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Internet Scammers Keep Working in Nigeria

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Day in, day out, a strapping, amiable 24-year-old who calls himself Kele B. heads to an Internet cafe, hunkers down at a computer and casts his net upon the cyber-waters.

Blithely oblivious to signs on the walls and desks warning of the penalties for Internet fraud, he has sent out tens of thousands of e-mails telling recipients they have won about $6.4 million in a bogus British government "Internet lottery."

"Congratulation! You Are Our Lucky Winner!" it says.

So far, Kele says, he has had only one response. But he claims it paid off handsomely. An American took the bait, he says, and coughed up "fees" and "taxes" of more than $5,000, never to hear from Kele again.

Festac Town, a district of Lagos where the scammers ply their schemes, has become notorious for "419 scams," named for the section of the Nigerian penal code that outlaws them.

In Festac Town, an entire community of scammers overnights on the Internet. By day they flaunt their smart clothes and cars and hang around the Internet cafes, trading stories about successful cons and near misses, and hatching new plots.

Festac Town is where communication specialists operating underground sell foreign telephone lines over which a scammer can purport to be calling from any city in the world. Here lurk master forgers and purveyors of such software as "e-mail extractors," which can harvest e-mail addresses by the million.

Now, however, a 3-year-old crackdown is yielding results, Nigerian authorities say.

Nuhu Ribadu, head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, says cash and assets worth more than $700 million were recovered from suspects between May 2003 and June 2004. More than 500 suspects have been arrested, more than 100 cases are before the courts and 500 others are under investigation, he said.

The agency won its first big court victory in May when Mike Amadi was sentenced to 16 years in prison for setting up a Web site that offered juicy but phoney procurement contracts. Amadi cheekily posed as Ribadu himself and used the agency's name. He was caught by an undercover agent posing as an Italian businessman.

This month the biggest international scam of all - though not one involving the Internet - ended in court convictions. Amaka Anajemba was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison and ordered to return $25.5 million of the $242 million she helped to steal from a Brazilian bank.

The trial of four co-defendants is to start in September.

Why Nigeria? There are many theories. The nation of 130 million, Africa's most populous, is well educated, and English, the lingua franca of the scam industry, is the official language. Nigeria bursts with talent, from former NBA star Hakeem Olajuwon to Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka.

But with World Bank studies showing a quarter of urban college graduates are unemployed, crime offers tempting career opportunities - in drug dealing, immigrant-trafficking, oil-smuggling, and Internet fraud.

The scammers thrived during oil-rich Nigeria's 15 years of brutal and corrupt military rule, and democracy was restored only six years ago.

"We reached a point when law enforcement and regulatory agencies seemed nonexistent. But the stance of the present administration has started changing that," said Ribadu, the scam-busting chief.

President Olusegun Obasanjo is winning U.S. praise for his crackdown. Interpol, the FBI and other Western law enforcement agencies have stepped in to help, says police spokesman Emmanuel Ighodalo, and Nigerian police have received equipment and Western training in combating Internet crime and money-laundering.

Experts say Nigerian scams continue to flood e-mail systems, though many are being blocked by spam filters that get smarter and more aggressive. America Online Inc. Nicholas Graham says Nigerian messages lack the telltale signs of other spam - such as embedded Web links - but its filters are able to be alert to suspect mail coming from a specific range of Internet addresses.

Also, the scams have a limited shelf life.

In the con that Internet users are probably most familiar with, the e-mailer poses as a corrupt official looking for help in smuggling a fortune to a foreign bank account. E-mail or fax recipients are told that if they provide their banking and personal details and deposit certain sums of money, they'll get a cut of the loot.

But there are other scams, like the fake lotteries.

Kele B., who won't give his surname, says he couldn't find work after finishing high school in 2000 in the southeastern city of Owerri, so he drifted with friends to Lagos, where he tried his hand at boxing.

Then he discovered the Web.

Now he spends his mornings in Internet cafes on secondhand computers with aged screens, waiting "to see if my trap caught something," he says.

Elekwa, a chubby-faced 28-year-old who also keeps his surname to himself, shows up in Festac Town driving a Lexus and telling how he was jobless for two years despite having a diploma in computer science.

His break came four years ago when the chief of a fraud gang saw him solve what seemed like "a complex computer problem" at a business center in the southeastern city of Umuahia and lured him to Lagos.

He won't talk about his scams, only about their fruits: "Now I have three cars, I have two houses and I'm not looking for a job anymore."

Associated Press

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