Internet fraudsters use the name of General Abdulsalami Abubakar, former military head of state, to dupe his friends
| By Ishaya Ibrahim | Dec. 24, 2012 @ 01:00 GMT
INTERNET fraudsters in Nigeria are no respecter of persons. Even with the sophisticated security apparatus around him, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, Nigeria’s former military head of state, had his phone hacked into by some con men. About four months ago, a syndicate of fraudsters monitored Abubakar’s travel arrangements and tracked him down to Addis-Ababa, capital of Ethiopia. They successfully cloned his phone number and used it to send distress short messages to eight of his very close friends. The message claimed that Abubakar had lost all his travel documents and cash and that he needed immediate cash assistance of $800,000 to wriggle out of the mess he had found himself. Three of the friends responded to the message in the spirit of helping the General out of trouble. But unknown to them, they had walked into a grand 419 racket.
Each of them paid the $800,000 purportedly requested by Abubakar, totaling $2.4 million to the account provided in the message. Few days later, one of his friends, who also received the text message, called to console the general for the embarrassing situation he found himself. The general, after he got the message, expressed surprise and asked the caller whether he had paid the money. The friend said he had because he did not doubt the authenticity of the message when he saw his name and number appear on his phone. Two other friends of the general also called to commiserate with him and to know whether he had received the money they paid after getting his message. It was at that point that Abubakar knew that somebody had hacked into his phone. He then alerted the Niger State Police Command which swiftly launched an investigation into the fraud. Eight persons have since been arrested and charged for the offence at the Chief Magistrate’s Court 1 in Minna, Niger State.
The Niger State Police Command, which investigated the fraud, has continued to conceal details of the fraud from the general public. Pius Edobor, spokesperson of the command, reluctantly admitted to Realnews that the scam actually happened in Minna, but refused to give further details. “We investigated the case and charged it to court four months ago at the Chief Magistrate’s Court 1, Minna. The case file is no longer with us”, Edobor said.
When asked why he was reluctant to give details of the case, he said it would be sub-judice to discuss it. Even when a reporter from Realnews office in Lagos, who travelled to his office at the Police Headquarters in Minna, tried to convince him on the importance of making the case public, he refused to cooperate and referred Realnews to the attorney general, AG, whose office, the police said, was handling the case.
According to the police authorities in Minna, only the AG’s office could attend to inquiries on the case even though it was the police that has been prosecuting the matter at the chief magistrate’s court. Realnews went to the AG’s office which also refused to cooperate and referred the reporter back to the police. Despite the telephone call from the editor of Realnews to the Police Public Relations Officer, PPRO, to convince him that the publication of the story was in the public interest, Edobor said there was nothing he could do because the matter had left the police.
Edobor’s attitude in not giving information about the case was particularly surprising because, if the case had involved lesser mortals, the police would have proudly celebrated the suspects’ arrest in the media by calling a press conference or issuing a press release to announce it. Even though Realnews was referred to the AG’s office by the police, the AG’s office and the chief magistrate’s court where the suspects are still standing trial, were not forthcoming with information on the case.
Abubakar is not the first highly-placed Nigerian, whose phone or email account has been hacked into for the purpose of fraud. Many unsuspecting victims have been duped several times, thereby earning the country an unenviable reputation for being a centre of internet crimes. Both the victims and the perpetrators of such crimes are scattered all over the world, and many of the victims have been so dealt with that some even committed suicide after losing all their life savings to the fraudsters.
For instance, on December 2, in the United Kingdom, UK, two Nigerians, Obinna Nwokolo, 37, and Uchenna Onuoha, 40, were jailed for mercilessly fleecing several people of their life savings. The scam, according to the metropolitan police, was one of the biggest involving a total sum of £2.7 million. One of their victims, Betty McClellan, 62, of Hyde Park, Los Angeles, was shot dead by her husband, Hersley, 63, who then shot and killed himself, because she wired £264,000 to the account of fraudsters thereby blowing off the couple’s hard earned pension.
The UK police identified a total of 13 suspects all over the world who each lost an average of £207,000 after Nwokolo and Onuoha had convinced them that they were due for an Australian lottery pay out inheritance investment benefits or were sold nonexistent heavy machines. The scammers conned their victims by telephoning, e-mailing or writing them to pay for stationery, insurance, administrative fees and other charges before the money could be released to them. As at the time the police raided their homes, 593 scam letters ready to be sent for delivery were found. Nwokolo received six years and four months’ jail term while Onuoha who entered the UK with a student visa received five years and two months.
As people become conscious of tricks used by scammers, they have quickly deviced other methods of fleecing people of their life savings. Until recently, “phishing” emails was not used by fraudsters. Phishing is digital stealing where the scammers lure their subjects into divulging their password information through convincing emails and web pages. These phishing emails as they are called, resemble that of legitimate credit authorities like banks and other financial service providers. They frighten or entice their victims into visiting a phony web page and entering their IDs and passwords. Normally, the email message often requires the victim to click on a link, but instead of the link leading the person to the real login site, the link secretly redirects the logger to a fake website that would then compromise the users’ password.
Many Nigerians have fallen victim of this phishing fraud. As a result, Nigerian banks have been sensitising their customers against acting on any email purportedly coming from them directing them to a link or asking them to enter their password.
There is also a bank scam, which compromises the Automated Teller Machine, ATM, card of bank customers without them knowing. For instance, Reuben Ahmedu, a staff of Zenith bank, said he had never disclosed his ATM personal identification number, PIN, to anybody but was surprised when in 2010, his account in First Bank of Nigeria PLC, was debited N200,000 through an ATM terminal situated in Palmgrove area of Lagos State. He said as soon as the scammers made the withdrawal, he got an alert to that effect. The fraud happened on a Saturday and on Monday, he complained to his bank. The bank took the particulars of the fraud and told him that it would investigate the matter and get back to him. But two years after, he was yet to receive any information on the outcome of the investigation.
Internet scammers are also very sophisticated and innovative in their craft. In November 2008, a journalist with Newswatch magazine got a mail from somebody who identified herself as Uju Obiora, claiming to be the programme manager of Henrich Boll Foundation, HBF, and an associate of Joy Ezeilo, United Nations, UN, Special Rapporteur on Human Trafficking. The scammer claimed there was a conference on Human Rights and that Ezeilo had approved the nomination of the journalist to attend. The scammer asked the journalist to liaise with one Dr. Egeke Justin for visa arrangements because Justin was the progarmme director of WACOL, a non-governmental organisation founded by Ezeilo.
Justin then asked the journalist to pay N17, 000 to a designated account to enable him process the travel papers of the reporter. Fortunately, the journalist knew Ezeilo. So, she called the phone of the scammers requesting for Ezeilo’s telephone number. A male voice answered but failed to give the number stating that Ezeilo had travelled. Suspecting a foul play, the journalist then sent Ezeilo a mail for her to authenticate the message. The mail read: “Hello Joy. Hope you are okay….I sent you a mail earlier in connection with the UN conference on trafficking in persons coming up 7 January. Uju Obiora of HBF in an email dated Monday December 7, 2008, informed me that she asked you to include my name on the list of people to go for the conference. She also asked me to liaise with Dr. Egeke Justin, your director of programme, since you are away, for visa arrangement. Since I do not have a valid visa now, I went to your (WACOL) website but I could only see Dr. Jerry Ugwuanyi as your director of programme and not Dr. Egeke Justin. Please confirm if it is okay for me to pay the visa fee (N17,000) into Egeke’s personal account which he sent to my phone. Also confirm if your email is [email protected] . Your prompt reply will be deeply appreciated to enable me pay the visa fee tomorrow morning.”
But the mail was not answered. The journalist then got her number from her WACOL website and called Ezeilo who screamed and said no such mail originated from her organisation. She confirmed that several people had been duped through such fraudulent emails and that her organisation had sent emails disclaiming and warning people to beware of such messages sent through cloned emails.
Even religious organisations are not spared of such fraud. A case that stood out happened in September this year. While Nigerians were still mourning the killing of 20 members of the Deeper Life Bible Church, DLBC, by terrorists in Kogi State, 419ners hacked into the email account of William Kumuyi, general overseer of the church. They used it to send mails to his contacts asking for financial help for the families of those affected by the tragedy. Fortunately, for the church, it found out early enough and quickly took paid advertisement on some national dailies to disclaim the message.
For Ebongabasi Ekpe-Juda, a sociologist and managing director of Acts Resources Limited, cyber or internet crime has just started and Nigeria is not prepared for it. He said it would be worse because the country was ill-equipped to fight this kind of crime. “If you report the matter of internet fraud and general security matter to them (the police), they appear helpless. It is a very serious crime that has hit the world”, Ekpe-Juda said. Realnews learnt authoritatively that the helplessness of the police is due to lack of trained personnel to handle internet crimes. A source at the office of the National Security Adviser, NSA, told the magazine that there are only four internet crime experts in the country.
Ekpe-Juda said even a technologically powerful country like the US was still finding it difficult to tame the activities of internet fraudsters. According to him, in 2008, President Barack Obama’s email was hacked into, enabling the scammers to obtain his itinerary, adding that more than 500 companies in the US were hacked into last year, including Google and the FBI, even with their sophisticated equipment to detect such crimes
He said the sophistication of the crime has been so great that a particular town in Romania thrives on it. “Young men caught in this act after spending some years in prison come out and continue with their nefarious acts because, to them, it is very lucrative,” he said. According to the sociologist, the internet is not only a means of fleecing people of their money, it is also a tool of warfare to fight perceived enemies. For example, he said in 2010, Iran was preparing to launch a nuclear plant when suddenly an explosion occurred. Upon investigation, it was found that a virus which triggered the explosion was sent into the control board. “As I said in my book to be published on security awareness, physical violence is no longer fashionable,” he said. Worse still, Ekpe-Juda said a hacker, with a laptop, can get into the Central Bank of Nigeria account and move money to wherever he wants without leaving his bedroom. “Why should I agree to go there physically? I may be injured or killed”, the hacker might think.
Similarly, he said, students can also hack into a school website and change their scores. According to him, there was a case of a hospital website that was hacked into to change the prescription in order to kill a patient who was regarded as an enemy.
As a way forward, Ekpe-Juda said Nigerians must have enough knowledge of internet crimes and know how to protect themselves. “It is the surest way to prevent and mitigate the effect of the crime,” he said.
When Realnews contacted Frank Mba, Force Public Relations Officer, on the state of the force’s preparedness to fight internet crime, he said he was at a meeting. Thereafter, he simply refused to answer Realnews’ persistent calls to his phone.
The number “419” refers to the article of the Nigerian Criminal Code dealing with fraud. Nigeria is third after the United States and the United Kingdom in the rate of such crimes. But due to increased use of the 419 scam on the internet, it has become a theme of many films, television shows and books. A song, “I Go Chop Your Dollar”, performed by Nkem Owoh, was banned for its praise of 419 fraudsters. The name has now been modified to yahoo, yahoo.