There’s no light. There hasn’t been any in the last couple of days, so a large generator hums deeply somewhere in the background. The main entrance to the flat is shut, as always. Behind it, loud music hits your ears before your eyes adjust to the dim lights.
Save for the bright backlights of a dozen laptops, tablets, and cellphones, you almost wouldn’t see their faces as fast fingers type into conversations with women, men and companies in countries they have never thought about visiting.
Internet fraudsters or as everyone calls them, Yahoo Boys.
To keep themselves awake and creative through the long night, they have the necessities; weed and alcohol, often more-expensive varieties to reflect the degree and strength of their ‘hustle’.
One or two ladies may be scattered around; a loyal girlfriend whose partner is fulfilling one part of her Bonnie and Clyde fantasies; a scantily clad leftover from the escapades of the previous night; sometimes, there’s a young friend of the family who wants to try her hands at the trade and become a boss lady.
These people play their part; motivation, sustenance in bad weather, the kind of momentary pleasure that becomes validation for sleepless nights like this one.
But the most important people in this place are the young men.
After all, it is them who have created an entire subculture around conning foreigners out of hundreds, thousands, and in often celebrated circumstances, millions of dollars.
IN THE BEGINNING…
While it has mainly gained notoriety in the Internet age, the origins of Yahoo date back to a time when the main tools were a pen, paper, and a very vivid imagination. As far back as the 1970’s, young Nigerian men would use false personalities to create long-distance friendships with ‘pen pals’ in better-off countries like the United States and England.
Identity has always been a big part of the trade and the false promises that it is built on; these foreigners were made to believe they were in conversation with wealthy individuals, like sons of military rulers and influential tribal princes.
Soon enough though, the conversation would take a u-turn; the prince’s inheritance would go under bondage and only American dollars would be able to deliver it.
Letters would first convince the ‘client’ of the problem and then request for assistance, their replies coming with wads of dollars.
As time passed, long-distance phone calls became a part of the equation.
The more elaborate scammers also discovered that falsified documents opened the door to the grander scams and bigger loot, and their peers followed suit.
By making the key elements of the crime more accessible, the Internet basically turned everything on its head.
“AND WE WILL CALL IT… YAHOO YAHOO!”
The version of Internet fraud that has earned Nigerians a reputation across the globe started in the final third of the 1990s. Sometime after Yahoo Mail was created in 1997, scammers found that they could replace their hand-written letters with the freedom and immediacy of electronic mail messages, and they moved in droves.
This shift is also why the scammers became known as Yahoo boys, for their preference for Yahoo Messenger, easily the most important tool of their trade.
Nowadays, what mail service they use is about as important as the color of the shirt they wear while making phone calls.
Insignificance doesn’t begin to describe it.
In place of simplistic ‘African Prince’ scams, new ingenious and complex schemes have emerged; there’s ‘military’ where the scammer poses as a foreign military officer on assignment in various countries; and ‘classified’, where dud cheques are issued to online retailers.
In addition to the primary scammers, there are Pickers who receive the money from the victims and bank officials who make sure it is laundered without suspicion.
There are also hackers, who break into secure networks used by banks and other institutions for high-level scams that often involve more than a dozen people in different countries.
It’s an entire ecosystem, and its members enjoy a lifestyle that matches the audacity of their plots.
Fast cars, outlandish parties, lewd bills at the club, extravagant hotels, thick jewelry.
Nothing defines a successful yahoo boy like luxury.
However, when that luxury gives way to rough hard ground, it is often very sudden and involves the long arm of the law.
Cyber-criminals are high on the priority list for local law enforcement like the Police and more particularly the Federal Arm of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (FSARS). Suspected g-boys are harassed at any chance and raids are very frequent.
A SARS raid is a scammer’s worst nightmare.
Outside Nigeria, the case is the same and , for very obvious reasons, more of these fraudsters end up in jail.
Perhaps, the most high-profile case happened in 2009, when an episode of Australian television show, 60 Minutes titled “The Love Trap” guided an investigation that brought down a Malaysia-based gang, led by a young Nigerian, Bidemi Bakare.
Bakare, the primary object of the investigation, had defrauded an Australian woman of over 20 Million Naira under the name “Benjamin Waters”.
You would think episodes like this are enough to discourage potential and existing fraudsters from towing a similar path.
But in the face of this greed and extravagance, and the threats that come with them, more young people are turning to love scams and retail fraud as a means of survival.
“BABY, SEND 300 USD. I JUST WANT TO EAT”
For these few, grandiose dreams of homes on Lagos’ Banana Island are not a right; the purpose is far simpler for them: get enough money to have 3 meals a day, clothes on their shoulders, a roof over their heads and an average lifestyle.
“I started Yahoo in 400 level, in 2012. Then, in UNAD, yahoo boys were the biggest boys that time”, Bami* tells me over cold beer at a hotel in Ketu, where he now lives.
“I used to have some friends from 100 level, they were like the first set of people I met when I entered school”, he continues. “When the yahoo thing became popular, all of them started doing it one by one.”
Bami is one of these people, a graduate of Political Science from Ekiti State University who has turned to internet fraud in recent years. After years of resisting the urge to join his friends, tragedy hit close to home in 2011.
He found things on the downturn within months and after what he calls “serious confusion”, he asked one of his friends for help.
“Tunde* was like a big brother to me in 100 level. I used to fall sick a lot when I entered school because of the change of environment. When I met him, he was a DJ, and he used to dance in a group that I joined.”, he says.
“He used to help me a lot then. So when I needed help, I went to meet him. He was already a big boy by that time, he was driving an EOD”
As there are no online tutorials or courses on how to scam a European, most prospective fraudsters have to ‘apprentice’ with another fraudster who has already found success
“It’s Tunde that taught me work o. He first taught me dating. Then cheque and military. He used to do carting and Alibaba that time, but he always found small time to teach me”
It takes a certain amount of desperation to delve into the dark, murky and often lonely world of internet fraud in Nigeria. Because of the time difference between Nigeria and the western countries where the objects of these scams live, fraudsters have to work while everyone else sleeps.
Naturally, the effect is that their daily routine has to be readjusted to fit whatever they do; for those who are engaged in other activities such as school, everything else suffers.
“How did you find time to go for lectures while you were learning?”, I ask Bami.
“Lectures bawo!”, he responds. “Omo, na money I dey find. I used to go there in the evening, like 5 pm and work until the next morning. Then I would go to my room to sleep till afternoon”, he says.
With time, Bami got his first drop, 300 dollars from a “client” in Missouri. He remembers how happy he was and how judiciously he spent that money. He also remembers what Kenzol told him when he offered his appreciation.
“Omo, as I was happy that I collected that 300 dollars, Kenzol was just looking at me like a fool. That night, he called me outside, because we were plenty that used to work in his flat.”
“He told me that now that I had shown that I could lyric a client, that I should step my game up. That this 300 dollars will not do anything for me. He was talking in parables, but I no be today boy na, I understood what he was saying, you get”, he continues.
Contrary to popular belief, the most basic forms of Internet fraud often require little more than a laptop, a mobile phone, and an internet connection. It is why in recent years, more young people have turned to Internet scams. The reality is that it is more accessible.
But it’s never too long till basic level ceases to be enough and even the most content guy decides he wants to play in the big leagues.
What he finds is that, while big returns are almost certain, much is expected. Sometimes, too much. The most desperate often go to very extreme and fetish ends.
“HOW FAR CAN YOU GO?”
In August 2016, a group of ‘yahoo boys’ were nabbed at Koko Junction, Warri by police officers. They had two large boxes containing used women’s underwear, mats and various fetish ‘substances’.
One of the suspects identified, Simeon who claimed he was a National Diploma student of Delta State Polytechnic, Otefe confessed to the police that they were returning from Ibadan, the Oyo State capital, where they had gone for ritual purposes.
For Bami, this reality is a blessing for some and a curse he wants no part in..
“Bro, people outside hear Yahoo boy and they think you have big house and one C-Class. Omo, me I just dey hustle o. No be everybody dey find way join hin own”, he tells me.
“I just do this thing so that I can eat. The only money I spend is fuel and internet and sometimes, maybe I host boys that come to help me pull deals. And I always make my money back”, he continues.
Situations like Bami’s can appear very simple, especially when the chosen field of endeavor is one that can have devastating effects on the victims. There have been reports of victims who, having lost their livelihood to Nigerian scammers, plunge into serious mental illness or worse still, take their own lives.
Bami says he understands the hazards that come with what he does, but the only thing he can ask is that people look at him as a function of his circumstances, before they pass judgment.
“You think say I no know say na thief I dey thief?”, he asks me.
“I know na, my guy. But I have nobody, it’s just me in this world. Those people that are judging me should come and live in my shoes and see what will happen. I don dey work for like 4 years now and I still live in a self-contain. If I want to do major work and get serious money, I know what to do. But Yahoo no be work. I no fit spoil my future because of small change. No be yahoo I go do till I die”, he adds.
Looking at him, I want to say it is the truth, but there is little that indicates this. In the three years since he left university, Bami says he has written application upon application, with no response.
It is a story that sounds all too familiar for young people all around the country. In recent years, unemployment has reached record numbers; by the second quarter of 2016, 49.5% of youths in the labor force were either unemployed or underemployed.
In the face of this distasteful trend, the youth have had to watch as their leaders share and fatten on their commonwealth. An astonishing 125 billion naira has been allocated to finance the two tiers of the national assembly, all this while the economic situation worsens and more people lose their jobs and faith in their capacity to make a living from the usual means.
As Bami puts it, the society and government have neglected them and so, they have to find a way to feed themselves.
“I’m the President of my own country, baba”, he tells me, “Nigeria does not give a fuck about us anymore.”
If Nigeria’s youth had second thoughts about dabbling into fraud and other criminal activities, evidence of how profitable it can be is there to see, all around them.
High-brow neighborhoods like Victoria Island and Lekki have become overrun with these cyber-criminals, hungry to associate themselves with luxury and exclusivity. On any given night, Lekki’s The Place, one of the more popular restaurants on the peninsula, becomes overrun with them, accompanied by their support staff in full regalia.
There is also the role that our society plays in gratifying success regardless of its origins. Nowadays, fraudsters have been elevated to the status of celebrity, thanks to social media and the vibrant activism of platforms like Instablog9ja and its ilk.
Yahoo Boys are effectively the new drug barons, and they get the full package to merit their status.
Praise-singing has now become par for the course as musicians find a way to insert their names and pay respect to fraudsters who are either sponsors, friends or both.
One of the earliest instances is Reminisce’s “2mussh” where he notably hails some of Lagos’ more infamous internet fraudsters. For context, one of these fraudsters has a massive social media following, with over 350,000 followers on Instagram.
More recently, there is “Penalty”, the underground hit by Small Doctor; the last minute of the song is a literal roll call of the cream of Lagos’ digital underworld.
“BEHIND EVERY CRIME, THERE IS A STORY OF SADNESS”
The questions then arise; Is it fair to view people like Bami through the same lens as we view his more successful and infamous counterparts? Is there any respite for the young internet fraudster who, as a victim of circumstances beyond his control, turned to it in a bid to make a living?
In the end, regardless of what form it takes or the extent to which it is perpetrated, internet fraud is a crime that has far-reaching implications beyond the fraudster and his immediate environment. Whatever reasons or explanations may be given often pale in comparison to its effects on the individual, his society, and the victim.
For young people like Bami living in today’s Nigeria, the future is more gloomy than it shows signs of being bright.
There is little hope of paid employment for the hundreds of thousands who leave tertiary institutions every year and this in itself, can be enough explanation for the choice that these young men have turned to.
Yet, there is really no explanation. The reality is that turning to options like internet fraud is really the easy choice.
Bami says he makes an average of 1500–2500 dollars every month, more than he would make at any entry-level position in a media house or a government establishment.
It may seem like a difficult choice, but when these two options are placed side-by-side, it is clear why Bami would rather endure sleepless nights in his one bedroom apartment than continue his hunt for a paid job.
Attempts to justify behavior like Bami’s show how easily we have come to accept crime as a part of the very fabric of our society. Just this week, after the kidnap kingpin Evans was nabbed by the Police, a campaign for his release emerged from the underbelly of social media, with certain users asking that he be released because of his wife and children and given a “second chance”.
It even had its own hashtag: #FreeEvans.
There is no justification for criminal activity, regardless of degree, extent, reason or time.
As the famous author Enrique Pena Nieto put it, “Behind every crime is a story of sadness”- to excuse one crime for the situation that surrounds it would be to excuse every incidence of wrong-doing.
Circumstance has never been an excuse for crime; it will never be.
The events that created this trend and led Bami here get worse with each passing day, and there is little to suggest that internet fraud will ever become a thing of the archives in Nigeria.
Bami tells me that already, he has two apprentices of his own; young men, barely out of their teens, who have no means of paying their way through university and have decided to face the “streets” instead.
I ask him if he knows that he is raising criminals.
“I know na”, he responds. “All of us na criminal for this country. You sef na criminal you be, dem neva just catch you”.
I imagine it is this explanation that helps people like him get through the day