In an Internet Cafe tucked away in a sweaty corner of Lagos a young Nigerian man thinks up ways to scam ‘the white man’ out of thousands of dollars. The word Nigeria in the world of tech has become synonymous with ‘scam’, the question is why? Jobs and the lack of is the number one driving factor for Nigeria’s problem of online fraud and the culture of yahoo boys. Nigeria suffers from huge unemployment and the resulting mass poverty that accompanies it. 70.2 million people live on less than a dollar a day, 50 million people are unemployed and 8.03% of the world’s poor live in Nigeria.
The above is the reality the below is the fantasy
In a recent article posted up on tech crunch, Sarah Lacy went to Nigeria to meet the online scammers or ‘yahoo boys’ as their greed has come to be known (the name comes from their prevalent use of yahoo email accounts). In the article Lacy talks to one guy who is unnamed about his child hood and how he grew up in a poor neighbour hood in Lagos. From a very early age it became apparent that this guy had a unique talent for understanding machines and was able to fix anything put in front of him. This ‘yahoo boy’ had no outlet for his skills, and he never planned to become a criminal as he realised he had a skill for coding.
The most common scam in Nigeria is the 419 letter, this is the scam that anybody with an email account is aware of. The unnamed yahoo boy was making up to $50,000 a day from email scams, credit fraud and freelance hacking. Many Nigerians got rich and quick through illegal online activity from 1995-2005 by exposing the naive nature of millions of new Internet users across the world. The yahoo boys became the rock stars of Nigeria, not only were they rich but they were getting rich by stealing from the white man. One guy stated “We could get money out of white men using only our brains and a computer”. Nigerians hold resentment against white colonial invaders and how they stole Nigeria’s natural resources. Get rich quick and a glut of talented young men combined with empire revenge set the scene for mass fraud.
As the 419 letter loses its popularity new and more inventive schemes are being thought up daily. This doesn’t mean that the Nigerian government and the international community is not trying to do something about it. Such measures include restricting mass emails, educating people not to buy things from Nigeria and the Nigerian government seeking out and prosecuting hackers. In a lot of ways the clamp down on Nigerian online fraud has had negative effects for the average Nigerian. Many companies block ecommerce to Nigeria altogether and it is generally difficult for Nigerians to buy and set up accounts online.
The story of yahoo boys and the 419 is not one of evil men getting so rich they can buy a second yacht, it is one of poverty stricken Nigerians making money to feed extended families. Some have got rich enough to afford Rolex watches and expensive chains, but they support large numbers of people too. As long as vast segments of the population remain poor, the problem of online fraud and hacking will continue.