By Robyn Dixon, Times Staff Writer
FESTAC, Nigeria — As patient as fishermen, the young men toil day and
night, trawling for replies to the e-mails they shoot to strangers half
a world away.
Most recipients hit delete, delete, delete, delete without ever
opening the messages that urge them to claim the untold riches of a
long-lost deceased second cousin, and the messages that offer millions
of dollars to help smuggle loot stolen by a corrupt Nigerian official
into a U.S. account.
But the few who actually reply make this a tempting
and lucrative business for the boys of Festac, a neighborhood of Lagos
at the center of the cyber-scam universe. The targets are called maghas — scammer slang from a Yoruba word meaning fool, and refers to gullible white people.
Samuel is 19, handsome, bright, well-dressed and ambitious. He has
a special flair for computers. Until he quit the game last year, he was
one of Festac's best-known cyber-scam champions.
Like nearly everyone here, he is desperate to escape the run-down,
teeming streets, the grimy buildings, the broken refrigerators stacked
outside, the strings of wet washing. It's the kind of place where
plainclothes police prowl the streets extorting bribes, where mobs burn
thieves to death for stealing a cellphone, and where some people paint
"This House Is Not For Sale" in big letters on their homes, in case
someone posing as the owner tries to put it on the market.
It is where places like the Net Express cyber cafe thrive.
The atmosphere of silent concentration inside the cafe is
absolute, strangely reminiscent of a university library before exams.
Except, that is, for the odd guffaw or cheer. The doors are locked from
10:30 p.m. until 7 a.m., so the cyber thieves can work in peace without
fear of armed intruders.
In this sanctum, Samuel says, he extracted thousands of American
e-mail addresses, sent off thousands of fraudulent letters, and waited
for replies. He thinks disclosure of his surname could endanger his
The e-mail scammers here prefer hitting Americans, whom they see
as rich and easy to fool. They rationalize the crime by telling
themselves there are no real victims: Maghas are avaricious and complicit.
To them, the scams, called 419 after the Nigerian statute against fraud, are a game.
Their anthem, "I Go Chop Your Dollars," hugely popular in Lagos,
hit the airwaves a few months ago as a CD penned by an artist called
"419 is just a game, you are the losers, we are the winners.
White people are greedy, I can say they are greedy
White men, I will eat your dollars, will take your money and disappear.
419 is just a game, we are the masters, you are the losers."
"Nobody feels sorry for the victims," Samuel said.
Scammers, he said, "have the belief that white men are stupid and
greedy. They say the American guy has a good life. There's this belief
that for every dollar they lose, the American government will pay them
back in some way."
What makes the scams so tempting for the targets is that they
promise a tantalizing escape from the mundane disappointments of life.
The scams offer fabulous riches or the love of your life, but first the
to send a series of escalating fees and payments. In a dating scam, for
instance, the fraudsters send pictures taken from modeling websites.
"Is the girl in these pictures really you?? I just can't get over
your beauty!!!! I can't believe my luck!!!!!!!" one hapless American
wrote recently to a scammer seeking $1,200.
The scammer replied, "Would you send the money this week so I may buy a ticket?"
"Aww babe. I don't have the money yet. I will get it, though. Don't you worry your pretty lil head, hun," the victim wrote back.
The real push comes when the fictional girlfriend or fiancee, who
claims to be in America, goes to Nigeria for business. In a series of
"mishaps," her wallet is stolen and she is held hostage by the hotel
owner until she can come up with hundreds of dollars for the bill. She
needs a new airline ticket, has to bribe churlish customs officials and
gets caught. Finally, she needs a hefty get-out-of-jail bribe.
Kovacsics says he is awakened several nights a week by Americans
pleading for help with an emergency, such as a fiancee (whom they have
only met in an online chat room) locked up in a Nigerian jail. He has
to tell them that there is probably no fiancee, no emergency.
Kovacsics said victims can't believe that a scammer would spend
months of internet chat just to net $700 or $1,000, not realizing that
is big money in Nigeria and fraudsters will have many scams running at
the same time.