Nigeria's anti-graft agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has warned Internet service providers that they risk 20 years imprisonment if they aid online scams. 

The newly introduced Advanced Fee Fraud and Other Related Fraud Offenses Act of 2006 stipulates that anyone who provides Internet service in Nigeria will be held directly liable for any online fraud that involves the use of their systems or network.

Banks, telecommunications companies, Internet service providers, cyber cafe operators, property owners and transporters have been warned about lapses that could lead to Internet corruption.

The law also provides for a 20-year jail term and the revocation of license for offenders. In addition, all Internet service providers, including cyber cafes, are required to register with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, the Corporate Affairs Commission, and the Nigerian Communications Commission. 

Economic and Financial Crimes Commission spokesman Osita Nwajah, says regulating the Internet space in Nigeria is a move to instill some control and discipline over use of the Internet in Nigeria.

"We expect that the same principle of know-your-customer, which we are applying in the banking industry will also be applied in that very important industry, which has given Nigeria a very, very bad image abroad," said Nwajah. "So, people should know who is operating what and where because what we have anybody from any corner, from anywhere can just bring one or two computers and then they are hooked on to some service provider who is not known to the country. The person is operating from outside the shores of Nigeria and they begin to use their systems to do funny, funny things. Now we want to regulate all of that."

The Nigerian government established the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission to fight financial crimes, some of which are perpetrated online by Nigerians who dupe foreigners by proposing attractive fake business deals running into millions of dollars.

In some cases, the fraudsters steal personal details and then use such information to steal money from their victim's bank account.

Internet-based fraud schemes are also known as 419 scams in Nigeria, named after the relevant section of the country's criminal code. Nwajah says the incidence of Internet scams has declined as a result of Economic and Financial Crimes Commission's relentless clamp down.

"One of the things that has happened in the last three years that EFCC has been cracking down on 419ers, is that they have actually moved, physically moved out of the Nigerian space, some of the big-time ones," he said. "The other ones we have reigned in and we have convicted. Most of the convictions we have are 419 cases.

When the middle level cadre [if you allow me to use that description], saw that their top guns were already decimated, they moved out," continued Nwajah. "So you find them operating from the West Africa sub region and other countries."

The EFCC has arrested more than 200 e-mail fraudsters in the past three years. But analysts say the agency has a huge task ahead in eliminating fraudulent activities on the Internet. Economic conditions remain very difficult and with the prospect of a job for most Nigerian youths diminishing, a growing number are turning to cyber crimes.