September 19, 2013
SOUTHWEST REGION, CAMEROON – In a quiet quarter of a town in Cameroon’s Southwest region, a tall man steps out of his shiny, late-model Jeep. He has a gentle, friendly manner and a genuine and flirtatious smile. He stops to greet friends as he makes his way to the meeting spot, an off-license bar.
There is nothing in his neat and conservative dress, down-to-earth attitude, or ever-present good-guy smile that indicates this soft-spoken man has been at the heart of scams worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in half a dozen countries.
The 36-year-old man is an international con artist. He engages in a scamming practice locally known as 419 (4-1-9). Out of concern for his security, he has declined to publish his name.
He has bilked people of more than a million dollars in all of his deals around the world, he says.
“I have lived in China, Thailand, Dubai, Qatar, Uzbekistan and Cameroon, of course,” he says, flashing his cheerful smile.
He came from a poor family and was the first of his relatives to travel abroad to seek economic advancement, he says. His father is a farmer, and his mother is a petty trader. In an act of great hope and sacrifice, they borrowed 2 million Central African francs ($4,125) to send their son to China to teach English with the expectation that he would earn money, make them proud and lift the family out of poverty.
He was excited about the opportunity to make his own money and to help his family, he says. He had progressed far with his education but not far enough to get into a university in Cameroon. At age 26 and with no other prospects at home, he secured a short-term visa in 2003 and prepared to leave Cameroon to find his fortune.
He had no inkling that he was about to become a 419 criminal.
Fraudulent schemes targeting foreigners have become a large problem in Cameroon, according to an alert from the U.S. Embassy in Cameroon.
Advance fee frauds are scams in which con artists ask their marks to pay small monetary amounts up front in return for the promise of greater rewards – financial, romantic or professional – in the near future. Advance fee frauds that originate in West Africa are popularly known as Nigerian email scams or 419, named for the relevant section of Nigeria’s criminal code, because of their roots in Nigeria. They have now spread to many other countries, according to a 2007 report on the phenomenon from the U.S. Department of State.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S.-based research and policy organization, released a report in July 2013 in conjunction with Internet security company McAfee that estimated the total losses from global cybercrime to be between $300 billion and $1 trillion per year.
When the 36-year-old 419 scammer made the decision to go to China, he knew nothing about traveling, visa types, working abroad – or advance fee fraud, he says. He assumed he would immediately find work as an English teacher, and he left Cameroon with the wrong type of visa, not knowing there would be high fees in China to correct the problem in order to work legally.
“I got into China with just $50 as pocket allowance,” he says. “Fifty dollars was not even enough to buy my immediate needs.”
After arriving in Guangzhou, the largest city in southern China, he met up with his only contact in the country, the brother of a friend from Cameroon, he says. The friend turned out to be part of a group of professional 419 con men from Cameroon and Nigeria. His new friends had not seen food for two days, so they scooped him up, took his $50, bought food for the house, and offered him a place to stay.
On that first day, they started telling him about 419, and he could not believe he had linked up with criminals, he says. When he had been in Cameroon, he had never known any 419 scammers personally and saw them as bad people with no conscience and no heart. He never thought he would live within one meter of a scammer.
“At first I was tensed and then scared and then disappointed,” he says, “and finally, I prayed for them as I laid my head on the bed on that first night. Little did I know that I will become just as professional as they were.”
When he told them he had come to teach English in China, they laughed at him and asked how many years it would take him to scrape together enough money with his meager teacher’s salary to go home and build a house.
His new acquaintances also tried to sell him on the philosophical merits of 419. In his retelling, the conversation was quick and persuasive.
“When the White man came to Africa, they took our land, our women, our strong men, our wealth – is that not scamming?” he says one of the men asked him. “It is payback time, my dear. Join us so that we play this game together. It is only a game.”
He asked the man what the Chinese had taken from Africa, he says. His new friend responded that the Chinese and the White men were all the same people.
He was already in a tight spot, he says. He had a three-month visa from the Chinese embassy in Cameroon, but the three months had begun the day the embassy had issued it, not the day he arrived in China. So his visa was already nearly expired, and he could neither get a job nor afford to buy a visa extension or a flight home.
He also worried about paying back the loan his parents had taken out for his trip, he says. If he could not repay the loan, he imagined they would be disappointed and would have heart attacks. To save them pain, he wanted to handle the situation on his own so they would never know he had had trouble.
With these pressures mounting, he felt he had no option but to jump into 419, he says. He had already been learning how his housemates were doing their deals.
Today, his career as a professional and international 419 scammer – or “wise man,” as practitioners call themselves locally – has been full of ups and downs, he says.
“My journey as an international wise man has been rough, interesting, regretful, but yet hard to quit,” he says. “It pays off really well. That is why it is hard to say quit.”
He spends more than half of his day on the Internet in his apartment, he says. He subscribes to various dating websites such as Date in Asia, where he purchases premium or gold subscriptions.
“Ladies take seriously members with top-level subscriptions,” he says. “I always have my ready capital to do my job well.”
He spends his workday sending love messages to rich women older than 40 who are looking for men online, he says. He sets up profiles creating multiple identities for himself and using different photographs.
Once, he began an online love affair with an older Chinese woman, using the identity and photograph of a top American academic, whose name he declined to share. Soon, she fell in love with him, and they were exchanging messages regularly and having sexy chats.
One day, he told the woman he would be traveling to London for a serious matter, he says. He chose London for the purported academic’s trip because he knew how to make a call from his phone appear to come from a U.K. dialing code, adding further credence to his ruse.
A few days later, the Chinese woman sent him a message expressing her excitement that she had seen him on CNN presiding over a meeting in England. That was a juicy coincidence, he says. He had not known that the American was actually going to be at a conference in England.
At this moment, he knew that this scam was about to be fruitful, he says. Immediately, he seized the opportunity and called the woman, using the U.K. dialing code and an American accent. The woman trusted him from that day forward.
A few months later, he told her he wanted to set up a factory in China and wanted her to oversee the venture for him. Eventually, he sent an associate to relieve the woman of more than $40,000, which she willingly parted with, thinking it was part of the business deal. He could not go himself because she believed he was a White American.
“I took $42,000 from this woman,” he says, laughing his friendly laugh. “I finally cut the conversation with her when I realized she was asking too many questions.”
This scam was a normal operation for him, he says. The people he targets are mainly older women looking for love on dating websites.
“In China alone, I took over $400,000 from my female clients,” he says.
When he is not conning women on dating sites, his other standby scam is “footing.” He approaches a business owner and claims that he or his father got hold of a large amount of money on its way to an area where the United Nations is conducting an intervention. To protect the cash, the United Nations ships it partially minted, and it must undergo a chemical process at its destination in order to be usable.
He provides a case of fake bills with a layer of real bills sitting on top. He blackens them all in order to look like unfinished bills. He then uses a compound made of vitamin C and water to clean the top bills in front of his target, making them appear legitimate. After, he and his mark make a purchase at a store, where the employee checks the bills and deems them to be genuine. With the target convinced, he proposes a deal.
He offers to sell his mark the purported cleaning chemical and half of the unwashed bills in the case, he says. He then leaves the person with the counterfeit bills and takes his original dollars plus those he has received as payment. He successfully ran these scams in several large cities in China, including Guangzhou, Dongguan, Shenzhen and Beijing.
But when the Chinese media began educating the public about 419 scams, more Cameroonians ended up in Chinese prisons for their crimes, he says. He packed his bags and was off to Thailand.
“In Thailand, I continued with my activities and took about $180,000,” he says. “I left Thailand when one of my clients started threatening me.”
He continued on to Dubai, Qatar and Uzbekistan, keeping up his 419 hustling, he says.
He has cars, houses and legitimate businesses to his name in Cameroon, all which 419 has funded, he says. He pays school fees for family members and provides for his parents’ day-to-day needs. He has long since repaid the loan they took out to send him to China.
His family members do not know that he is a scammer, he says. They believe that he works odd jobs to make money.
A police officer in another part of Cameroon’s Southwest region agreed to speak about 419 off the record since he was not authorized by the delegate general to give interviews. The police work hard to track down Cameroon-based scammers, he says.
“We usually go for their arrest whenever we get information about them,” he says.
When police arrest 419 scammers, often they will confess their scamming activities in order to offer bribes, the officer says. When officials refuse the bribes and take the culprits to the state counsel, the scammers plead not guilty. The law takes its course if the state counsel finds them to be guilty.
“If a scammer is caught with all necessary proof, he is prosecuted according to the prescription of the law,” he says.
But there is usually little tangible evidence to prove otherwise because scammers work online.
“Unfortunately, at the level of the state counsel, they are being released because there is no valid proof,” he says.
As for Cameroonian scammers abroad, they are hard to track because they are far away from home, the officer says. He calls for forces of law and order in the countries where Cameroonian scammers operate to track them down and to punish them accordingly.
Cameroonian residents say they have seen scammers at work in Internet cafes and even have been targets.
Diana Mantohbang, an employee at a nonprofit organization in Bamenda, the capital of the Northwest region, says that young Cameroonian scammers often carry out their deals at the cybercafe next to her office. She overhears them making telephone calls to their international targets using fake accents and attempting to sell puppies or parrots – another variation of advance fee fraud.
Mantohbang believes she was once the target of one of these scams, she says. She got a call from someone claiming to be her friend Chibikom from the United Kingdom. The man told her he was shipping goods to her through the seaport in Douala, the capital of Cameroon’s Littoral region, and asked her to send money to the clearing agent there.
“I have a Chibikom friend in the U.K. actually,” she says, “but the voice sounded differently. Can you imagine?”
She called her friend and confirmed that he had not been the one to call her.
As the 36-year-old 419 scammer in the Southwest region looks back on his career so far, he has mixed feelings, he says. On one hand, he was successful in business and has evaded the law.
But on the other hand, his success came from taking people’s life earnings and probably the savings of others in cases in which his clients had taken loans from banks or had borrowed money from friends, he says. The practice can also be risky for scammers.
“I cannot count how many of my friends who were jailed in China and Thailand,” he says. “I also think of a handful who disappeared while handling a deal with their clients. I am sure they were killed by their clients because I haven’t heard from them in years.”
But he has never allowed the risks or regret to cloud his thoughts because his business would fail if he did, he says. Still, he does not recommend 419 as a career.
“I will not advise anyone to get into it,” he says.
Now, his own scamming days are ending. He plans to retire from 419 this year.
“It is time to quit the dirty business,” he says, laughing his friendly laugh.