Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Yahoo boys keep Lagos cyber cafe's alive

After a few false starts, Azubuike Ejiogu finally retired from cyber fraud; but not before making sure that his last scam paid a handsome pension of $12,500. With the money, the 32-year-old 2002 Chemistry graduate of Imo State University decided to become a legitimate entrepreneur. He bought a struggling cyber cafe off its relieved owner at Okokomaiko, a suburb of Lagos, and plunged into business.

"My siblings were all against my decision because they were arguing that cyber cafe business is no longer lucrative," he said. "But I told them to just watch me and see how things will be. I have practically been living in cyber cafes, from Owerri to Lagos, for over five years, and I think I know how to run one profitably. I know what to do."

His siblings were justifiably concerned, considering the dearth of the cyber cafe industry in Lagos. A snap survey conducted in selected areas of the metropolis revealed that a lot of cyber cafes were closing shop, while most barely hung on by offering skeletal services.

The vanishing cafes

The proliferation of smart phones, cheaper laptops and Internet packages from telecom companies, bandwidth problems, diesel costs, and maintenance costs are some of the reasons that owners attributed to the death of some of these cyber cafes in Lagos.

"My biggest problem was power," said Onyeka Nwelue, who recently closed her cyber cafe at Surulere. "Every day you buy at least N2000 (worth of) diesel, and maybe only six people will come in that day and spend an hour each. At times, I couldn't even make N10,000 in a week."

Despite the gloomy outlook, Mr Ejiogu remains confident because he has an ace up his sleeve. "I am going to call all my friends who are ‘Yahoo boys' to come and start patronising me because I will offer them security, and they will be comfortable operating in my cafe," he said. "Already, eight of them have promised to be coming all the way from Igando to that place to work. Of course people like students coming to apply for exams, and (job) applicants will also be there."

‘They keep us alive'

His enthusiasm of retaining scammers on top of his clientele list underscores the fact that Internet fraudsters, popularly known as Yahoo boys in local parlance, have kept a significant percentage of Lagos cyber cafes alive with their patronage.

Most of the cyber operators were reluctant to admit that the scammers constituted the greater part of their clientele. However, Okechukwu Obiwuru, a Surulere-based cyber cafe manager, admitted that he frequently toys with the idea of closing shop, "If not for the fact that there are four boys who usually buy bulk time (flat monthly subscription), and at times I just start the generator for them when I consider how much they have paid for that month," he said.

The owner of another Surulere-based cyber cafe, which closed shop early this year, and who gave his name as Olatunji, acknowledged that the ‘Yahoo boys' were his major customers before he closed shop. "Apart from during exam periods, when students will be coming to fill (online) forms, or when people come to apply for (American visa) lottery, the business is dry, and it is only those boys that will be coming," he said. "But after police raided my place, most of them stopped, and even me, I got tired of the business."

Long arm of the law

The Deputy Head of the Cyber Crime Unit of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) Lagos Office, Chukwunonso Okoro, stated that the anti-graft agency was constantly revising its strategy in its effort to rid our nation of the scammers. He also confirmed that the intermittent raids on cyber cafes have scared away fraudsters from Lagos cyber cafes.

"To catch a thief, you must be a thief, so we are continuously undergoing training and retraining on the new methods and the workings of the minds of these fraudsters," he said during a Crime Prevention Summit organised by The African Youth Initiative on Crime Prevention at the University of Lagos, last November.

"We are also collaborating with ISPs (Internet Service Providers) who must now register with EFCC before operating. When we identify IP addresses that were used in Internet crimes, we block it if it is a Nigerian address; if it is foreign, we write to the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) and they block it. Various specialised units have been set up in the EFCC to deal with the various new forms of cyber crime. We also ensure that money recovered from the fraudsters is given back to the victims."

If this information fazes Mr Ejiogu, he doesn't show it. He has swiftly swung into action to revive his cyber cafe by giving the place a face-lift and hiring two workers. "I know it won't be easy because even some of those my friends are buying laptops and avoiding cyber cafes, but I am optimistic that it will work because I will also do stuff like photocopies and scanning of documents," he said. "All I know is that I won't join those people looking for work."

(This article was first published in NEXTonSunday).