2011 Competition Winner (b)

“Yahoo-Yahoo”: The Nigerian Hacker and the 419 Underground Economy of Internet Fraud

by Kamela Heyward-Rotimi

(Rotimi Foundation, Ile-Ife, Nigeria)


It’s 7 a.m. in Ife, Nigeria. Sola moves through his morning routine. Like many other mornings, he says good morning to his family, bathes and gets dressed, eats his morning breakfast of ogi (a morning cereal made from corn) and akara (fried bean cake), and says good-bye to his mother and father. On this uneventful morning, he heads into town to the local cybercafé to send an email and check his messages. Sola signs into his Yahoo account at the prompt and begins to compose his message:

“From: Obi Nwafor

While crafting the letter and checking responses, Sola is approached by a cybercafé employee. The employee asks in Pidgin english, “How you dey now? How far?” [How are you? How is your business going?] Sola replies, “Body dey inside shirt” [I am okay, business is okay]. The employee looks forward to Sola arriving because he is “a good customer” and uses the computer terminal for long periods of time. After about thirty minutes at the terminal, Sola decides to go eat and exits the cybercafé. In this community, everyone knows everyone, so his stroll to the mama put (local restaurant) does not go unnoticed. Sola approaches a police checkpoint and greets the police in the Yoruba language, “E karro, sir” [Good morning]. The police responds, “E karro O, so whetin you get for me now Yahoo?” [Good morning, what do you have for me?]. Sola responds, “I never nack yet, make I give you whetin deh for hand” [I do not have the big score yet, but here is a little money for you]. Then, in a quick handshake, Sola expertly slips 400 naira into the palm of the officer. Sola finally arrives at his favorite fish pepper soup joint. His neighbor Mama Temi greets him. “Sola, your Yahoo-Yahoo done land yet?” (Sola, have you received any goods from your scam?) Sola replies, “Hello Ma, not yet Ma, soon Ma, yes Ma.” After finishing his fish pepper soup, Sola takes the walk back to the cybercafé.

Scenes such as the one above are a daily performance for the Yahoo boy, the persona behind the global 419 email operation, so named after section 419 of the Nigerian Criminal Code. This scene plays out the commonplace exchanges among community members in Nigerian cities small and large such as Ile Ife, Ibadan and Lagos. The 419 email scam reaches far into the surrounding community of the Yahoo boys, providing an underground economy for many people who daily struggle with how to earn money. The illegal profits the enterprising Yahoo boy gains through internet fraud circulate through the community and provide: goods made to U.S. quality standards—for the fish pepper soup joint owner and the neighbors, steady business for the cybercafé owners, and extra payment for some corrupt police dispatched to monitor 419 activity at the cybercafé. The main character in this act of commercial defiance, for better or for worse, is a central figure in economic solutions for the community. He is the Yahoo boy: the folkloric hero who outsmarts rich people in the United States, the con man who smears the name of Nigerians abroad, and the Nigerian criminal.

My book follows the Yahoo boys’ virtual criminal activities and subsequent small businesses— hawking goods acquired through stolen credit cards, using 419 scam money to build lumber mills, houses, and cybercafés—and the complex community networks that are at times complicit, at times critical, and at times indifferent to this organized internet fraud. My goal is to personalize the Yahoo boy behind the 419 email scam and elucidate the many players and industries connected to this criminal activity. By personalizing the story of the Yahoo boy, I do not mean to suggest that internet fraud and identity theft are petty crimes. My hope is to move readers beyond the usual characterization of “simple Nigerian con man” to meet the people and circumstances behind the acts. In other words, though it is easy to see aggravating and sometimes devastating spam email as the sole act of a bad and malicious criminal, it is far more thought-provoking to search for the multiple global networks and small businesses linked to this activity.

The question writ large is, what conditions are driving poor Nigerian youth to master internet fraud as an underworld employment opportunity. For the Yahoo boy, the decision to join the underworld of internet fraud is framed by poverty and lack of job opportunities. Sola must compete for jobs in an economic climate where newly minted Nigerian college graduates scavenge through minimal job postings in the fields in which they were trained, only then to be forced to work as taxi drivers. In 2009 unemployment rates soared to 19.7 percent representing over 10 million people with 15-24yr olds composing almost half of the unemployed population. Having only completed secondary school (high school), many youth find applying for positions alongside college graduates a tough sell. However, limited employment does not ease Sola’s financial responsibility to his family. For many a poor youth, once a secondary school graduate, it is still socially acceptable to live with your family; but you must contribute financially, especially if you are from a large family, say, of six children. The money goes toward feeding the family and paying for school fees and uniforms for younger siblings. Former scruples around money-making schemes—few people dream of growing up to commit internet fraud—are relaxed. Nigeria has been in an economic depression for over thirty years with no real sign of relief in sight. When the Yahoo boy lifestyle becomes a central prospect, ostensible justifications and attractions present themselves.

There is the lure of the cult of the celebrity lifestyle broadcast through the local cable channels’ music videos watched by many Nigerian youth. Some justify 419 scams as a patriotic payback to colonial masters and their neocolonial extraction of oil from the Niger Delta section of Nigeria. Speaking with a false sense of retribution, Yahoo boy Kunle says, “The Whites (British, American) stole our minerals, our oil, our sacred shrines and sculptures, so it is our time to take from them.” On the more frivolous side, being true youth of the information age and twenty-first century and purveyors of media, Nigerian youth wish to emulate the flashy jewelry, designer clothes, and sports cars of their favorite Nigerian, U.S., and U.K. entertainers. And, closer to home, the lure of the “big boys,” established Yahoo boys’ lifestyles, makes the illegal activity attractive to potential recruits.

The lure of quick money still presents the danger of being caught and prosecuted. One of the hazards of this lifestyle is the threat of being turned in for a crime for which people have been prosecuted in the Nigerian court system for a minimum of three years and, in one extraordinary case, an offender was given a 376-year sentence. This crime also lessens the hope of progressing in a reputable career, thus jeopardizing the perpetrator’s family name. The bottom line is, with real issues such as poverty and limited choice, many times the risks of being caught for criminal activities such as advanced fee fraud are viewed as less urgent than the need for money.

Neighbors living next to each other in villages, towns and cities recognize the difficulties these young men face when trying to survive from day to day. Consequently, they seldom label Yahoo boys as completely evil; thus, there are very few clear-cut models of good and evil, and many times roles overlap. For example, though, Yemi refuses to participate in Yahoo scams, he gladly accepts a part time position from Sola selling stolen goods which supplements his monthly paycheck of eight thousand Naira (dollar equivalent $53 dollars) working at a water factory. He does not see himself as an accessory to criminal activity but rather a person trying to eat. Moral judgments are few from those trying to pay their monthly bills. Though disheartened by the negative image 419 scams give to Nigeria, college administrator Mr. Chidi also considers the youth genius for orchestrating systems for the fraud and creating software to bypass firewalls. Though angry at the Yahoo boys’ activities, he feels the Nigerian government is to blame for failing to provide opportunities for the youth of Nigeria, forcing some into crime. The administrator’s views on the 419 scam and the Yahoo boys illustrate the complexity of this crime as a “solution” to ineffective employment strategies.

What also complicates matters is the performance between “the Maga” (the mark, potential person to defraud) and the Yahoo boy. Though money is stolen from the foreigner, many of the schemes used to defraud the money show the Maga’s callous intent to take money without considering the consequences and the source. There is no argument that the letter originating from a compound or cybercafé in the Mayfair area of Ife reflects deceitful and malicious intent. But, foreigners’ willingness to co-opt a scheme to acquire money from the Nigerian government also illustrates the germaneness of the saying, “Money makes the world go around” and the depths that people from all walks of life will go to acquire money. It is not uncommon for upstanding business owners like the one I met, Mr. Taylor, a third generation business man, to let their greed get the better of them. Mr. Taylor received an email from the “Minister of Education” of Nigeria asking for his help (the first contact of an advanced fee fraud scam). The Minister stated that he had misappropriated some funds earmarked for education and needed Mr. Taylor’s assistance in moving the money out of the country. Seven hundred thousand dollars later and a business on the verge of collapse I met Mr. Taylor. Even after showing Mr. Taylor the FBI website and numerous letters similar to the one he received, Mr. Taylor still believed that he was on the verge of a four million dollar payday, all he needed was a loan from his bank so he could send an additional hundred and fifty thousand dollars to have the funds released to him. So, there are no clear-cut innocents among the Yahoo boy, his community, and sometimes even his targets. What is clear is that this international crime provides a quick fix for impoverished youth in Nigeria while it simultaneously harms the national and international image of the country.

In this book, central to this story are the daily performance of the Yahoo boy and small businesses in large cities such as Lagos and smaller cities such as Osogbo and Ife. The Yahoo boy introduces the many players and activities connected to this modern-day act of creating the fantasy of free money in the internet age. Through his story, I will weave the background tale of the global connections the Yahoo boys have established, the government’s response and legislative action against these crimes, and the way in which 419 and Yahoo boys have entered into the local and global lexicon of everyday culture. The narrative follows Yahoo boys like Sola, who recounts the internal function of this underground industry. To gain an understanding of the local and national impact of the crime, I will conduct dialogues with local government representatives, police task forces against advance fee fraud, Nigerian college administrators, and the women, children, and men of the villages. Some questions important to this exploration are: how does a young, poor Nigerian youth with minimal computer exposure, poor internet speeds, and no formal computer training teach himself to hack email security protocols? How do youth with limited knowledge of American and British cultures master the psychological rouse at the core of the 419 “Dear Sir” email? How has this cybercrime impacted the global image of Nigeria?

The main sites of my research are the western states of Nigeria, specifically Ile Ife and Osogbo. Both located in western Nigeria, the city of Osogbo is the state capital of Osun State, and Ile Ife is one of the larger cities in Osun State. Ile Ife is the birthplace of the Yoruba people, one of the three main ethnic groups in Nigeria. I originally came to Ife (as it is known) a year ago to conduct background research on traditional Yoruba culture. While living in a contemporary Nigerian community, I was intrigued by the stories of Yahoo boys, their intricate networks, and most especially the businesses sprouting from this illegal activity. I was struck by the local command of computer terms in a place where there is still limited knowledge of computer technology, ownership of personal computers is not widespread, and internet connectivity is largely dial-up and sporadic. I realized my focus had to temporarily shift from traditional to contemporary Nigerian cultures.

Overview of Chapters

Introduction: History of the “Dear Sir” Letter in Nigeria
This chapter will address the background history and presence of the 419 email scam letter. This involves ferreting out a global trail of scammers, victims, and countries. I will address the following themes: Nigerian infamy and the 419 letter; 419 Nigerian legislation; economic, educational, and social climate during the 1990s around the time of the 419 letter’s appearance; anatomy of the 419 letter; internet access and computer awareness among poor Nigerian youth.

Chapter One: Yahoo Boys
In this chapter, I profile the crafter of the 419 letter, the Yahoo boy. Here, I introduce Sola the Nigerian hacker, whose movements through his commonplace and underground lives illustrate the intersections of internet crime. In the description of himself and the intricate network of youth committing 419 infractions, he details their average age, economic background, and how they became familiar with hacking computers. I will then follow Sola to the crime site, or his place of work, generally the neighborhood cybercafé. Sola will also share his views of “the Maga,” or the mark, the foreigners whom he targets. He discusses his perceptions of the victim’s wealth and waste. In addition, Yahoo boys such as Kunle, who view themselves as patriotic, will explain how they justify the fleecing of foreign people in developed countries as payback for colonialism and Nigeria’s secondary position on the world stage of wealth and power.

Chapter Two: “You Must Settle Me”: Bribes for Complicity
This chapter addresses the Yahoo boys’ inner network that ignores the illegal operations for the exchange of money or bribes. Financial compensations for the complicity of corrupt police, and sometimes even community members and family, somewhat protects the Yahoo boy from being turned in to authorities. Additionally, the promise of a job in the boutique where they sell “Yahoo” goods, products acquired through the Yahoo scam, gives an incentive for some village youth to look the other way.

Chapter Three: Selling the Dirty Dream of Free, Illicit Money
This chapter looks at stories of crafting the 419 letter, hacking email providers and online businesses, and contact with the Maga in two phases. First, I will examine the ways Yahoo boys gain access to email addresses and credit card information: creating software to hack into email service providers and online shopping. Second, I will explore the content of the 419 letter and the dreams sold to those defrauded. The lies crafted by the Yahoo boys definitely show a familiarity with the psychology of the foreigner around wealth, money, and the seedier, violent side of human trafficking. In stealing the personal identity of the Maga, the Yahoo boy designs a persona and offers one of the now classic 419 “Dear sir” email templates which range from money transfers from personal bank accounts, transfer of government funds to dating services, and mail order brides (Yahoo boys impersonate women in the email and send pictures of women; when they’ve established contact and built interest, they have a woman assist by talking to the foreigner) to child prostitution. I will also talk with female accomplices and assess the role they play in the scam.

Chapter Four: Yahoo-Yahoo Slippers, Computers for Sale: Yahoo Small Businesses
The influx and circulation of products in local communities and the founding of small businesses from the internet fraud money are rarely discussed in appraisals of these email scams. In this chapter, I will explore the economy of email scamming and Yahoo businesses. Stolen personal identity and credit card information are used to make online purchases of “original” meaning products from abroad, Yahoo computers and clothing. These essentially stolen goods build the small underground business of Yahoo boutiques that sell whatever goods they are able to acquire. People in the community who look out for “American-Quality goods” are loyal customers of these Yahoo enterprises. In this chapter, community members who patronize Yahoo businesses will share their views of the Yahoo boy and internet crimes.

Chapter Five: Yahoo Culture: “I Go Chop Yo Dolla”
The title of this chapter comes from a popular anthem of the Yahoo enterprise, sung by the well-known singer Osofia, which basically declares that 419 is a game where “hungry for money White people” get taken for their money. This chapter looks at how 419 culture has become a worldwide phenomenon of infamy; now in countries around the world, email scam is shortened to the popular expression 419, in some cases making its way into music. In Nigeria, Yahoo boys and their projected lifestyle have made it into the culture of Nigerian contemporary music, language, and clothing styles. This chapter will also focus on: the popular view of Yahoo boys and email scam, including the labeling of “shady” business transactions and the negative impact on international dealings; reference to Yahoo scams in popular music, Nigerian slang; the popular global view of 419 internet crime; and the villainization of Nigerians.

Chapter Six: Official Government Response to Nigerian Internet Fraud
The Nigerian government has the dual role of enforcing legislation such as the Nigerian Criminal Code (1958) against 419 internet scams by their nationals and simultaneously trying to fix the harmed Nigerian image. This chapter looks at government measures against this illicit crime. It also looks at how the government tries to conduct business in the context of a damaged national image. One of the ways the Nigerian government attempts to punish internet fraud and attempt to improve its global image comes through government entities such as the EFCC (Economic and Financial Crimes Commission). The EFCC seeks out the networks around the Yahoo boys. Though there has been a modicum of success in prosecuting email scammers and the networks of cybercafé owners and even banks. It is also difficult to track personal movements on personal and public computers in addition to the intricate support networks of cybercafé employees, corrupt police, family, and community benefitting from Yahoo activities.

Chapter Seven: Alternatives to Neocolonial Economic Hardships
The opening chapter discusses the day-to-day financial struggles confronting most poor Nigerians, which make 419 email scams an attractive alternative for getting money. In this chapter I will discuss Nigerian youths’ present economic hardships—such as limited affordable college education and the high unemployment rates in Nigeria—and the legal and illegal solutions to these hardships. Jobs are needed to discourage the quick money of email scams. However, this does not excuse those Nigerian citizens who choose internet fraud as an alternative to poverty and lack of job opportunities.

Chapter Eight: 419 Out of National Bounds
This chapter explores the spread of internet scams beyond Nigerian borders. As mentioned previously, some of the Nigerian and international governing agencies’ crackdowns on internet frauds have gained moderate success; as a result, some Yahoo boys like Sola have taken their act on the road. When the national measures to crack down on internet fraud work so effectively as to hamper Sola’s friends’ internet activity, they temporarily or sometimes indefinitely set up residency in countries with minimal government measures to thwart the activities. International cities such as Dubai, Hong Kong, London, and cities in the United States become temporary sites of the internet fraud network.

Chapter Nine: Internet Fraud in Other Languages
Poverty, minimal to limited employment opportunities, and opportunities for internet fraud are present in many continents across the globe. Thus, it should not be surprising that non-Nigerians are perpetrating internet fraud in other countries. I will do a brief overview of the appearance of similar internet fraud schemes originating from countries such as the Ukraine, Indonesia, Yugoslavia, Lithuania, Egypt, Romania, Turkey, Russia, Pakistan, Malaysia, Israel , China, and the United States.