The West African Giant and its ‘yahoo’ Problem

Hushpuppy, renowned yahoo boy

Nigeria is Africa’s biggest on several fronts; it is not just the biggest black country. It is also one of Africa’s biggest economies, that’s not all. Nigeria is also Africa’s biggest scamming entity. Yes! If you are a Nigerian, you should be familiar with the phrase ‘yahoo yahoo.’ It is jargon for those who engage in internet scams.

My first experience ever with an internet fraudster was circa 2009. The scammer mailed me on the popular yahoo mail then, from which the grand scheme got its name. The storyline was plausible- She was the only daughter of a very rich Kenyan who had just died. Her uncle was sitting on her part of the inheritance. She needed my help to help unravel the mystery, and in return, I would be rewarded handsomely. To keep the conversation going, ‘she’ added really nice pictures of ‘herself.’

I had several questions, but I was concerned about the money. In that instance, it took me three weeks to find out she was a scam and the mention of the popular company Nestle. Today, yahoo boys in Nigeria and elsewhere do not rely on just one storyline or format as they prefer to call it.

The Yahoo Industry is one that has grown from its relatively humble beginnings to what we now have today, a well-connected industry and association of well-drilled young men and women engaged In the heinous heist. We are going to get to that in a bit.

Government Policies and Yahoo

Seven years ago, the cashless policy became fully operational in Nigeria. The aim was to encourage electronic transactions with a view to reducing the amount of physical cash in the economy. The logic was that this would minimize the risk of cash-related crimes.

But a major downside of the policy has been pervasive electronic banking fraud (e-fraud). Although the cashless banking system was designed to foster transparency, curb corruption and drive financial inclusion, it is threatened by the growing perpetration of fraud.

About N15.5 billion was lost to bank fraud in 2018 alone. About 60% of the fraud was perpetrated online owing to available internet-based and tech-rated banking services.

Another big enabler is the case of the Bank Verification Number. The fraudulent use of bank verification numbers (BVN). These were made compulsory by the Central Bank of Nigeria in 2014. All bank account holders had to undertake biometric registration. The intention was to ensure security and check fraud. But fraudsters have found a way to cheat the system by sending bank customers false emails asking for their bank verification details.

It might seem to the random reader that perhaps the Nigerian government is the biggest enabler of the act of cybercrime. I do not believe this is true. While fraudsters continue to design new ways of working on vulnerabilities within the system and without, the Nigerian government has drummed up the Cybercrime Act to prosecute offenders as a way to boost confidence in the country.

The issue, as with every other in Nigeria, is compliance. In a country where even law enforcement agents are complicit, it is hard to entrust anyone with keeping the law.

The Lockdown, slush funds, and the Yahoo industry

nabbed yahoo boys

If there is one period where there was more than enough slush funds for the cybercriminals in Nigeria and other countries, it was during the Lockdown. Big thanks to the United States of America.

More than 36 million Americans have filed for unemployment at the height of the Lockdown due to coronavirus-related shutdowns leading to layoffs across the U.S. Meanwhile, states have struggled to meet the high demand with limited staffing, archaic unemployment websites, and criminals took advantage of the chaos.

The Secret Service circulated a memo at a point warning that the criminals appear to be connected to a Nigerian crime ring and may have already stolen hundreds of millions of dollars.

This was also in line with the study security researcher Brian Krebs first reported. The memo said the fraudsters were primarily targeting the state of Washington and North Carolina, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Florida.

In addition to using stolen credentials to file for unemployment fraudulently, the scammers reportedly also recruit “money mules,” or people who transfer illegally obtained money on behalf of others to obscure the paper trail, according to the Secret Service. This, in addition to the devices of the free market like the revolutionary security of cryptos make for the perfect hideout.

I was not surprised when on the morning of January 11, I read a CNBC article published on January 5 with the headline

Suppose you have ever heard of the parlance ‘benefit boys’. In that case, they are part of the ring of the intricate network that got these funds out of the United States and now living large on it in Nigeria. Entire corporation have gone under via the antics of these players in collaboration with their counterparts.

In the words of Blake Hall, “This is the largest fraud attack on the U.S. ever. Period, nothing even comes close.” Blake is the founder and chief executive of ID.me, which offers an identity-verification service to more than a dozen state unemployment agencies.

Way forward?

First, it must be said that cybercrime is no longer what it used to be. It is not small-time, neither is it a sole profession. It is now an industry, and it caters to a few million people in Nigeria. From the con artists to their baba, the money mules or pickers as they are called to the loader and the final user of the commodity or money, it cuts across us all.

It must therefore be fought on several fronts. The government must expand the cybercrime laws in line with current realities, which is only halfway. There must be measurable enforcement as well.

On the home front as well, the scourge must be fought. Parents must show themselves above reproach while teaching their wards the tenets of hard work. Society at large must not condone or normalize this illegal act of theft just because its jurisdiction is on the internet. All hands must be on deck!

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Babatunde Adeleke

Babatunde Adeleke is a Nigerian poet, writer and columnist. He believes that words can be used to recreate our existence. He explores diverse angles in writing.