Spam Scams Africa's City of Cyber Gangsters
The man was once a millionaire. He was self-employed and spent almost two decades living in such exotic foreign countries as Yemen. He thought he knew his way around the world, that he would never lose control, never fall victim to a scam. But he was -- fleeced for 600,000 euros over the Internet. Now he sits in an office in Lagos, fighting back tears and self-pity, saying: "This is all so embarrassing."
Frieda Springer-Beck, a slim woman in her mid-fifties, sits behind her desk wearing a white blouse. With an encouraging gaze, she takes notes and nods to the man, indicating that he should continue.
A stack of 71 files sits on her desk -- one for each case, for each victim, each lawsuit. They all belong to Germans who have lost their money -- at least $300,000 -- here in Nigeria. Springer-Beck, a mother and former housewife in the small Bavarian town of Bechhofen, is their last hope. She speaks German, she knows her way around in this confusing country and, most importantly, she knows what she's talking about. After falling prey to a scam artist in Lagos, she now hunts them and helps their victims.
Springer-Beck's office is in a dilapidated building in the city's congested downtown area. Every morning, she fights her way through Lagos' never-ending traffic jams in her dented VW Golf, through eye-stinging smog and the stench of open sewers, past beggars and merchants knocking on her car windows. Her office is on the building's fourth floor, just below the corrugated metal roof. On her way in, she passes a few guards and a hallway lined with cells with prisoners saying their morning prayers.
The building belongs to Nigeria's new anti-corruption agency the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). She works for EFCC as an independent contractor. Together with the agency's officials, Springer-Beck attempts to track down the stolen money. But it's a daunting task, one that involves millions of dollars, thousands of scam artists and a corrupt state trying to reform.
Nigeria's new Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.Foto: THOMAS GRABKA
Internet fraud of this type in Nigeria is called "four-one-nine" crime, after the relevant section of the country's criminal code. A 419 is a mass crime, a money generator, and could aptly be described as the use of globalized methods as revenge by the losers of globalization. Their weapon is the Internet.
The most pernicious element of such fraud is its simplicity. The scammers send letters and e-mails to strangers, asking for help. In most cases, they know nothing more about their potential victims than their addresses. The letters always follow the same basic formula: A fortune worth several and sometimes as much as hundreds of millions of dollars needs to be moved from continent to continent, and unfortunate events prevent the owners of the money from doing so. This, according to the letters, is the reason the recipients have been contacted. Their assistance will, of course, be handsomely rewarded when part of the fortune is transferred into the recipient's account.
If a victim responds, more letters follow, and each new letter describes new difficulties, people who have to be bribed, banks that are suddenly charging additional fees, documents that need to be prepared, and the victim is always the one who pays -- that is, until he realizes he has been scammed, or until he is broke.
Variations of the scam offer a lucrative business or profits from an investment that a deceased relative of the e-mail recipient supposedly made. The stories seem to outdo one another in their outrageousness. In one letter, former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's widow asks for help. Others tell moving stories of natural disasters. In one, the sender reports that an astronaut working for the Nigerian space program is stuck in orbit, and that millions of dollars are needed to bring him back to earth.
Check your inbox
Almost everyone who has an e-mail account has received such scam spam at least once. Most recipients recognize the ploy and ignore the e-mails, but it works more often than one would expect. Avarice, it seems, is often more powerful than reason.
The victims live in the United States, Canada, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Germany, France and Britain. In the past year, $160 million were sent to Nigeria from the United States and Great Britain alone. Some experts even believe that revenues from these scams are Nigeria's third-largest source of hard currency, after oil and cocoa.
The 419 scam became popular in Nigeria more than 20 years ago, during the hyper-corrupt "Second Republic" under then President Shehu Shagari. At the time, the letters were still being sent by regular mail, and in 1993 it was just such a letter that Frieda Springer-Beck found sitting on her table at home in Bechhofen.
There was a foreign stamp on the envelope, and the letter was from a return address in Lagos. A surprised Springer-Beck, who had no friends or business associates "down there" opened the envelope and began to read.
The letter was addressed to her husband. The writer asked about his health and about the long, unexpected silence, and wanted to know what to do with the money. What did the recipient plan to do with the profits from the investment -- $24.6 million -- the writer asked? Where should it be sent? These were the unknown writer's questions, all in articulate English.
Springer-Beck's husband had died years earlier in an auto accident. He had never mentioned anything about an investment in a Nigerian power plant. After his death, Springer-Beck took over the management of the family business, a company that produced artists' brushes in Germany and Turkey. She traveled a great deal, negotiating with suppliers and buyers. Her life was already complicated enough without some mysterious business partner of her late husband somewhere in Africa.
She read the note again: $24.6 million. The letter ended with a telephone number
Springer-Beck landed at Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos a few days later. It was January. The air was humid and hot, and Springer-Beck had packed nothing but winter clothes. She was about to make the biggest mistake of her life.
A white Mercedes was waiting for her at the airport. The driver, who wore a white suit and introduced himself as Assiri Waziria, chauffeured Springer-Beck through the streets of Lagos, a city she found frightening. She saw street merchants in rags, beggars pressing the stumps of their severed limbs against the car windows, children pleading for food. She saw wretched huts made of nailed-together pieces of wood and corrugated metal, entire communities spread out under the support columns of the highway that bisects the city.
Lagos is Africa's second-largest city and home to over 10 million people.Foto: THOMAS GRABKA
Her destination was the best hotel in Lagos. A room with a view of the Atlantic had been booked for two nights, the costs paid by the alleged business partner of her deceased husband. She was scheduled to meet with his attorney the next day.
Fred Ajudua's law firm was in Lagos's business district, his offices luxuriously appointed and his walls covered with certificates and diplomas. Ajudua himself, a tall and powerful-looking man, welcomed his guest from Germany with open arms. Finally, he said, she had arrived. Springer-Beck wanted to believe him.
Ajudua apologized, saying that he couldn't give her the business documents or the promised money yet, because both were locked in a safe at the National Bank of Nigeria, but that we would take her there tomorrow.
The next day, the white Mercedes drove into the parking garage at the National Bank, where Ajudua and Springer-Beck entered an elevator in the adjacent building. The building, Ajudua said, was where the bank had its legal department.
A man, who introduced himself as a bank employee, welcomed them into his office. A file was sitting on the man's desk. Springer-Beck recognized her company's letterhead on a document.
The bank employee explained to her that she would have to pay a four-percent tax to receive the $24.6 million, as well as legal fees amounting to one percent of the remainder. The man pushed a piece of paper across his desk, which stated that the tax came to $984,000 and the attorney's fee $236,160. The tax would be deducted from the original amount, the man said, but the attorney's fee had to be paid directly to Ajudua.
When they had returned to his office, Ajudua asked Springer-Beck how much cash she had brought along. She told him she had $2,000. He asked for the money as a down payment, but Springer-Beck said she wanted to discuss the matter with her family first.
A few days later, after Springer-Beck had returned to Bechhofen, she received a call from Ajudua. He wanted to know if she had come to a decision. Springer-Beck responded that she was willing to pay him $10,000, but he laughed. For $10,000, he said, he wouldn't lift another finger, and all the money would go to the Nigerian government the following week.
Springer-Beck asked him why and Ajudua responded that Nigeria had a special law to deal with such matters. Under the alleged law, when a foreigner fails to claim the profits from an investment within ten years, the money goes to the state. The ten-year period, he said, was about to end the following week.
Swallowing the bait
Springer-Beck said that she couldn't come up with the $236,000 that quickly, that the best she could do would be $100,000. The two settled on a sum of $94,000.
She packed the money into a suitcase and flew back to Lagos. Ajudua had said that there wouldn't be enough time for a wire transfer. Ajudua gave her a receipt. But Springer-Beck didn't receive the promised millions. After four days, she left Lagos empty-handed. This time she paid her own hotel bill.
Back in Germany, she transferred the remaining $142,000 to an account with Citibank in New York, as Ajudua has instructed her to do. Then she waited. But instead of transferring the millions, Ajudua demanded another $120,000 for a "certificate of completion" -- a bank requirement, he said. Springer-Beck did some research and discovered that this requirement did in fact exist in Nigeria.
She wasn't sure what to do. Stop paying? Then she would lose the $236,000 she had already given Ajudua. Change attorneys? But the new attorney would also have to be paid.
Listen to her family, her friends, who were telling her that the whole thing was a scam? It was too late to back out. She had taken part of the $236,000 from her company's account. In the end, Springer-Beck borrowed the $120,000 for the supposed bank certificate from a family member, and she received a receipt from the Nigerian National Bank.
She then flew to Lagos for the third time.
Scammed in Lagos: Continue reading on page 2.
Ajudua showed her photos of a power plant near the city of Kaduna in northern Nigeria. Her husband's name was printed on a metal sign on the wall of the plant. But Ajudua produced neither the bank file nor the money. Springer-Beck complained, but he ignored her. She then gave him an ultimatum, but he ignored that too.
During her fourth visit, Ajudua screamed at Springer-Beck, accusing her of having no respect for his work and his efforts on her behalf.
By the fifth time she went to Lagos, Springer-Beck's supposed attorney had disappeared. Despite his secretary's protests, she camped out in his office, but there was no sign of Ajudua. The alleged employee of the National Bank, whom she had met during her first visit, had also disappeared. When she went to the National Bank, she was told that the adjacent building didn't belong to the bank, that it merely shared a parking garage with the bank building.
Springer-Beck was shocked. Later that day, she drove to Ajudua's home to confront him about the scam. She planned to tell him that she had seen through his scheme, and that she would demand repayment of every cent. Ajudua's house was a large, intimidating-looking villa.
Springer-Beck rang the doorbell and was let in by a servant. Ajudua had guests -- around a dozen men. As they all stared at Springer-Beck, she felt as if she were on trial and Ajudua was her accuser. He screamed at her, insulted her, ridiculed her and the men applauded. Springer-Beck was stunned into silence.
Back at her hotel, Springer-Beck stood on the balcony of her room on the 9th floor, looking down at the ground. She had lost more than $350,000, her brother had broken off contact with her and she was being investigated by the German tax authorities, who refused to believe that she had been the victim of a scam. Springer-Beck was on the verge of taking her last step.
Twelve years later, Frieda Springer-Beck is still fighting for her money, for her rights and for the chance to erase this humiliating episode from her life. She left her home in Bechhofen long ago. Now she lives in Lagos, in a house surrounded by a high wall. The EFCC pays the rent. At one of her court hearings, Springer-Beck was approached by an official from the agency, Ibrahim Lamorde, who had been impressed by her persistence.
The EFCC provides rooms for its foreign guests on the second floor, while Springer-Beck lives on the ground floor. Her sparsely furnished apartment is littered with files on the floor and the walls are decorated with photographs of her daughters. Power outages are frequent.
Springer-Beck has no friends in Lagos, only comrades-in-arms and enemies. She doesn't go out at night, and she isn't a member of the group of German expatriates, diplomats, businesspeople and aid workers who get together now and then. Instead, she sits in her apartment, poring over her files.
On the other side of the house wall lies Lagos, Africa's second-largest city, immense and growing by the day. Half Christian and half Muslim, both home and hell for more than ten million people, and Springer-Beck is one of them.
She filed a lawsuit against Ajudua in a Lagos court in what seemed like an open-and-shut case -- a clear incident of fraud. Ajudua hadn't even bothered to invent an alias. But so far her case has been postponed 92 times. Sometimes Ajudua simply did not appear in court, and sometimes he suddenly fell ill. On other occasions he would change attorneys. Or the judge assigned to the case -- or the prosecutor -- would be suddenly replaced.
At first, Frieda Springer-Beck blamed the slow progress in her case on the Nigerian legal system. But then she realized that Ajudua and his money were the true reasons behind many of the delays. She understood that she hadn't fallen prey to just any scam artist, but to a Lagos crime lord.
Springer-Beck discovered that Ajudua's Mercedes is regularly accompanied by motorized police escorts, and she heard that his company, FCA Finance House, had gone public. Ajudua himself, it turned out, was a member of the city's jet set, his business dealings extending all the way to London. Springer-Beck, by comparison, was nothing but an odd white woman, with her files and her cause, which was constantly being referred to someone else. It was clearly an uneven fight.
But she sought help and established an organization, the Nigerian International Interest Group, living from the meager contributions of her members. It was a trying and depressing life, but it was also her way of paying for her mistakes, her personal sacrifice. In her years in Lagos, Springer-Beck has learned that she isn't fighting individual crooks, but a movement, an industry. Thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands are wrapped up in the Nigerian scam business -- students, police officers, lawyers, car dealers, retirees.
Though 419 scams are illegal, is a popular business in Nigeria. The participants feel no guiltier than the average German tax evader. In fact, they are often proud of their achievements, proud of having transformed Africa's disadvantages as a business location into their own personal gain.
Scam artists benefit from a weak and corrupt state, in which neither the police nor the judiciary function properly. They benefit from Nigeria's past as a British colony, because English, the country's official language, has long since become the world's lingua franca. And they benefit from the fact that Nigeria is far away from countries and regions in which criminal investigators and prosecutors cooperate with one another. The 419 is the revenge of the exploited against the exploiters.
There are international syndicates operating from rented offices in Lagos, working in shifts so that they can reliably reach their victims in the world's various time zones. These syndicates open foreign offices near international airports. There are small-time conmen with a few employees and a small office. They buy their letters and their fake documents from suppliers. And then there are the young kids, the one-man businesses operating from the city's internet cafés, where they copy and send their e-mails.
Anietie Akpan at work in Lagos.Foto: Thomas Grabka
Anietie Akram is one of these cooks. He is 21 and works for one of the syndicates in Lagos. He's been in the business for two years, and he says that the group also has employees in Lebanon and the United States. His parents are day laborers. He looks like a college student, and he's brought along two associates as guards to a fast-food restaurant near the Lagos beach.
Akram was recruited while attending a computer school in Lagos. "It is the opportunity many are waiting for her," he says. "And so was I." He points to his right foot. He is handicapped. In Lagos, people like Akram normally work as beggars on the city's outskirts. Or they hobble as "walking Wal-Marts" through the city's congested streets, carrying sponges or curtain rods or bread or air fresheners in their hands, hawking their wares to the men and women in cars. For someone like Akram, landing a job as a "boy" for a gang leader in Lagos is like winning the lottery. "We get 30 percent of the profits," he says.
Akram's "office" is in a back alley room rented by his boss. Computers with internet connections are set up in a room where Akram sends out e-mails containing the form letters his boss provides. The stories told in the letters are called formats, and the authors of successful formats are known in the local scam scene and highly sought-after as business partners. In his free time, Akram tries his hand at concocting his own scam stories. It's the next step in his career, he says.
His boss obtains the forged documents and bribes the bank officials, the prosecutors and the judges. The boss provides the infrastructure, and "boys" like Akram are in charge of drawing in the victims. That's the deal.
Akram finds the e-mail addresses on the internet, with the help of Google and something called e-mail extractor software. By entering commands into the Google search window, Akram can find links to pages with large numbers of e-mail addresses. He copies these pages into a window in the e-mail extractor, presses "Enter" and the extractor deletes everything but the e-mail addresses. Akram then copies the addresses into his own e-mails, attaches the letters and sends them on their way into cyberspace.
Akram can send 500 of these e-mails in an hour. If someone responds to the first letter, the scam begins to take its own course. To avoid generating errors in subsequent messages, the gangs normally work with only one format. Akram currently plays three roles within this format. "For each role, for each person, that is, I use a different telephone." The phones are color-coded to avoid mix-ups. After all, he could answer with the wrong pseudonym, using a name that doesn't belong to the particular version of a scam used to bait a given victim. He could use the wrong place names, specify the wrong payment arrangements or ask for amounts that have already been paid. It's a very stressful job, says Akram.
And the stress is growing daily, because people like Akram are increasing their e-mail volume. Within one year, from 2003 to 2004, the number of reported attempted scams in the United States jumped from less than 60,000 to more than 100,000. Authorities say that about every hundredth e-mail is successful.
The FBI has sent agents to train investigators at the EFCC, an agency that was formed at the insistence of the US government. The FBI agents trained their Nigerian colleagues, explaining the Internet and showing them how e-mail works. Fourteen suspects were arrested within a month.
A perpetrator of 419 fraud sentenced for the first time this year in Nigeria, receiving ten years in prison. In September, the authorities staged a large-scale raid on a dozen Lagos Internet cafés, leading to the arrests of 173 suspects. A month earlier, officials seized 1,500 passports, 50,000 forged checks, 500 printing plates and a shipping container filled with customs documents. There were new arrests and new raids on an almost daily basis. The number of suspects exceeded 500 and the value of the confiscated houses, cars and bank accounts quickly surpassed $700 million.
Two scammers, Emmanuel Nwude and Nzeribi Okoli, are currently on trial accused of having masterminded the biggest known scam to date. Their victim was a manager at Brazil's Banco Noroeste, who believed that he was investing $242 million of his bank's money for the construction of a new international airport near the Nigerian capital Abuja.
Ajudua, the man who conned Frieda Springer-Beck, is also beginning to feel pressure from the EFCC and the FBI. His law firm was closed and dozens lawsuits are pending against him. He is accused of having defrauded two Americans of over $2 million each, leading Ajudua's to concentrate these days more on damage control than other scams.
Springer-Beck recently met with Ajudua's lawyer, who offered her $300,000. In return, she was to agree not to testify against Ajudua. Was it acceptable? The sum included no interest, and the deal meant probably no jail time for Ajudua. Wouldn't he be the winner in the end, after all? But Springer-Beck accepted the offer and signed. She is tired.
She saw Ajudua in court again a few days ago. He was half an hour late, finally appearing in an ambulance, supposedly half-dead from a kidney ailment. Orderlies placed him onto a stretcher and rolled him into the courtroom, accompanied by Ajudua's bodyguards. During the hearing, he lay on his stretcher, staring apathetically out of the window.
Springer-Beck watched the charade with great concern. She hopes she will get the money -- she need it. She plans to stay in Lagos, to represent German 419 victims in court. She plans to make a living by charging a ten-percent commission of her clients' awards, provided she is successful in court.
But she hasn't been successful yet. She does have Ajudua's signature on a piece of paper. And his word. However, much it's worth.
Translated from German by Christopher Sultan