For a former ‘Yahoo Boy,’ romance is a cut-and-paste proposition
Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the Federal Trade Commission released its latest report on romance scams. Last year, it said some 70,000 people reported being on the receiving end of some lovelorn scheme and paid out something in the neighborhood of $1.3 billion. That’s as much as the previous five years combined.
Romance scams aren’t just about stealing money anymore. Scammers often follow a playbook that allows them to literally copy and paste their sweet nothings to multiple victims simultaneously while running other shady operations at the same time.
A new wrinkle is that scammers are now using their romance victims as accomplices – getting them to facilitate everything from check fraud to business email compromise schemes to money laundering.
Many of these schemes originate in Nigeria and are often the handiwork of people known as the Yahoo Boys. The name comes from their use of Yahoo email accounts – which are free – in a roster of lucrative scams. The Yahoo Boys are such a fixture in Nigerian society, there are actually rap songs about them.
The Click Here podcast interviewed a former Yahoo Boy who asked us to refer to him as “Tommy” because of the illegal nature of his work. He lives in Nigeria and told us he stopped scamming last year. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Click Here: So, we know how it works on the victim’s end, but how does it work on your end?
TOMMY: We have people we call vendors, they are normally based in Kenya and they are the money men, they work with the payments. When I ask a client to pay me, they receive the money, they control the accounts and give me a percentage.
CH: Were they good about paying you?
T: A lot of the time, we begged them to pay us. When it was a huge amount of money, most of them would run away with the money.
CH: How did you find these vendors to work for?
T: I’m in university so a friend introduced me and said it would help with school fees and food bills. He provided everything: the Twitter accounts that I should be using, all language and formats I will be using, even the pictures.
CH: So your friend at school gave you something like a romance scammer kit?
T: Yes, like a kit with notes that I can copy and paste to the people I’m talking to.
CH: And what kind of person would you be focusing on, how do you pick your targets?
T: Most of the time they’re like people who are working, like maybe a single mother… they fall for all this quickly because they want help… The vendors also help identify the targets, though I would usually look for the target myself.
CH: And once you identified someone, what is the story you’d tell them?
T: I’d find a photo of an older white man and make up a story. When they ask me what type of work I do, I’d say I’m in engineering or building construction, and that I have a company maybe in California or Texas. I told them that I will help them and I will send them like $2,000 but they will have to pay a $15 or $20 fee to get the money.
CH: How long would you be emailing and texting someone before you’d try to get them to send you money?
T: If they reply quickly, then maybe within the hour I’d ask them to send money. Once I see that they're not paying, I will let them go. Then I’ll look for another person.
CH: So, you didn’t waste time with lots of people?
T: Yes, yes.
CH: Do you ever call people or did you only email and text?
T: I don’t call people because once I call them they will know that my way of speaking is different… they will know I am from Africa. If they demand a phone call or a video, I pretend I am angry with them about doubting me and whether I am telling them the truth. Most of the time they beg me to come back and say they trust me again.
CH: So, you said you were in university, was this like an extra job?
T: Yeah. When I was scamming, I didn’t have time for another job. I would usually do it in the afternoon or at midnight. So when I scammed during the night, it would be hard for me to wake up in the morning.
CV: Did you scam people by yourself or were you in a room with other scammers?
T: Yes, I did it alone, but there were times I’d ask a friend for help to guide me through scamming because they know more about it. He sent me a lot of the formats I’d be using to go after people to start a conversation. I could copy and paste these into messages to potential targets.
CH: Were you so convincing that these people wanted to meet you?
T: Yes, there was one client like that. When we were talking, they did not know I was a scammer. They told me they wanted to be together and get married. It was hard for me to accept but I was a fake. So, I let her go.
CH: And did it make you feel bad or did you just feel that this was a job?
T: Most of the time I felt bad. There was a time when I met one lady online. I told her to pay me $25 so that I could then wire some money back to help her. She said she only had $15, so I just asked her to pay that. When she realized I wasn’t going to help her like I promised, she started crying. That was the worst day when I was scamming.
CH: You said you regret doing the work. Why did you stop?
T: My brother told me to stop it and I believed what I was doing was wrong. Karma is real, and I don't want to hurt other people anymore. I also want to live a good life. That's why I stopped.
CH: How is life for you now that you’re not scamming?
T: I’m safe here in Nigeria, but I don’t have my own apartment. I am living with a friend who’s into scamming, but I’m saving up for my own place. I graduated from college last year. I’m trying to find a job. It is very hard to get work in Nigeria without any connections. That’s why most people go into this scamming work. I wanted to be a soldier, but I don’t have the connections I need to do that.
Dina Temple-Raston is the host and executive producer of the Click Here podcast as well as a senior correspondent at Recorded Future News. She previously served on NPR’s Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology, and social justice and hosted and created the award-winning Audible Podcast “What Were You Thinking.”