Imagine this: you get an e-mail promising you wealth beyond measure from a random person you'd never heard of. The email goes on to detail just how much trust that this person has in you, enough to gift you a share of the money, no questions asked. All you have to do is send your account details, along with a 'small amount' of money, pennies compared to the millions you're likely to get.
Sometimes the email promises you an investment opportunity, with stories of untapped riches waiting for you to exploit. Again, all that's needed is your trust, accompanied by an initial investment, and in return you will be made fabulously wealthy.
This happened to a Swedish couple who arrived in Lagos in March this year with the aim of taking over an oil company that they had invested about US$3 million in through an offer on the internet.
Officials at Nigeria's Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department (CIID) were helpless to assist the crying couple after they had narrated how they learnt of the lucrative offer on the internet and decided to invest their retirement savings in it.
The CIID in cities such as Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt have to deal with numerous cases related to what has become popular in Nigeria as 419 or Nigerian Letter.
The Nigerian Letter or 419
In many countries, the term 'Nigerian Letter' connotes a beautifully crafted letter soliciting for either investment or partnership to facilitate the transfer of funds from a wealthy relative’s account due to hard government stand on how this wealth was acquired.
“Young boys in secondary and higher educational institutions now see the internet as an opportunity to make money [through fraudulent practices],” - Oko Johnson, Federal University of Technology, Minna, Nigeria
In some instances, the scammers go as far as claiming that they are the children of Nigeria’s late military rulers such as Sani Abacha (who was accused of stealing millions of dollars from government coffers during his reign) and that they are interested in moving huge sums of money from their father’s hidden account to an off-shore account to avoid government officials tracing it.
At the beginning of the 1990s, the 419 business was restricted to Lagos, and it was the exclusive preserve of those who had internet access or those who had friends or relations outside Nigeria.
With time, the 419 scam has made some shady individuals quite wealthy, and with the liberalisation of the communication sector and increased access to the internet, 419 has become so attractive that many young graduates in Nigeria spend hours each day on the internet subtly crafting one email after another, hoping to win and exploit the trust of innocent and unsuspecting members of the public, especially foreigners.
Why the increase
At a workshop organised by the National Information Technology Development Agency in March this year to build capacity of the media in addressing cybercrimes, it was revealed that Nigeria loses 89.55 billion naira (US$450 million) a year to cyber crime.
According to Oscar Ekponimo, a cybersecurity expert based in Nigeria, the most common form of cybercrime in Nigeria is social engineering for money fraud, where people are tricked into revealing personal information and breaking normal security procedures.
Ekponimo adds that cybercrime is on the increase in Nigeria due to growing mobile penetration. Over 60 per cent of the Nigerian population has access to mobile phones, and about 65 million people use the internet regularly.
While increased mobile penetration and internet use have made the online space a valuable arena for the value exchange of goods and services for monetary compensation, the higher levels of connectivity mean that a previously unreached segment of the populace is now prone to cybercrime.
Cyber-criminals in Nigeria have also taken advantage of the Boko Haram insurgency to defraud unsuspecting international organisations and individuals who are sending in aid to support the victims of terrorists attacks.
The criminals have set up websites soliciting for assistance on behalf of the victims.
The Nigerian government introduced certain measures to combat criminal activity online, such as the Nigerian Cybercrimes Bill - which has since become law — on 15 May, 2015. The law provides for the prohibition, prevention, detection, response, investigation and prosecution of cybercrimes; and for other related matters.
It is an elaborate policy meant to insulate Nigerians from unscrupulous elements who use the internet to defraud unsuspecting individuals and organisations.
However, this is not the first attempt at anti-cybercrime legislation. The efforts to legislate against cybercrime date back at least six years, meaning that during that time, Nigerians wishing to conduct meaningful business online faced a host of challenges.
Ekponimo also notes that the government did set up computer emergency response teams in 2014 to handle cybersecurity incidents, and a Cybercrimes Advisory Council was also created to combat cybercrime in the country.
However, the Council is only a policy-making body under the Cybercrime Act, and is unable to enforce the Act itself. There were calls for the law to create an agency to enforce the laws enacted to combat cybercrime and ensure that the highest cybersecurity standards would be adhered to, but this has not happened.
Oko Johnson, a final year, computer science student at the Federal University of Technology - Minna, says that while the internet has offered a lot of opportunities, something needs to be done to change perceptions.
“How these opportunities are used is what the government needs to seriously address", Johnson says. "Young boys in secondary and higher educational institutions should see the internet as an opportunity to make money legitimately, not through fraudulent practices".
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