By Issa Sikiti da Silva, in Cotonou, Benin
Internet cafés in the West African nation of Benin appear to be fast becoming ‘command centres’ for online scammers who operate there freely without anyone, including cops and owners, lifting a finger, a Biztechafrica investigation has recently found.
As early as 7am, young men swarm these ICT centres and start their ‘dirty business’, which includes sending 419 scam emails to unsuspecting people and sending Facebook friend requests using fake accounts, among others.
One internet café owner in the commercial capital Cotonou denies collaborating with these scammers. She said: “Why would people say that we are collaborating with them? Frankly, I don’t know what these people do with their time, but one thing is for sure they buy a lot of time and are among our trusted customers. I’m not a cop so I can’t arrest them.”
One young scammer, identified only as Victor (24), told Biztechafrica: “We like this place because the owner does not interfere with our work even though she knows who we are. A man has got what he has got to do to make a living,” he said in broken English.
Benin’s proximity with Nigeria – about two hours drive between Cotonou and Lagos if the traffic is smooth – makes it a top target for cybercrime, as many believe that Nigeria is Africa’s cradle for online scam. Many Benin online scammers, like Victor, are thought to have been trained in Nigeria.
ICT teacher Fidele Adjovi said: “Online scam is no longer the specialty of Nigerians, it has long been exported to other African countries by the people who learnt the ropes in Nigeria or from Nigerians living abroad.”
Cops used to patrol some of these internet cafés, but they are no longer coming, one internet user, Paul Ahoussou, told Biztechafrica.
Benin Police were not available for comment, but one cop who was not authorised to speak to the media said he and his colleague were still conducting undercover patrols at internet cafés. “These guys have done a lot of damage here in Benin. But one day is one day, we’ll catch them red-handed.”
Online scammers have developed sophisticated methods over the past years, including sending ‘spies’ to stroll at internet cafés in the hope of memorising people’s email addresses and Facebook usernames.
“This method helps us a lot in the sense that we send as many emails and FB requests as posible, and who knows some may check them right away, and perhaps come on board,” an online scammer told Biztechafrica in the capital city Porto Novo.