Sareeta Amrute, Kamela Heyward-Rotimi
Kamela Heyward-Rotimi is a practicing anthropologist whose work reflects her commitment to actualizing theory into practice. Executive director and founder of the international Knowledge Exchange Research Group (KERG), she holds affiliations with the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, and the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile Ife, Nigeria. Her scholarship, which addresses the intersection of race, science, and digital media/technology, examines racialized communities' use of digitized communication mediums to negotiate transnational social, economic, and political injustice. Winner of the California Series in Public Anthropology Book Award, she is completing a manuscript that explores Nigerian youths' appropriation of new media technologies in the advance-fee online scam 419, also known as Yahoo-Yahoo, and its impact on the Nigerian national identity. The book is tentatively titled 'Yahoo-Yahoo': Online Scams and Their Impact on the Nigerian Community.
In this, our third installment of the forum, Heyward-Rotimi takes us into Nigeria's epic battles around Yahoo-Yahoo or 419 scams. We get a subaltern view of what it means to partake in scams that require sophisticated acts of watching "from below." Heyward-Rotimi explains the intergenerational conflicts that occur around the practices of scamming, pointing out that such scams have a long history in the figure of the trickster—even while many Nigerians resent the 419 scam's association with Nigeria, when it is actually a widespread kind of economic activity. Heyward-Rotimi unpacks the financial precarity that motivates these efforts at watching and intervening in global communications and capital flows, and the uneven access that this activity engenders.
Sareeta Amrute: What is Yahoo-Yahoo? Can you tell us about this term and what it signifies locally?
Kamela Heyward-Rotimi: Yahoo-Yahoo, also known as 419, is the act of committing advance-fee fraud. This online extralegal act targets both foreigners and Nigerian nationals. The linguistic origins and the changing mediums of advance-fee fraud in Nigeria are interesting. Confidence scams have been found throughout the world from time immemorial. In Nigeria, some of the earliest confidence scams date back to the early 20th century and were known by many different names—the Nigerian letter, the game, wayo trickster. The current name, 419, was taken from the 419 code of the Nigerian penal law passed in 1995 addressing fraudulent activities; Yahoo-Yahoo came from the Yahoo search engine, which was the primary search engine in Nigeria during the late '90s . One main difference between the earlier scams and Yahoo-Yahoo is digital platforms—or, as a former cybercafé owner in Nigeria told me, Yahoo-Yahoo is the updated version of fax scams. Outside of Nigeria and in other parts of the world, the act of Yahoo-Yahoo is largely known as 419 scams. Generally, Yahoo-Yahoo and 419 are interchangeable, and both refer to the online advance-fee scams.
With so many different understandings of Yahoo-Yahoo coming largely from depictions in popular media, and with most studies looking at the criminal aspect and prevention of Yahoo scams, it is important to clarify that I am focusing on the societal impact of Yahoo-Yahoo on Nigeria and Nigerians. I want to provide definitions for Yahoo-Yahoo the virtual scam, the Yahoo boys and girls, and the Nigerian citizens affected by Yahoo-Yahoo. I use Yahoo-Yahoo and Yahoo interchangeably when referring to this act of advance-fee fraud.
In practice, there are differences between Yahoo-Yahoo and 419. The Yahoo-Yahoo scam, specifically online advance-fee scams, is a virtual request via email whereby the Yahoo boy or girl convinces the scammed, or maga, to make advance payments through money transfers, wiring money to the Yahoo boys and girls. Maga is Yoruba slang for a person regarded as stupid or foolish for being scammed; mugu is more frequently used by Igbo-speaking people to refer to 419 or Yahoo scam victims. The scams that request people, both Nigerians and foreigners, to present money for fictional goods and deals that the fraudster has no intention of delivering are called 419. The scammed are hooked by the promise of having to make only a small investment for a considerable profit, or the development of a romantic relationship—sometimes both; an unfolding story of unexpected delays and unforeseen tragedies prevents the goods from arriving on time. Because email correspondence and chats are digital exchanges defined by anonymity, most Westerners view 419 as a disembodied criminal email. In exchange for the advance fee, the Yahoo boy or girl promises the maga or mugu nonexistent goods or deals such as fraudulent land purchases in Nigeria, money transfers, or romantic relationships. At different points in the shady deal, the Yahoo boy or girl requests money to get out of purported unforeseen emergencies or to purchase a ticket to meet up with the mark.
Before proceeding, it is important to redress the popular understanding of Yahoo scams as being solely executed by Nigerians—they aren't. Additionally, Yahoo scams carried out by major Yahoo crime syndicates are a worldwide enterprise, with scammers from various nations posing as Nigerians or acting as accomplices. A 2017 New York Times article by Christian Caron reported the arrest of 67-year-old native Louisianan Michael Neu. He was charged as an accomplice in money laundering and wire fraud in the Nigerian Prince Scheme . There are also examples of low-level scams, discussed later, originating from Russia, Indonesia, and the U.S. In a listing of the top 10 countries from which cybercrime originates, Russia is at the top while Nigeria ranks sixth . Yet Nigeria is often profiled as a scam nation, marking the whole country.
My ethnography focuses on Yahoo boys and girls, whom I refer to as low-level scammers, those operating outside of Yahoo scam crime syndicates' corporatized organization. These Yahoo boys and girls are everyday citizens, generally Nigerian youth between the ages of 15 and 29, from different parts of the country . Unlike low-level Yahoo scammers, members of the crime syndicates are career criminals, executing massive scams in groups known as Nigerian confraternities or cultish gangs . Also known as the big boys, they deal in fraudulent activities like email scams, black money, and credit card theft.
The low-level Yahoo boys and girls execute scams that reach individuals. They circulate their fraudulent solicitations on social media platforms and through emails. Unlike the organized crime syndicates or even the small and midrange gangs, low-level Yahoo boys do not join an organized cartel but rather work independently. Primarily, Yahoo boys join informal networks of fellow Yahoo boys, who share information about scam formats and how to do them. In these networks, many Yahoo boys concentrate on sharing formats (scam scripts) and how to navigate different firewalls on social media platforms. Because young women and girls must deal with the suspicion of prostitution when participating in Yahoo-Yahoo, and because it is male-dominated, many Yahoo girls steer away from the Yahoo boy networks and work independently, discreetly sharing formats with some Yahoo boys and girls. It is the goal of Yahoo boys and some Yahoo girls to hack the system that many recognize as spaces that block Nigerians. Some Yahoo boys and girls think it is their right to hack platforms and users based in nations profiting from unfair neocolonial and neoliberal globalization contracts with Nigeria, resulting in a country that cannot provide jobs. What is seldom known is that since the heyday of Yahoo-Yahoo (the early 2000s), the majority of the low-level Yahoo boys' and girls' scams scarcely yield substantial money or goods. It is a game of chance, with most not gaining much. Despite this reality, some Nigerian youth resort to Yahoo, many in response to a failing economy.
It is important to redress the popular understanding of Yahoo scams as being solely executed by Nigerians—they aren't.
It is important to understand the essential economic and political conditions that lay the foundation for some young people to practice Yahoo-Yahoo. Nigerian youths' unfortunate birthright of financial instability and a weakened infrastructure can be traced back to lengthy economic dependency on Western policies, government instability, and corruption. A depressed employment market resulting from government corruption and globalized neoliberal policies creates conditions that result in some youth delving into Yahoo-Yahoo. Yahoo-Yahoo recruits have changed over the decades, but the consistent draw of recruits remains unchanged because of the endless cycle of youth unemployment. Yahoo-Yahoo is often the last resort for some secondary school graduates and college students unable to find jobs in the formal sector.
While scholarly and popular works that focus on 419 scams and Yahoo-Yahoo center criminality and financial loss, I explore this extralegal activity within the context of larger structural conditions, including globalization, underdevelopment, corruption, and youth unemployment. For example, obscured, albeit because of the scams' illegal nature, is the misguided agency of the youth doing Yahoo-Yahoo for money. Also central to the larger discussion is understanding how the global response to this extralegal activity negatively affects Nigerians on local, national, and global levels. Toward this end, one of the questions posed in my research is: Why do Nigerian youth become involved in these scams? Their overwhelming response: because of the depressed economy. The Yahoo boys and girls turn to the Internet as a wishful stream of revenue because they view themselves as fulfilling their rights as netizens, traveling online networks searching for money and goods to fend off unemployment and underemployment.
The Yahoo-Yahoo story should not just be about the Yahoo boys and girls and the act of Yahoo-Yahoo. It involves the Nigerian communities and the nation. Thus, it is imperative to explore how Yahoo-Yahoo, directly and indirectly, affects Yahoo boys and girls, Nigerian nationals, and the Nigerian government. The instability caused by unemployment and global economic disjuncture creates an environment where some Nigerian youth consider work in the informal economy, sometimes in extralegal activity. Community members hold the youth responsible for becoming involved in scam activity, yet they still charge the government with failing to provide work for Nigeria's younger citizens.
Nigerians are engaged in an epic battle with Yahoo-Yahoo, an intergenerational conflict that is a national scourge.
SA: In your book, you point out that the 419 scams take on many different meanings as they move through Nigerian political, legal, and cultural spheres. Can you explain some of these meanings for us?
KH-R: When I initially ask people in the U.S. about 419, most do not know it as Yahoo-Yahoo. Many people have a minimal understanding of the act, with much of their 419 lessons coming from pop culture. In the West, Yahoo or 419 is a one-dimensional, minimally understood caricature. Big tech companies focus on Yahoo as a threat, developing surveillance and firewalls for various industries (for example, banking, insurance, clothing retailers) to protect their sensitive information and products against major international Yahoo crime syndicates operating within underground economies. Academic analyses, popular books, and media (television shows, news reports) concentrate on 419/Yahoo-Yahoo scams and the Nigerian scammers. Nollywood movies produced by the Nigerian movie industry both valorize and vilify Yahoo boys and girls. American sitcom writers use online Yahoo scams featuring a Nigerian prince requesting investment money as shorthand for fraud. In these depictions, Westerners are cast as innocents preyed upon by the bad Nigerian Yahoo boys and girls.
My extended time studying Yahoo-Yahoo in southwestern Nigeria (2010–2013) demonstrates that Yahoo-Yahoo is a larger cultural phenomenon with people and communities attached to it. Yahoo-Yahoo takes on different meanings intergenerationally, and in relation to policy, nationally and internationally. There is recognized-as-illegal scamming, and then there are the many spheres that intersect with it. The official federal response to Yahoo-Yahoo is to create legislation to surveil and punish those involved, and ultimately curtail Nigerians' involvement in Yahoo-Yahoo scams. This legislation is not solely in response to international corporations' and governments' losses to such scams; it is also in response to the financial losses of Nigerian government agencies and Nigerian corporations, businesses, and individuals. These efforts focus primarily on the larger Yahoo syndicates, though the lower-ranking, smaller Yahoo scammers are affected and targeted by the same policies.
For many Nigerians, Yahoo-Yahoo intersects with daily life. It is the vigilant watch for fake government job postings on fake government websites; it is also hoping that your identity is not stolen and that your bank account is not hacked. It is in the portrayal of Yahoo boys and girls in Nollywood films as materialistic, against traditional values, and treacherous. And in the police profiling Nigerian youth suspected of Yahoo because they own a nice car and are wearing trendy Western clothes. And in Nigerians with IPs identified as originating from within Nigeria being denied access to websites and questioned by international airport customs because they are Nigerian and suspected of doing 419 or Yahoo.
Nigerians are engaged in an epic battle with Yahoo-Yahoo, an intergenerational conflict that is a national scourge. Low-level Yahoo boys and girls are met with disdain when the question of Yahoo scamming is raised. Yahoo boys' and girls' money-making schemes and extralegal activities place them at respectable society's margins. While they receive mixed praise for their international savvy, their ability to talk with foreigners, and their computer literacy, Nigerians see these skills as misplaced attributes. Yahoo boys and girls craft schemes on their laptops and smartphones, while their nation's and communities' image suffers. But among these divergent perspectives on the scams and their creators, there is one uniting view: Yahoo-Yahoo is not the right solution for elevating youth unemployment.
Nigerian youth are drawn to extralegal sources of moneymaking because of a broken labor market, and they become reliant on the Band-Aids of monetary infusions outside of the legal economy. Virtual scamming goes against shared values of respectable work. Global dreams of quick money result from the complex interplay of popular youth culture and youth employment in crisis. What is unclear, and also what people debate in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Ibadan, Enugu, and Rivers State, is the very uncertain and unsafe economic and state environment causing Nigerian youth to make dangerous choices, potentially infusing illegal money into their communities and harming their communities' international standing.
In part two of this interview, Heyward-Rotimi will turn to the efforts that big companies make to surveil 419 and Yahoo-Yahoo scams. She will also address how their treatment as acts of criminality elide a much deeper history of coloniality.
2. Caron, C. Louisiana man charged in the Nigerian Prince scheme. New York Times. Dec. 31, 2017; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/31/us/nigerian-prince-fraud.html
3. Lusthaus, J., Bruce, M., and Phair, N. Mapping the geography of cybercrime: A review of indices of digital offending by country. Proc. of the 2020 IEEE European Symposium on Security and Privacy Workshops. IEEE, 2020.
5. Kshetri, N. Cybercrime and cybersecurity in Africa. Journal of Global Information Technology Management 22, 2 (2019), 77–81. DOI: 10.1080/1097198X.2019.1603527. Also: Newman, L.H. Nigerian email scammers are more effective than ever. Wired. May 3, 2018.
Sareeta Amrute is an anthropologist who studies the relationship between race, work, and data. She is principle researcher at the Data & Society Research Institute and affiliate associate professor at UW Seattle. She is the author of Encoding Race, Encoding Class: Indian IT Workers in Berlin. firstname.lastname@example.org
Kamela Heyward-Rotimi is a practicing anthropologist. She is executive director and founder of the Knowledge Exchange Research Group (KERG). She also holds affiliations with the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University and the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria. email@example.com
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