraud. Nicknamed “yahoo-yahoo” after the international web portal and search engine, this perfidy has become a way of life for the young con-artists. Many of these fraudsters – dubbed “yahoo-boys” – have become filthy rich.

Some have been caught by the law. In April 2012, Olasaidi Dare, an undergraduate of the Olabisi Onabanjo University in Ago-Iwoye, was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for an attempt to obtain money under false pretences in a cyber-café.

On June 5 2012, a Federal High Court in Kaduna State sentenced Imonina Kingsley, of the University of Ilorin, to 20 years’ imprisonment. He defrauded an Australian of US$1,000 by presenting himself as a gay person from the Republic of Benin. He was charged for impersonation, possession of fraudulent documents and attempting to obtain money by false pretences.

These cases attest to the pervasive nature of internet fraud in Nigerian universities. My own research was conducted at Nigeria’s premier University of Ibadan. My aim was to determine how this subculture is organised among students in tertiary institutions. For this I spoke to a number of these “yahoo-boys”.

Areas of specialisation

Internet fraud is organised along areas of specialisation to make a success of the deviant behaviour. Fraudsters study the security network of online transactions to decide where to pitch their tents. Quick monetary reward is what “yahoo-boys” have in mind. They use different schemes.

Sending fraudulent messages to online dating websites and social network sites were reported to be low-risk – but high-profit – areas of specialisation.

A third-year student said to me:

I started online fraud in my second semester of 100 level [a session comprised of two academic semesters in Nigerian universities] as an impostor via online dating. Then I looked for the profile of people that live in developed countries. But if it is in Nigeria, I look for people who live in places like Port Harcourt, Abuja [luxury suburbs].

I always posed to them as a big man who needed a wife. Sometimes I posed to them on how my wife disappointed me and took away my property and children. All this is polished in a pitiable way with some pictures to convince them when I’m chatting with them. However, what I do mainly now is to transmit misleading information online for people to send their bank accounts [details].

Another scam that is popular with the “yahoo boys” is phishing, a technique used to acquire sensitive information such as usernames, passwords and credit card details.

Third, the “yahoo boys” are also big on ATM fraud. They may stand at ATM galleries to feign assistance to vulnerable users – illiterates, the old and the physically challenged – and later swap cards to defraud them.

The fraudsters carry out their attacks mostly on weekends and mostly outside the state where the account is domiciled. Banks are mostly non-functional on weekends. This means victims will be unable to ask their banks to stop illegal transactions on their accounts until Monday morning, when the banks open for business, even though they receive debit alerts over the weekend.

Informal networks and the insider factor

Informal networks are vital to the young scamsters’ success. These networks revolve around banks, security agencies, co-fraudsters and, sometimes, families.

The common means of collecting fraud money in Nigeria is through the banks, mostly through the Western Union money transfer. Through compromised banking staff, fraudsters use fake identity to access funds. This is because the fraudster would have used a foreign name and would not have a recognised identity card in that name. For successful execution of fraud, an insider within the bank is important: the banker facilitates payment without attracting the attention of security agencies. They also get their share of the loot.

The instability in the Nigerian banking sector may have created an uncommitted workforce. Working in an insecure establishment makes workers vulnerable. More than 2,000 bankers have lost their jobs due to economic recession in the country. A large numbers of casual workers are deployed to man key positions in the banks. This makes way for criminal opportunities.

Therefore the “yahoo-boys” find easy allies in banking staff, who are mostly youths too, because of their socioeconomic nightmare. The fear of unemployment has been identified as a push factor for undergraduates’ involvement in internet fraud.

A fifth-year student stated that the fear of the unknown may have attracted a number of students to “yahoo-yahoo” rather than waiting for after-school unemployment. They see internet fraud as a creative outlet in a country like Nigeria.

The influence of corruption

Hitherto, internet fraud was carried out at public cafés. However, with regular raids on these internet cafés and the arrest of suspected fraudsters by the police, the “yahoo boys” have simply moved their bases.

Plus, the proliferation of internet service providers in Nigeria has made it even easier for scamsters to commit internet fraud. It is now as simple as buying modems and surfing the internet within the confines of their privately rented apartments on campus. The “yahoo boys” stay in physical communes of like-minded individuals and use this network to launch internet attacks.

They share information on a particular target and find new ways of making prospective targets yield to their deceit. They are able to get help, share internet costs and jointly pay for fuel for generators, which are used to power their computers. They come to school during the day, and go to social clubs in the evenings and to celebrate their successes.

It is no surprise that there is a proliferation of “yahoo boys”. The celebration of wealth, particularly among politicians, serves to motivate the involvement of the youths in cyber-crime. Nigerian society celebrates wealth without questioning the source of the money.

So what do these young, undergraduate Nigerians do under these circumstances? They see a leadership that doesn’t care about their future. And they use their education to follow the example set by their elders that shows crime pays.