Nigerian Fraud Combines Scams and Manipulates Emotions
Many scammers and fraudsters are operating internationally as part of large organized scamming organizations. And they cause a lot of emotional, psychological, and financial damage. We often think of scammers as bad people doing bad things. But to the scammers, that’s not always the case. In Nigerian fraud, for example, being a scammer is a perfectly acceptable career option.
See New and Improved Nigerian Scams with Ronnie Tokazowski for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey Podcast episode.
Ronnie Tokazowski is a principal threat advisor with the company Cofense and has been fighting Nigerian fraud for the past seven years. He works with law enforcement, the private sector, and victims themselves to identify how fraud and scams work. A lot of his work is about business email compromise (BEC) scams, where scammers gain access to a business’s email systems and can send legitimate-looking requests for payments, and how scammers combine different kinds of scams. He’s seen cases of check fraud, invoice scams, and two dozen other types of crime that people didn’t realize were directly related to romance scams.
Ronnie didn’t start out intending to fight scams or Nigerian fraud. Seven years ago, while working at Cofense, the CFO received a phishing email pretending to be from the CEO. The CFO went to Ronnie’s office and said, “Ronnie, I know this isn’t from the CEO because it’s from a Gmail account. We need to figure out what this is.” They responded to the scammers, and eventually got bank account information and found out where they were from. BEC scams were starting to become a big issue at the time, so Ronnie created an email list to track those scams. That email list is still active today.
Combining Types of Scams
The best way to think about scams is like a toolbox. You have a screwdriver, a hammer, a wrench, maybe a saw. If you need to repair your toilet, you’re going to have to remove multiple tools from that toolbox. Nigerian fraud and any other kind of scammer operates the same way. They’re there to do a “job” of identity fraud, crypto recovery scams, BEC, or anything else to get your money. To make that job easier, they can pull from their “toolbox” of different scams.
They might combine BEC with an invoice scam, where they send an email from the CEO’s email account requesting the Accounts Payable department pay a fake invoice. Or they might combine romance scams with investment scams and use a fraudulent romantic connection to convince someone to invest in a fake investment. Anything that helps them get money is a tool they will use.
Using Romance Scam Victims
Romance scams are a huge part of the scam toolbox. When a BEC scam successfully convinces someone to wire money to an account, the money often goes to the account of a romance scam victim. The victims become “money mules” helping move stolen money around and facilitating other crimes. The victims may be cashing checks, sending gift cards, or receiving the wires, keeping some for themselves, and passing the rest on. It even helps further the romance scam. Since the victim is receiving money, they feel like they can really trust the scammer.
[Scam victims] may have sent a lot of their own money to the scammers, but the scammers have realized that, hey, we can use these people to facilitate all these other crimes too, and make a lot of money doing it.Ronnie Tokazowski
Many people ask victims why they would do that. But they don’t have the perspective of a relationship built over months or years. Ronnie has seen victims involved for over a decade. Nigerian fraud with romance scams isn’t done haphazardly. The scammer has a whole background made up that ties into the story. Sometimes the victims receive flowers, chocolates, or physical gifts. They tell stories like, “You’re going to get a $55,000 wire transfer for my inheritance so we can live happily for the rest of our lives. Keep ten percent for yourself and transfer the rest to my account.”
For Victims, the Romance is Real
When there’s a level of intimacy like that, it can be hard for the victim to process what is happening. To them, they have a real relationship and have known this person for years. When law enforcement comes over and says they’re participating in fraud, they have a hard time believing it. They thought everything was perfectly legal.
It becomes very, very difficult … both physically and emotionally for a lot of victims to be able to process this stuff and the reality of what’s going on.Ronnie Tokazowski
Romance scam victims are trying to find someone for a relationship. They may be a widow or a divorcee. All humans want someone to love us, and they’re just trying to find that. Someone saying the right words in the right order sparks their emotions, and that’s what victims fall for. Ronnie talked with a victim two weeks ago who said that the person she was speaking with said all the right words, and since she was feeling so uplifted, she decided to go for it. The scammer knew exactly how to play to human emotions and manipulate her. And she felt like she was building a real relationship.
The Scripts for Nigerian Fraud
Scammers have a playbook for the best way to leverage human emotions and vulnerabilities. In Nigerian fraud, it’s called a “script” or “format.” It is a literal long body of text that the scammer can copy and paste to the victim. Ronnie has been able to collect some of these Nigerian fraud scripts over the years. Scripts for romance scams are designed to hit on nerves of people who are single, divorced, or widowed. In scripts for “pig butchering” scams, the documents actually have notes for how to play up the victim’s emotions.
We are seeing staggering losses to Nigerian fraud and other scams. There are victims in 177 countries, out of 195 in the world – that’s ninety percent of countries being targeted. And that’s just what’s reported. Not everyone who falls for a scam reports it. Every time Ronnie gives a talk, people come up to him and say, “I was a victim, thank you for talking about this.” He’s trying to push back against the stigma. Falling for a scam hurts financially, emotionally, and psychologically. But at the end of the day, we need to come together if we want to do anything about it.
The one thing that a lot of people need to understand is that while there is a lot of shame, while there is a lot of stigma around this, there are no problems coming up and speaking about it.Ronnie Tokazowski
Personal Experiences with Nigerian Fraud
Ronnie doesn’t know if he’s ever been a victim of Nigerian fraud or other scams. But he has had cases where he questioned his own actions. Because he does so much work with Nigerian fraud in Nigeria, there are cases where he sends money to people who are struggling. In one specific case, he sent money consistently for over two years.
When someone says they’re starving and they need help, that stirs up strong emotions. Nobody wants to feel responsible for not providing something for a person who needs help. But Ronnie has had times where he second-guessed if sending money was the right thing. In some cases, he’s had to cut off support. That inspired feelings of guilt and took a toll, even when it was because of outside circumstances. There’s lots of emotions at play.
Until we start understanding there’s a lot more than [emotions] at play for the victims, we’re not going to get ahead of this.Ronnie Tokazowski
When victims are entrenched, scammers play with their emotions. They may tell the victim that their significant other is in the hospital dying, or there’s a great business opportunity. The victim doesn’t want to be responsible for their significant other dying or they don’t want to miss the opportunity, so they send money.
Why There are Scammers in Nigeria
Nigerian fraud is such a problem because there are millions of Nigerians running scams. Some of that is for economic reasons. In Nigeria, the unemployment rate for people between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five is over fifty percent. Many people become scammers because their choices are scamming or starving. Ronnie has sent money to some of these scammers because he understands that many of these people wouldn’t be scammers if they had anoter option.
There are a lot more things at play here than just bad people doing bad things.Ronnie Tokazowski
Another aspect is societal stigma. In the US, we view scammers as bad people. But Nigerian fraud is just as legitimate an occupation to them as getting a job as a cashier or a janitor. Ronnie has talked to scammers who even justified it as reparations – they scam white people out of their money to make up for the injustices done to black people.
Another scammer Ronnie talked to shared his story. He was fifty years old and had lived a hard life. Besides Nigerian fraud, the only other way he had to make money was making shirts. He made the shirts from scratch, buying his own supplies and using his knowledge and skill to put them together. But he could only sell them for 500 Nigerian Naira – at the time, about $1.20 in US dollars. It was incredibly demoralizing putting so much time and effort into creating shirts that sold for only a little more than a dollar.
The Challenges of Preventing Nigerian Fraud
There are a lot of great things coming out of Nigeria and a lot of amazing things being built. But there is a lot of work that still needs to be invested to help build out and provide opportunities so people don’t have to resort to Nigerian fraud. And that remaining work provides many challenges.
Nigeria has a huge amount of nationalistic pride. If you’re Nigerian, you’re proud to be Nigerian. But because of that, there’s a sense of shame in asking for help. The government tries to do a lot of things on its own, but it needs outside investment to help it along. The problem is some countries turn investing in Nigeria into a double-edged sword. They put terms into the loan that if the country defaults, the project becomes property of another country. Lots of Chinese investments provided high-interest loans so the country could create infrastructure and set it up so if they defaulted, that infrastructure would be owned by the Chinese. It’s a complex geopolitical issue.
From a Western perspective, Ronnie has learned a lot about the complexities and intracacies of Nigeria. He had to put Western mindsets aside and start from scratch. He had to see historically what had happened, where certain things or people were taken advantage of, and how that plays into the modern issues. The Western mindset wants to come in and provide a simple fix, like giving everyone more education. But it’s a much more complex issue.
Human Trafficking in Nigerian Fraud
Some scammers choose scamming and Nigerian fraud because they want to. Some choose it because that’s the only way they can put food on the table. And some didn’t choose it at all. Especially with text scams, many scammers are human trafficking victims being held against their will. There are some cases where researchers have engaged with a scammer and the scammer’s captor found out and sent a video of the scammer being beaten.
Ronnie had an opportunity a few weeks ago to sit down with Nigerian and Ghanaian law enforcement. He learned that even in Nigerian fraud, there can be an aspect of human trafficking. A lot of boys trying to get into Nigerian fraud are trafficked from Nigeria to Ghana, put in call centers with terrible conditions, and held against their will to make money for their captors.
If these trafficking victims don’t meet their monthly scam quotas, they’re beaten. If they don’t do certain things, they’re starved and chained to beds. It’s horrible what happens on the other end to many of these scammers. Even though some people are scammers because they want to be or because of economic necessity, it’s a more complex issue than we realize.
Black Magic in Nigerian Fraud
In Nigeria, there are a lot of tribal religions, supernatural beliefs, and natural legends. They have a concept called “juju,” which is similar to a superstition. You might wear your lucky jersey so your team wins or put a penny in your shoe for good luck – it’s a similar concept.
If you’re involved in Nigerian fraud, you can go to a native doctor iand say that you want to acquire wealth or a certain belief or a skill. The doctor will do rituals to make sure you can acquire that. They believe that doing these rituals can help you go out and do better at scamming. It’s not a case where only a few fringe elements believe. It’s baked into their society.
One ritual can make someone a “Yahoo Boy Plus.” A Yahoo Boy is a person who commits Nigerian fraud. A Yahoo Boy Plus is someone who’s gone through a special ritual to give them additional powers and scamming ability. Part of this ritual is human sacrifice – they literally kill someone to become a better scammer. Because of this kind of cult activity, many people don’t want to talk about their experiences.
Unless you’re able to understand and get in the scammers’ heads, you’re not going to be able to make heads or tails of this.Ronnie Tokazowski
Many people are quick to discount these kinds of accounts, but you have to consider belief. Voodoo, juju, witch doctors, and black magic are strong and reasonable beliefs in their culture. Going back to the toolbox metaphor, the scammers feel like the rituals give them additional tools. They have a variety of scams in their toolbox, but now they also have magic that makes them more persuasive or protects them from harm.
How to Protect Your Business from Fraud
A great way to avoid falling victim to Nigerian fraud – or any fraud – is two-factor authentication. Some people say that’s too many factors, but it’s not. It’s extra security for your organization. Your people will be setting their own passwords, and people are often the weakest link. You want that one last protection after the password.
Humans may be the weakest link, but they can also be the strongest legs. Another thing you can do to protect your business from fraud is to educate your staff. Have a conversation and explain how the scams and fraud actually operate. Train them and empower them on what to spot. If someone sees something, thinks it looks fishy, and talks to someone else first, that’s great. Someone else can verify and the company doesn’t lose that money.
To defend against business email compromise specifically, have a process for wiring money. How many people have to sign off on it? Where does the money go before it’s sent? What is the process for making sure a vendor is real and not fake or a lookalike? These are things that people don’t account for, but they are easy wins.
How to Protect Yourself from Fraud
Romance scams especially are hard to defend against. Ronnie’s biggest tip is to understand your own emotions. When someone says they’re hurting and your instinct is to help, pause. It may be a case of emotional manipulation. Lots of victims share that they felt mentally abused, worn down, or psychologically hijacked. Be alert for those kinds of feelings and recognize that they’re not part of a legitimate, healthy relationship.
And as a final tip, if someone wants you to invest in cryptocurrency, don’t. There are a lot of cryptocurrency-related scams out there. Nobody wants to say no to a legitimate opportunity, but in the last year alone, victims lost over $3 billion dollars to crypto scams. There’s a sort of a gambler mindset that maybe you could make this money. But the chances are so high that it’s a scam. Don’t risk it.
I don’t want to say there’s no legit crypto opportunities, but we literally saw over $3 billion lost last year. Don’t invest in crypto.Ronnie Tokazowski
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