Last week, The New York Times published a story about the heartbreaking realities and impacts social media scams have on people.
Tech reporter Jack Nicas told the story of a wife falling for and investing $26,000 to $30,000 in an American-soldier impostor online. Due to the scam, the wife attempted suicide, experienced domestic abuse and ultimately was allegedly murdered by her husband.
In this particular example, Nicas led the account back to a group in Nigeria called the “Yahoo Boys,” which is a nod to the Yahoo messenger service where online love scams started nearly 20 years ago.
Nicas took to Reddit last week to share his experience while covering the stories of the victims of the scams and the people behind them.
“I investigated con artists who impersonate American servicemen on Facebook and Instagram to scam women,” Nicas said. “For the story, I traveled to Nigeria to meet these scammers. Ask me anything about Facebook, internet cons and scamming culture in Nigeria.”
Below are a few of the most popular questions and answers to the “ask me anything” thread. The responses have been shortened for clarity and length.
Q: How do you ensure your personal safety, doing all of this?
Nicas: As journalists, we take calculated risks. We have an experienced security team that considers the risks of certain trips and advise us accordingly. While abroad, we also often work with local journalists who know the terrain better than we do.
Q: Why are most(?) of these scammers from Nigeria? What’s special there that there isn’t anywhere else in the world?
Nicas: I first want to say that internet scammers are everywhere, including in the U.S. And I also want to note that such scammers represent a tiny fraction of the population in Nigeria. The vast majority of people there do honest work, and many are frustrated with the poor reputation these criminals have given their country.
It isn’t exactly clear why this crime has gained popularity there, but in speaking with the scammers themselves and academics who track them, here is what I found. Nigeria has three ingredients that help foster such scammers: widespread internet access, English fluency, and poverty. I also think simple momentum is a partial explanation. As scammers find success with such crimes, they pass the trade on to friends and siblings, even including scripts for online chats with victims.
Q: What’s the mentality behind these scams? Aside from “they want money,” do they show remorse? Are they aware of the ethics of these scams or is it arbitrary?
Nicas: From the victims’ perspective, the issue is black and white: These scammers are bad. Now none of us believe that their crimes are justified, but speaking to them does add more nuance to the story. When I met these young men in Nigeria, they were remorseful. They understood their scams did harm. But they said the money made them numb to that guilt. “Definitely there is always conscience,” one scammer told me. “But poverty will not make you feel the pain.”
Q: How do you effectively help a family member or friend address these issues—both preventative action and helping them to not fall victim to these sorts of traps, but also legal prosecution of those who have scammed them?
Nicas: We all should be encouraging our less tech-savvy friends and relatives to be wary of strangers on the internet. They should be skeptical of unsolicited messages and friend requests from people they don’t know, and they should never send money to people they haven’t met in real life.
This is all obvious to many of us, but these scammers know the right words to say to manipulate the more vulnerable sections of the population. We do hope that our coverage can help raise awareness about this issue, because education is a key way to combat these sorts of scams.
As for legal prosecution of a scammer who has already been successful: Unfortunately, I wouldn’t hold your breath. Many of these criminals are in different countries, and there are far too many of them for law enforcement to make them a priority. Unless the victim lost an enormous amount of money, it is best to move on with your life.
“Claiming to be another person on Instagram violates our Community Guidelines, and we have a dedicated team that’s tasked with detecting and blocking these kinds of scams,” a Facebook spokesperson told me.
Additionally, Facebook suggests if someone creates an Instagram account pretending to be you, you can report it to them using this page. “We’ve built reporting in-app for people to let us know when someone else is using their content without permission, so we can take action by removing that content and in some cases disabling the accounts of those responsible” a Facebook spokesperson told me. “We’ve also developed Rights Manager to help video creators manage and protect their videos on Instagram.”
Ultimately, the best way to secure your identity is to ensure your accounts are set to private and you only let people you know follow you.