Nigeria: New global cyber crime capital?

Previously, Nigeria was stigmatised for involvement of its citizen’s in drug and human trafficking, however, from the arrest of a high profile young entrepreneur Obinwanne Okeke for suspected internet fraud, to the announcement of internal breaches by an online sales platform Jumia in Nigeria and the massive FBI bust of Nigeria-dominated online fraudsters, Nigeria is fast becoming cyber crime headquarters of the world. In this report, SAMSON BENJAMIN examines how Nigeria’s image has become a subject of global conversation.

The United States (US) recently announced the arrest and indictment of 80 alleged fraudsters, many of them Nigerians, in what it called a massive conspiracy to steal millions of dollars through various dubious schemes.

The announcement was made by the US attorney Nick Hanna, who alleged that the suspects connived with state and federal agencies to carry out their acts.

“A 252-count federal grand jury indictment unsealed today charges 80 defendants, most of whom are Nigerian nationals, with participating in a massive conspiracy to steal millions of dollars through a variety of fraud schemes and launder the funds through a Los Angeles-based money laundering network,” the department of justice of the Central District of California said in a statement on its website.

The statement which was contained in a release by the United States Attorney-General, Central District of California sighted by said the indictment was made after law enforcement agencies arrested 14 suspects across the US in the on Thursday, August 22 2019. It added that 11 of the arrests were carried out in Los Angeles.

“Two defendants were already in federal custody on other charges, and one was arrested earlier this week. The remaining defendants are believed to be abroad, with most of them located in Nigeria,” the statement noted.

The US alleged that the 80 suspects as well as others used various online strategies like Business Email Compromise (BEC) frauds, love scams, and activities that target the aged.

“According to a criminal complaint, co-conspirators based in Nigeria, the United States and other countries contacted the lead defendants in the indictment – Valentine Iro, 31, of Carson, and Chukwudi Christogunus Igbokwe, 38, of Gardena, both Nigerian citizens for bank and money-service accounts that could receive funds fraudulently obtained from victims.

 “Once members of the conspiracy convinced victims to send money under false pretenses, Iro and Igbokwe coordinated the receipt of funds and oversaw an extensive money-laundering network, according to the 145-page indictment,” the US said.

Blueprint Weekend learnt that Iro and Igbokwe were involved in illegal activities that led to the fraudulent transfer of at least $6 million with an overall conspiracy involving an attempted theft of at least an additional $40 million.

Hanna said the arrest of the suspects was a major step to disrupt the criminal.

Iro and Igbokwe, it was alleged, “collected bank accounts, fielded requests for bank account information, provided that information to co-conspirators around the world, and laundered the money obtained from victims – all of this in exchange for a cut of the money stolen from victims of the various fraud schemes.”

Also indicted is Jerry Ikogho, 50, of Carson; and Adegoke Moses Ogungbe, 34, of Fontana; Izuchukwu Kingsley Umejesi, 30, of Los Angeles; Tityaye Marina Mansbangura, 33, of Palmdale; and Obi Madekwe, 31, of Nigeria.

The authorities said each of the 80 suspects was charged with conspiracy to commit fraud, conspiracy to launder money, and aggravated identity theft.

EFCC, FBI collaborates

In the wake of the massive arrest of alleged ‘Nigerian fraudsters’ in the US, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) said it has begun a joint operation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to clamp down on internet fraudsters.

A total of 16 cyber crime suspects otherwise known as Yahoo Boys have been arrested in Abuja since the joint operation codenamed Operation Wire Wire was launched, the commission said.

Acting chairman of the EFCC Ibrahim Magu said this on Friday, August 23, while hosting the chief executive officer, Nigerians in the Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM) Abike Dabiri-Erewa, in his office in Abuja.

He vowed to identify and bring the suspects to justice, adding that following the onslaught and intensified raids on their hideouts by the EFCC, the internet fraudsters had relocated to Ghana.

 “It is very sad. It’s like the era of these 419ners and Yahoo Boys is coming back. I remember we worked with the FBI in Lagos and others. We carried out Operation Wire Wire. We are re-energising; we will go out and storm all their hideouts. Most of them had relocated to Ghana because the heat is on them,” Magu said.

He pledged the readiness of the commission to sustain the ongoing collaboration with relevant agencies, with a view to curbing the menace of cyber crimes.

Dabiri-Erewa expressed concern over the arrest of 77 Nigerians in the United States in connection with alleged cyber crimes.

NIDCOM marching order

Meanwhile, NIDCOM has urged the Nigerians among the 80 persons indicted by the United States for massive email fraud and money laundering to turn themselves in voluntarily or be extradited.

The commission’s boss said, “We acknowledge the fact that an accusation does not mean guilt, and we hope that all the accused will be given fair and speedy trial.

“We also ask those accused in Nigeria to voluntarily turn themselves in to American authorities to clear their names, without which the Nigerian government would extradite them if relevant international treaties between the two governments are invoked.”

Nigerians in the Diaspora lament

Speaking with Blueprint Weekend on the issue, some Nigerians who reside abroad lamented the negative impact of the actions a few Nigerians on the image of the country.

In a phone conversation, Ifeanyi Okeke, a Nigerian Businessman based in Atlanta, told our correspondent that: “We must embrace the reality, the image of our country is seriously damaged by the fraudulent activities of our countrymen abroad. The charges against Nigerians must be seen as a wakeup call to do something now. Their acts stain and criminalize our country.

“Honestly, with this FBI list of 80 Nigerian scammers, and the media coverage coming with such bad representation, our national image has hit a new low. There’s no room ‘but for we are not the only ones doing this’. Over here, the implication is devastating, especially in online transactions and travels.

“When people disgrace our country by engaging in fraud, our reaction should not be ‘It’s not only us’ or ‘It’s because we are poor.’ We should condemn the perpetrators and list 80 Nigeria making us proud around the world, “he said.

Similarly, Sunday Adegbe a lecturer in Teesside University, Middlesbrough, United Kingdom, told Blueprint Weekend in a WhatsApp conversation that:  “Authorities in the US maintain that one in three persons arrested on internet fraud or drug trafficking offences in the US in recent times have Nigerian connections.

“Now the world is becoming aware of the problem, Nigerians living, working or simply travelling overseas are under suspicion no matter how harmless and legitimate their intentions may be. The last thing law-abiding Nigerians seeking to settle overseas or do business there need is a bad reputation with police, banks and businesses. But that is what they are getting.”

Sanction suspects as deterrent-Lawyer insists

Speaking on the situation, a legal practitioner Barrister Ifeanyichukwu Ologwu of IUC Global Chambers in Awka, Anambra state, told Blueprint Weekend that government should initiate extradition procedure of all suspects of alleged fraud to the appropriate country; for justice to take its course.

He said that the involvement of some Nigerians in crimes abroad does not necessarily imply that Nigerians are all criminals, but advised the federal government to help the FBI in its investigations, apprehension, extradition and prosecution of the suspects; in order to absolve the country of blame and to repair our already battered image abroad.

“Just like the veil of incorporation of a company is lifted/pierced to apprehend those committing one crime or the other, to the detriment of the company, the Nigerian government can as well unleash all its legal arsenals to the investigation and extradition of all suspects of the alleged fraud to the appropriate country; for justice to take its course.

“The involvement of some Nigerian citizens in crimes abroad does not necessarily imply that Nigerians are all criminals, holding that will amount to a hasty conclusion and also fallacy of over generalisation. The government of Nigeria cannot be said to be comfortable with the arrest of its citizens for an alleged fraudulent acts, but will only portray same by its conduct, to wit: helping the FBI in the apprehension, extradition and prosecution of the suspects.

“It is enough if the Nigerian government should help FBI in their investigations and extradition of suspects to go over to U.S and clear their names by facing trial. After all, a treaty exists between Nigeria and U.S, making extradition legal and possible. As regards the damaged image of Nigeria:  the image of Nigeria has long been damaged by our previous criminal exhibitions, including the crimes committed by our leaders, long time ago,” he said.

Continuing, Ologwu said that government is also culpable and should be held responsible for contributing in messing up the image of the country abroad, as many public servants engage in corrupt practices, while the federal government specialises in flouting court orders.

Ologwu said: “We don’t have any reputation to protect any longer and cannot say that this incident has damaged the image we never had. Put differently, therefore, looking for the best detergent to wash off the dirt on our image is a funny agendum, which can only be actualized in a Nigerian movie. Nothing can be done to change the mindset of foreigners and their belief about Nigerians. It is not their fault to distrust us, because our leaders also involve in most of these crimes.

“What do you expect from citizens of a country where the orders of court are flouted by the president? What do you expect from citizens of a country where the government is not organised? What do you expect from a country where fraud, bribery and other corrupt practises are routine practices of the leaders?

There is nothing more to say than to advise that our government join hands with the FBI to fish out the suspects. That will, at least, show that our government is not also in support of such criminal acts; although not as a means to repair our long damaged image.”

Government failing in its responsibility

Similarly, in his reaction, an Abuja-based lawyer Barrister Bright Uche said many Nigerians do not believe in government taking care of them and therefore take to a life in crime within and outside the country.

He said that unemployment rate in Nigeria is soaring every day, along with population explosion, even as he implored government to ensure that campaign promises are fulfilled, the economy revived, corruption sternly fought and our infrastructural deficits tackled; “in order for our damaged image to put on a good light globally.”

He said: “There is a popular axiom that the way you make your bed is the way you will lay on it. The holy Bible even said it in another way: ‘train up a child in the way he should go; when he (the child) is old, he will not depart from it’. A country which has refused to positively influence and properly invest in uplifting her citizenry is bound to have agitated citizens; prone to crime and other vices.

“Nigeria is a country that has citizens, who do not believe in its government being able to take care of them and their bias is justified. We have an ailing economy, decayed infrastructure, bad educational system, high rate of corruption and galloping unemployment rate. The unemployment rate of Nigeria stands currently at 23.10 per cent, out of 100 per cent of its population that now stands at about 190.89 million (unofficial population figure) people.”

Furthermore, he said, “A country, which has such a high unemployment rate has a damaged image – by extension, her citizens will be prone to violent crimes. The above is the reason our people see crime as the way to get rich without considering the consequences. It is not late to get started and get serious. To repair our damaged image, the federal and state governments need to sit up.

“We have to ensure that campaign promises are seen to be fulfilled. The economy needs to be revived. Corruption needs to be sternly fought and our infrastructural deficits tackled. When the above is done, Nigeria will bounce back; unemployment rate will reduce and Nigerians will be made to understand that no room is allowed for crime and related vices.

“An occupied mind will hardly engage in crimes. In summary, get Nigeria off her feet and provide employment as well as conducive environment for start-ups; our damaged image will be put on a good light globally.”

Law against fraud underway

The Presidency said on Sunday that it would issue executive orders and engage the National Assembly to pass new laws to put a stop to online fraud involving Nigerians.

It promised to cooperate with the United States to find urgent solutions and halt a repeat of the fraud that led to the arrest of my 80 suspects by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the US.

The senior special assistant to the President on media and publicity Mr Garba Shehu disclosed this when he appeared on Politics Today, a programme on a national television.

He said, “This is a double damage on every citizen of Nigeria; it’s a big scar on all of us who go out of this country and are seen in this image that these our brothers have created.”

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