You might remember a time when deposed members of the Nigerian royal family roamed the web, offering random people millions of dollars if they'd only pay a little up front to help transfer the money. In recent years, the "Nigerian prince" scam has become both infamous and uncommon. But other cons of the same family -- advance-fee, or 419 scams (after Nigerian legal code) -- are as ubiquitous as ever. One fifth of these scams still originate from Nigeria. In 2013, the world lost an estimated $12.7 billion to Nigerian scammers. We wanted to know more about the life of a Nigerian scammer, so we sat down with "Ibrahim" -- who used to be one. He was part of a large, sophisticated team of scammers who all lived together in a big house. There's a sitcom premise if we've ever heard one ...
Email Scammers Are A Big Deal In Nigeria
Nigerian scammers don't call themselves scammers. That's not because they're in denial about what they're doing, but because they have a much goofier name: Yahoo boys (pronounced "ya-oo"). Ibrahim explained the origin of the name:
"When it first started everybody used Yahoo Messenger ... but now it's on every social network, so, it's also called Game, or G. So they call them Gameboys, G-boys. People are proud of the name. They love being called G-boys, Gameboys. If you are a G-boy you are likely to get a girlfriend ... every youngster like me wants to be a Gameboy."
Why? Because Yahoo boys have money, and Nigeria's per capita GDP is right around $3,000 USD per year. Some Yahoo boys can make that much money, or more, on a single successful scam. It's no wonder Ibrahim got drawn in:
"My friend was having a matriculation party in the club ... and when we're in the club [we see] these guys are wearing things we only get to see in music videos, spending money like it doesn't have value. They were just buying the biggest drinks and everything. I was there because of one of my friends, just to support him I was at the club, enjoying. Those guys were friends to my friend and I kind of told him to introduce us. We just arranged to hook up and he said, 'Come by our place sometimes.' They introduced me to the game. They showed me the in[s] and outs."
"social security check. You'll be seeing a lot of these."
These Yahoo boys all lived together in a giant house run by an older boy who trained them, provided the food, kept the lights on, and generally handled all the adult stuff so that the others could really hunker down and focus on scamming the Golden Corral money right out of the elderly's pockets.
"They need new recruits -- they don't want to go looking for clients online -- they need recruits to help them do that. You just look for different, different types. Create multiple Facebook accounts, multiple dating site accounts, and just look for clients."
Most Nigerian scams aren't exactly Ocean's 11 caliber heists.
Most people are never going to fall for something like that, so you've got to cast a wide, wide net.
It's A Larger Effort Than You Realize
You can accuse Ibrahim and his fellow Yahoo boys of a lot, but not laziness. Most of the low-level work involves searching for marks, which, in a politically relevant twist of irony, they call "Maga." (In Nigerian, the word means "dunce." Say, "Hi." You just met your new favorite fact.)
The Yahoo boys Ibrahim first hooked up with were initially worried he might be a police informant, so they had him do the s**t work before trusting him with anything serious.
"They don't trust people immediately. [At first] they just said I should go register for different dating sites ... I just copy and paste, copy and paste. They need recruits for 'bombing' -- sending out mass messages, finding people, and gaining their trust."
Ibrahim wound up earning some trust through another method: He knows Photoshop.
"I just showed them what I could do. They sent me a series of pictures and I just showed them. [I could make a] California ID card, different countries. They like me because I do that free of charge."
See, part of a great scam is being able to seem like more than some random spammer to anyone who happens to respond. Your initial message can be obvious phishing to 99 percent of readers, that's fine. But once that 1 percent bites, you'd better be ready to make them really believe. Ibrahim's forgeries didn't need to fool U.S. Customs, they simply needed to look real as an attached .JPG to someone gullible enough to trust attached .
Ibrahim considers the Facebook scam we cited earlier to be an example of "true phishing." And as silly and grammatically unsound as it seems, a surprising amount of work goes into pulling one off. First, one of the Yahoo boys pretends to be another winner, contacting the "maga" in excitement.
"They'll send him a message like, hey I just won $600,000 on the Facebook lottery and saw your name on the winners list."
Next, the "maga" is told to contact a Facebook agent:
"We are also the agent. Then when we get in contact as that agent, then we tell them, 'This is your one-time passcode'. After we give them the code, tell them, 'OK keep the code safe, don't tell anyone.' Then the Facebook agent will transfer the client ... we are also the FedEx agent. Then we claim to be a FedEx official who is going to deliver the money."
Because sending a big box of cash through the mail is totally how money is transferred on the internet.
But this FedEx official needs you to pay for the delivery first.
"It can be $400, $300, $200, $100 -- we just tell them to pay ... the money is just for commitment because we need the person to commit."
Once they've made one payment, they can usually be tricked into making more, because the sunk cost fallacy is a real b***h.
There's A Whole Family of Scams
The "Nigerian prince" scams may be notorious, but they're actually looked down upon by real Nigerian scammers:
"In fact, these days, Nigerian prince emails are usually sent by the lowest grade of Yahoo boys and they rarely find people who fall for it."
Kind of a hard lie to sell when a three second Google search will tell you Nigeria is a constitutional republic.
The scam industry is like every other new media business: It lives and dies on innovation. Ibrahim told us about a number of creative new methods of separating "magas" from their money. Like the au pair scam:
"Here, the Yahoo boys [join] one of the many au pair websites and pose as a member of an American family seeking a nanny. Once a nanny (usually from Philippines or Brazil) contacts them, they trick the nanny away from the website and start contacting him via mail. The nanny is then directed to speak to the agent of the family, who is actually the Yahoo boy using another email address. The agent sends the nanny a bogus document, which he tells him to fill and return with a scanned copy of his original ID Card and some 'agency fee.' The 'agent' continues to ask for more money citing one problem or the other before the nanny realizes he has been scammed."
See? Yahoo boys are not exclusively harming rich, retired, tech-naive Americans. The per capita GDP in the Philippines is $2,765 per year, even less than in Nigeria. A scam like this could wipe out an aspiring nanny's entire savings account. Plus ...
"The scanned ID card is also used as identity theft and used to open fake PayPal accounts and Facebook profiles."
Next is the apartment scam:
"Here, the Yahoo boy joins sites like Craigslist where he lists several US apartments for rent. (Details of the apartment are gotten from Zillow.com.) Once a prospective client contacts them, they formulate excuses to explain their absence and tell the client to check the apartment out themselves. If the Yahoo boy is lucky enough, the apartment is unlocked and has not been taken."
If not, the potential rube might be in for a bit of a surprise from the new owner.
If the "maga" decides they want to rent this apartment, they let the Yahoo boy know. He responds, "Sweet! Just send us a small fee, a scan of your ID card, and fill out these forms." That alone shouldn't trip any alarms -- that is the actual process for rental applications. If you spend a few minutes searching any rental site, you'll find bullshit listings like this.
If you've lived in San Diego (or any California city) you know this listing is bullshit because no one outside of a demilitarized zone gets a two bedroom apartment that allows f*****g pets for $1,000 a month. That's like, Harry Potter level fantasy. But if you're a rube from Wisconsin with big city dreams, you might not notice anything was wrong until you'd already paid. Scammers, like hyenas and housecats, target the vulnerable. And that leads us to the dating scam.
"This is probably well-known yet people still fall for it. The Yahoo boy poses as a single lady, man, gay, or lesbian on online forums, Facebook, and chat. Once he meets a client, he chats with them and even sends them some money, and maybe flowers to build trust. Thereafter, the Yahoo boy tells the client someone wants to send some money to him but he has problem with his account and begs to use the client account in exchange for a cut. To make sure, the client does not escape with the money, the Yahoo boy introduces him to a fake lawyer and FBI agent."
Yep. Yahoo boys often spend money on gifts like flowers, and even airfare, if it helps them land a "maga." They'll even send out fake checks to keep things looking legit until the last possible moment.
"The check is paid alright, but it is usually a fake and always bounces. But the client (who is usually under pressure) does not realize this early enough and would have sent some of his money to the Yahoo boy before he realizes what's happening."
There's An Actual "Email Scammer" Manual
This all sounds shockingly regimented and well-organized for what we always assumed was "some stupid jerk trying stupid jerk stuff." In fact, Yahoo boys even have their own manuals for training new recruits.
"The trainee Yahoo boy is given a manual, which contains the ifs and [whens] of the fraud. The manual tells them what to do at any given time, depending on the response given by the prospective client."
Never has separating grandma from her ability to afford medication been so efficiently streamlined.
The script we received for the Facebook scam is an excerpt from one of these manuals. The Yahoo boy in charge of a given ring might create his own spin on it. In a way, they represent the accumulated wisdom of generations.
Ibrahim explained, "The manual states the second step in a Facebook dating scam is to send the client a message using love words and asking after his welfare. The first step involves sending the prospective client a 'friend request.' If he does not reply, the manual states they send a follow-up message with more sweet words. If he replies, the manual states they continue with the chat before asking for some favors. If the prospective client does not reply to the follow-up message, the manual states he should be left alone."
The manual includes a number of different "hooks" to draw in "magas," and it also scripts out confirmation messages once the money's been paid.
For all the procedural nuance, you'd think at some point they could get a proofreader.
A good manual provides Yahoo boys with counter-arguments written in vaguely passable English, in case the "maga" expresses doubts.
The boys who write these are experienced enough to anticipate the most common questions asked by anyone who might actually fall for their scams. It may not look convincing to you, but if, at this point, someone's willing to debate with a Yahoo boy in good faith, there's a good chance it's convincing enough for them.
Oh Yeah, There's Also Voodoo
We started our interview with Ibrahim over email. He began by explaining the basics of the different scams, then we discussed the manual and his living situation. Then the conversation took a sudden handbrake turn onto Voodoo Street.
"There is Yahoo Plus. If Yahoo is the Nigerian prince, Yahoo Plus is the king. It is a modified version of Yahoo, where Yahoo boys make use of rituals, sacrifices, and Voodoo to defraud their victims."
The only real study of the Yahoo boy population suggests Voodoo is a pretty common practice. Ibrahim noted that Voodoo was particularly common among the elite Yahoo boys who focus on scams (dating ones, currently) that involve convincing "magas" to wire them huge sums of cash. According to Ibrahim, the best "Waya-Waya" (wire-wire) boys use Voodoo.
"Some of the rituals include Ediye Ibile (local fowl). This is done mostly by the wire-wire boys. (Yahoo boys who deal in money transfer fraud.) They kill a non-farm raised fowl, remove its feathers, and grind its entrails with a mortar and pestle until it becomes a pulp. The resultant mixture is then mixed with traditional black soap. The Yahoo boy bathes with the soap and leaves the bathroom without looking back."
This ritual is supposed to impart luck. Another ritual, Olu Gboun, takes it a step further and is supposed to force "magas" to do your bidding. Ibrahim himself was quick to defend its efficacy. When we expressed doubt, he responded, "If I was using Olu Gboun and we were talking on the phone and I told you to do something, I believe you would do it. To me, it works."
We should note that Ibrahim stressed that he never messed around with Voodoo. In fact, he seemed scared of the boys who did. Which is understandable ...
"In Olu Gboun, the Yahoo boy mixes some fetish objects together and wraps it inside a red cloth, which is placed inside a cow horn. He recites an incantation into it and holds it close to his mouth while speaking with whoever he wants to defraud over the telephone. There are also other rituals, like sitting on an upside-down mortar while chatting, spraying olive oil on the laptop (especially the keyboard area), putting the laptop on a live tortoise, and even dropping off sacrifices at street intersections."
Ibrahim was firm that the Voodoo boys "are legends around here. People like, you can go online and type hushpuppi, on Instagram ... there are lot of them. That's what they do, Yahoo, and they are the biggest around."
Hushpuppi is apparently the f*****g king of Yahoo boys. He's also pretty big on Instagram:
Yes, wouldn't want the guy stealing from the desperate and lonely to feel negative.
He even gets into dumb Twitter fights with famous Nigerian people! He's just like our celebrities, though he made his money stealing from the poor and gullible rather than entertaining them. So hey, maybe he's more like our president.
The Police Are Sort Of In On It
The police are well aware of Yahoo boys. And since Nigeria's not the wealthiest nation on earth, a bunch of young men (average age: 22-29) wearing fancy clothes and carrying new-model iPhones stand out a bit. Ibrahim said that it's not uncommon for Yahoo boys to get busted on the street and wind up bribing their way out of trouble. But that doesn't protect them from informants.
"There's no way the police can know these Yahoo boys without the use of informants. Informants could be fellow Yahoo boys, family, friends, neighbors, or even strangers who have decided to become a snitch in exchange for a cut of whatever the police extorts from the Yahoo boy. Yahoo boys are heavy spenders and are easily noticed. Besides, they often tell people they are Yahoo boys."
Like these 146,000 people who can all apparently keep a secret.
Ah, that classic criminal misstep. Do what we do, aspiring scam artists, and claim you work for Reader's Digest. You'll deal with fewer police raids that way.
"An informant once snitched on the cell I was training with. The police raided us -- along with several non-Yahoo boys -- and took us to a police station, along with our laptops. There, we were lined up and one officer fired three shots into the air with his AK 47 in quick succession. The shots had the psychological effect of forcing us into cooperation. We were told to pay some money for our release and anyone who refused to pay forfeited his laptop on the spot, no questions."
When Ibrahim was arrested, his "boss" wound up paying $150,000 Nigerian naira ($472 USD) for their release. Once they'd paid, the cops told them, "'If you have Yahoo friends who are too big, you should [call the cops].' They give us their phone number and say if we have any issue we should call them."
In other words, they were saying, "It sucks you got robbed. But if you'll sell out some of your competitors, we can take them down, too." Upselling isn't usually something you see with police, but we applaud those Nigerian officers for their entrepreneurial spirit.
"If you don't like our methods feel free to take it up with the prince."
Ibrahim managed to decline this tempting offer.
"Being an informant could sometimes be risky. There's the story of Razak Adetunji Alaso famously known as Alhaji Gay. He was the number one informant in Nigeria and was known to travel as far as Malaysia to track down Yahoo boys. Whenever he caught them, he demanded tens of thousand of dollars from them, or else he handed them over to the police or the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, where the Yahoo boy was either further extorted, or given a one-way ticket to the 9 o'clock news."
In 2015, Alhaji Gay was stabbed to death for his work busting Yahoo boys. Nigerian social media responded with as much class and dignity as you'd expect.
"Hooray! Let's celebrate by stealing even more from the elderly!"
As for Ibrahim, he's out of the game now and claims he never made a dime -- although he did receive free room and board for his trouble. While the best Yahoo boys could make "$1,000, $2,000, $3,000" on a good wire scam, most Yahoo boys "never make it." Ibrahim reveals, "And those that get to make it never get more than a few hundred or thousand dollars, at best. The Europeans and Americans being scammed are already 'wising up' and it has become difficult to break even these days."
That's why nations like Indonesia and the Philippines now make up a large chunk of the "maga" population. They're newer to the internet and they haven't built up as many cultural antibodies to protect them from scammers. Like Atlantic fisherman, Yahoo boys have snatched up all the best cod in their ocean, forcing them to fish for smaller catches further out. The cod in that analogy was your grandpa after he got his first AOL account. Just so we're clear.
Ultrascan FIU Financial Intelligence Unit - A mixture of intelligence gathering, investigations, reputational risk mitigation and Innovative Technology in line of objectives. Focused on external information and stakeholder engagement, to detect exposure to financial crime risk.