BENIN CITY, NIGERIA— The Nigerian government is cracking down on Internet scam artists who take millions of dollars monthly from foreign victims. The latest police sweep saw 20 people arrested last week. In the southern city of Benin where the raid took place, some locals are outraged. They say “Yahoo-Yahoo boys,” as they are called, should not go to jail while corrupt politicians rob the people.
On Saturday night in the VIP room of a swanky lounge, young men in crisp polo shirts drink champagne and bottles of expensive scotch. It’s too early to hit the nightclubs, where the real parties will be held later, but a few men stand around low tables, dancing privately to the music.
This scene in Benin City is known as a hotspot for so-called Yahoo guys, Internet con men so-named because Yahoo! was the first program used for the scams when the Internet became available in the early 2000s.
The men call themselves “Gee Boys” - local slang for men that always know “what’s up.”
Internationally, the Yahoo guys are known better as Nigeria’s famous Internet con men and the Nigerian government is currently arraigning 20 suspects.
A few days later, a man named David drives slowly over cracked roads filled with potholes in this worn-out city. He said young Nigerians are ambitious and some turn to Internet fraud because escaping extreme poverty legally in this town requires serious connections.
“Everyone knows it’s wrong, but the truth is that there’s nothing to do. It’s the only way out,” he said.
A man in the back seat wears sunglasses because we’ve only just met and he’s afraid I might have a hidden camera. He said he used to be a Yahoo guy but has since opened a legitimate business.
Still, he defends some scams, like the one where you get an email saying you won the lottery, and you need to send some cash to collect your earnings. He said only greedy people will send the money.
“Did you play any lotto? Did you play anything? Why would you reply like that to me? It’s greed. Let me use that word. It’s just greed,” he said.
Other scams, like using dating services or Facebook to seduce a person before extracting cash, prey on the weak and lonely, he said. He also disapproves of the common practice of using what is believed to be black magic to control victims abroad.
Another man named David said he learned how to do some of the scams years ago, but didn’t go into the business because of heartbreaking messages from people abroad saying they would have to mortgage their homes to pay.
When asked what the government should do to stop them, the former Yahoo guy said the government can’t and shouldn’t do anything.
“It’s them theirselves that’s corrupt. They can’t stop it. Let me tell you something. If you want to stop corruption, you fix yourself, discipline yourself, you work on yourself,” he said.
He added that if corrupt politicians stopped robbing the people, there would be a functioning economy and jobs - an alternative to Internet fraud.
This sentiment is widely shared in Benin City, and many people are angry that regular guys getting ahead, albeit illegally, could be arrested by police, who are believed to take payoffs from the Yahoo boys.
At a sparse shop selling frozen fish, Sunny Duke Okosun, a popular local broadcaster, blames unemployment for the Internet scams, and a host of other woes in Nigeria.
"There is really no interesting statistics to say how much job is being created to checkmate the unemployment problem. So you find that most youths that get involved in Internet scam is also a function of this,” said Okosun.
Others argue that ending the business would harm the local economy and increase crime. Greg Eromomene, an events manager, said that Benin City is much safer now than it was before Internet fraud became the crime of choice.
“Those guys they are like rich people. They cannot easily go break into shops and do those kind of things because that has provided them with a livelihood, a means of living," he said. "Petty thieves have been reduced.
Back on the road, David, the driver, said that before the Internet, armed robbers were so comfortable in Benin City that after breaking into a home, they would sit down and have dinner before hauling away their loot.