‘Sakawa boys’: Meet the professional internet fraudsters of Ghana

In Ghana and Nigeria internet fraud is an increasingly common way for young people to make money

I am sitting in an internet cafe near Kwame Nkrumah circle in Accra, Ghana. It is nearly 2 am on a weekday. The clicking noise created by many people typing at the same time sounds like rain falling on the roof. With your eyes closed, you could easily believe that you are in a business premises. This couldn't be further from the case.

This is one of many hubs of internet fraudsters (known as "Sakawa boys" in Ghana and "Yahoo boys" in Nigeria). A group of young men sit nonchalantly in front of computer screens. The silence in the room is occasionally disturbed by chatting among the guys as they peruse through pictures and chat online with their victims, who are referred to as “clients” or “mugu.”

Internet fraud has become immensely popular in Ghana, Nigeria, and many other West African countries. It has even inspired movies, songs and catchphrases. There are many reasons for this. First, scores of young people are unemployed in the region. Also, the virtual world is still like the Wild Wild West with barely any effective legal controls and restrictions.

Jude – US ambitions thwarted

Twenty-six-year-old Jude is a Nigerian national, and he is involved in internet fraud. He has been living in Ghana for about five years now. He tells me that he moved to Ghana in a bid to travel to the US. But with his plans of going abroad at a standstill, he turned to internet fraud.

He reveals that he started doing 'Sakawa' from an internet cafe, but now he works from home. “My luck has been good,” he said, explaining that not everyone that goes into fraud finds success. He claims the key is to rely on a network of other fraudsters for support.

“It is hard work,” he says. “Sometimes you have to work a client for months before you can get some money.” According to Jude, he can squeeze money from his “clients” every other month. He says whenever he makes a lot of money he takes a trip to Nigeria and spends it on his family.

Samuel – has his own employees at work

Samuel is a Ghanaian who is also into internet fraud. He used to live with his grandmother. Now, he has rented a place in another part of the Accra, and he has a car to move about.

He seems very content with himself as he reveals to me that his girlfriend recently gave birth to his son. Samuel does not seem interested in hiding the fact that he is into internet fraud. He tells me that he has some youngsters who he is teaching the scheme. According to Samuel, he provides a working environment and internet connection for his recruits. He also gives them pointers on how to defraud their victims and helps them facilitate the transfer of their loot to Ghana. In return, he takes a cut from their money.

Justification for illegal work

The Sakawa or Yahoo boys that I have talked to have different ways of justifying their work. A lot of them attempt to vindicate their actions by saying their gains amount to some sort of reparation for slavery. Others hold it to be a sort of redistribution of wealth.

“Do you know how many people that are into Sakawa today who could have been involved in armed robbery and other things?” Samuel asks. That point is echoed by many other people that I have talked to – even some who are not involved in internet fraud.

There seems to be a consensus that the rise in fraudsters has affected the crime rate in Accra. “People used to get robbed of their smartphones and laptops by machete-wielding assailants on motorcycles,” Samuel adds, claiming these crimes have not been rampant in the city because most of the would-be attackers are now into internet fraud.

Wider impact of internet fraud

The spread of internet fraud in the region has created unprecedented challenges. There are numerous stories of young fraudsters suddenly becoming breadwinners in their families. Some allegedly make more money than their parents ever did through their 9 to 5 jobs. These stories have perpetuated the cycle by inspiring a desire for quick wealth among many youngsters.

Interestingly, one seldom finds a fraudster who has made substantial investments and can sustain his income. Perhaps, because of the way they make their money, most Sakawa or Yahoo boys appear to be more interested in spending and flaunting their money than making any investments which could benefit them and others. The result is that they have to go back to their victims or “clients” to swindle more money once their stash is finished.

Perhaps, the most far-reaching effect of the rise of internet fraud in Ghana and Nigeria is the damage it is having on the reputation of these countries. Many people across the world today think twice about working with people from these countries because of negative perceptions.

For years PayPal blacklisted Nigeria and Ghana while operating in other African countries because those nations are considered a hub for internet fraud. Although PayPal started operating in Nigeria in 2014 after much criticism, the service is still not available in Ghana. Currently, in Nigeria, the e-commerce platform only allows customers to send money to others not receive payments. The company said it plans to make the service available sometime in the future.

While the effects of internet fraud on African nations are well known, we overlook how it affects the victims. “I have seen people that have lost their homes, their cars, their jobs, and all of the money they have worked all their life for and saved. I have seen marriages broken up by scammers, I have seen families torn apart, and there have been people who in their final desperation have killed themselves as a result of being scammed,” Barbara Sluppick, who created an online support group for victims of romance scams called romancescams.org, said. 

The longer-term implications of professional scammers

At the moment, internet fraud seems to be getting ever more popular, and a lot of youngsters are eager to get into it. Many of these would-be fraudsters have no idea that there are other, legitimate ways to make money online. The situation is so bad that in some places, being seen with a laptop is synonymous with being a fraudster.

In my view, this is a socio-economic problem which is linked to the lack of jobs and higher educational opportunities in many African countries. The fact that internet fraud is also big in Jamaica shows that this issue is strongly connected to underdevelopment. It suggests that the sooner the authorities start to tackle it, the greater the chances of being able to combat it become.

This story, "‘Sakawa boys’: Meet the professional internet fraudsters of Ghana " was originally published by IDG Connect.

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