Internet Scamming in Ghana

it’s Thomas. We’re in Ghana, the internet
capital of Africa. If you ever wonder what happens
to computers that you donate to one of those green
e-recycling programs, this is basically it. Kids from the north of Ghana
come to this junkyard during the summer to break computers
down for scrap and also inhale things that will probably end
up giving them cancer of the everything. THOMAS MORTON: Most of the
computers are only worth the dollar or two of copper you
can melt out of them. But occasionally you harvest
something useful, like a hard drive or a processor, which
you can sell at the little flea market area next to
the charnel grounds. THOMAS MORTON: Ah, OK. If you’re an especially savvy
shopper, you can actually put together a full working computer
here, one ready to connect you to the fastest
internet in all of Africa. [MUSIC PLAYING] THOMAS MORTON: Ghana puts a
lot of stock in computers. Their internet is directly
linked to Great Britain’s, and they are billboards all over
the capital, extolling the virtues of personal computing. Ghana already is sort of the top
dog of West Africa, where most of its neighbors have
been plagued by war and poverty since independence,
Ghana’s had almost 50 years of stability and growth. Right now they’re hoping
foreign investment will bolster a computer industry
here, which will permanently make them the tech capital
of West Africa. So far it hasn’t quite
materialized, but what has materialized is a thriving
underground economy of fraud and witchcraft called Sakawa. [MUSIC PLAYING] [MUSIC PLAYING] THOMAS MORTON: Sakawa dates back
to Nigeria’s oil boom in the late ’70s. Ghanaians came into the country
to take jobs in the oil fields, and the locals
taught them their favorite pastime, the pen-pal scam. The way it works is you write
to someone in America or England, tell them about an
investment opportunity you have, or just straight up ask
them for money, and they send it to you, and that’s
it– scam over. Eventually the Nigerian
government deported all the Ghanaian guest workers back
home, and they brought the pen-pal scam with them. Then they combined
it with magic. THOMAS MORTON: As the internet
took hold in Ghana, the pen-pal scam was adapted
to email. Then scammers started hooking
up with hackers online and incorporating things like credit
card fraud into their scams, which became increasingly complex and lucrative. We kind of like the idea of
making a living off the back American stupidity, so we hooked
up with a Sakawa gang, led by a young Ghanaian
named Sefa. THOMAS MORTON: And now the
term just gets used– THOMAS MORTON: –for
everything. THOMAS MORTON: Sefa’s a
Sakawa success story. He’s used his old scam earnings
to pay for business school and has made a nice
living for himself by Ghanaian standards, although he still has
to cross a stream of urine every night to get
into his house. Sakawa comprises any number of
online scams, but the majority boil down to two basic types. One, you pretend you’re a sexy
girl, convince someone to fall in love with you, and then
they send you money. This is called the
romance scam. The other one is, you use a
stolen or forged credit card number to buy something
online. Then you have it shipped to
someone in the West who sends you money for it. That one’s called the
shopping scam. These two scams sort of
work like templates. Once you nail down the basics
of them, you can start combining them and adding all
sorts of personalized details until your mark feels like he’s
in the middle of some elaborate international business
scheme and not just emailing back and forth with
an African kid on a laptop. The thing with Sakawa is while
it’s essentially free money, it isn’t easy money. To find someone gullible
enough to fall for your shtick, you have to spend
hours and hours emailing hundreds and thousands
of random addresses. THOMAS MORTON: In America,
frustrated gamblers will kiss a lucky penny or pray to Saint
Bernardino for help. Likewise, frustrated Sakawa
boys turn to religion when they’re down on their luck. Only in their case, turning to
religion means driving out into the bush and paying
a juju priest for magic email powers. [DRUMMING] THOMAS MORTON: I’m definitely
in Africa right now. Juju is the local term for what
fancy anthropology types call traditional African
religion. In the same way that Hinduism
is actually more or less a collection of thousands of local
deities and rituals, juju is basically an umbrella
for any West African religious practice that isn’t obviously
Christianity or Islam– or Scientology. One aspect central to all forms
of juju is that the spirit world is morally
neutral. As in the gods don’t give a shit
what you and I do to each other as long as
they get paid. This makes juju perfect
for Sakawa. If you want a leg up on the
competition, you get a juju priest to barter with the
spirits, and then they give you powers. So the point of the juju
ceremony we’re dancing in isn’t to win converts or
teach some sort of a lesson like in church. It’s to demonstrate the priests
ins with the spirit world and advertise
his powers. Powers like channeling a god
who can’t be cut by knifes. Or channeling another god,
who likes throwing eggs. Why is he throwing eggs? THOMAS MORTON: Why, why
does he throw them? THOMAS MORTON: Oh. Waste of powers. The flip side to all this is
once you make a deal with the gods, you’re bound
to their terms. If you piss them off or default
on payment to your juju priest, you end up with the
opposite of powers, like bad luck or AIDS. On top of that the payment
process itself can be pretty tricky. THOMAS MORTON: Westerners may
find stuff like magic eggs and tampon eating a little hard to
swallow, but it’s serious business over here. And not just with like
superstitious bumpkins. Even educated, cosmopolitan
folks like Sefa believe in this. THOMAS MORTON: Besides, is of
any of this really that much weirder than shit like communion
or circumcisions? [CRYING] THOMAS MORTON: That part
was a little rough. [MUSIC PLAYING] THOMAS MORTON: While Sakawa
originally referred to a very specific type of internet fraud
mixed with juju, then it went on to mean any internet
crime involving witchcraft, and now it’s kind of evolved
into its own full-blown subculture. So there’s Sakawa music, Sakawa
movies, Sakawa cars, a Sakawa style of dressing. THOMAS MORTON: Right now Ghana’s
in the throes of Sakawa mania. It’s in all the papers
and movie theaters. It’s bigger than rap. I’m looking for Sakawa movies. Oh, cool, here’s number three. If you want a glimpse at just
how deeply Sakawa’s penetrated the public consciousness,
check this out. They’re already up to “Sakawa
Boys 8,” and the series just started last year. We’re on our way to meet a guy
who makes films about Sakawa. His name is Socrate Safo. He’s actually like the Martin
Scorsese of Ghanaian internet, fraud-based, gangster films. The Ghanaian film industry, or
Ghallywood, operates on kind of a “more is more” principle
of movie making. They crank out hundreds of
titles a year, most of them shot on zero budget in as
quickly as a couple weeks from start to finish. This speed doesn’t do much for
production values, but it does allow them to respond to current
events and to cater their subject matter to their
countrymen’s exact interest. THOMAS MORTON: Realistic. Things drawn from real life. -Ain’t you got nothing
better to do? You asked for it. [LAUGHTER] THOMAS MORTON: Socrate’s movie
touched a nerve in national psyche and brought the issue of
Sakawa to life for a lot of Ghanaians who otherwise wouldn’t
have heard of it. [MUSIC PLAYING] THOMAS MORTON: Since being
thrust into the mainstream, though, Sakawa has drawn a huge
outcry from government officials, tabloids, and
Christian preachers, whose billboards in Accra are almost
as ubiquitous as ads for computer classes and
juju priests. THOMAS MORTON: While the furor
over Sakawa dominates the tabloids and pulpits, the focus
is all on black magic and blood debts and Sakawa boys
turning each other into goats and snakes. None of it tackles the root of
the problem, the fact that over a third of young Ghanaians
are unemployed, and what jobs there are are filled
by corrupt government officials and their cousins. THOMAS MORTON: Up until now
the government’s been more than happy to turn a blind eye
to Sakawa since it’s basically providing regular work for
people that they can’t. There are also persistent rumors
that Sakawa isn’t just limited to gangs of teenage
delinquents, but is actually a popular sideline among
policemen, soldiers and politicians. THOMAS MORTON: Now that’s
Sakawa’s threatening Ghana’s business reputation, the
government’s cracking down. And them and the press have
started a moral panic over it. Just like gangsta rappers in
the early ’90s, Sakawa boys have gone from objects of sort
of cultural fascination to scapegoats for all their
country’s ills. [MUSIC PLAYING] THOMAS MORTON: The end of Sakawa
may not necessarily bring juju Armageddon to Ghana,
but it will leave a bunch of angry young men without
any source of steady income, which is arguably
even scarier. On a lighter note, Ghana just
discovered oil off its shore, so maybe that’ll solve
all their problems. [MUSIC PLAYING]


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