Nigerian criminal fraudsters, stoke the fires of anti-Nigerianism and damage the image of Africa abroad. This archive article on the issue, by David Vick, still resonates as scores are arrested in America.
The level of fraud is such that Nigerian diplomats are increasingly hard put to explain what is happening. Widespread fraud is spreading like wild fire from Nigeria throughout the world as unscrupulous Nigerians at home and abroad further tarnish their country’s growing international reputation as a place where crime and corruption flourish unchecked.
Criminal investigation officers in the UK have been frustrated by the fraudsters who snatch thousands o f pounds from bank accounts before anyone can do anything about it. They believe that the proceeds from some o f the frauds are going to finance drug trafficking.
Now the epidemic is spreading into Eastern Europe, which is being described as “a conman’s dream” in its hunger for business and Westernisation, as the criminals exhaust their credibility in English-speaking countries.
The Nigerian government is now making an effort to clamp down on the increasingly sophisticated frauds, which often involve bogus officials and fraudulent documents claiming to be from the Central Bank o f Nigeria (CBN), the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), the Ministry of Defence or international oil companies.
Nigerian Deputy Inspector-General Perry Osayande recently announced on Radio Nigeria that the Nigerian police are now investigating more than 1,000 complaints of fraud all over the world, warning foreign businesses to be aware o f the danger.
So widespread is Nigerian-related crime overseas that is put down to a “Nigerian Mafia” in US police training manuals, bearing comparison with the notorious Triad gangsters who have been exporting South East Asian criminal practices to Europe and the US since the turn o f the century. British police, however, are wary of overstating the phenomenon, describing it as “a loosely organised hard core of criminals involved in fraud and based in Nigeria, that operate couriers and runners overseas in committing these crimes”.
Nigerian crime ring
The existence of a “ crime ring ” amongst London’s Nigerian community is now being investigated by British detectives, where evidence has been uncovered o f a planned operation to defraud British banks and building societies of millions o f pounds.
Derek Harper and Alan Smith operate the British Banking Association’s Fraud Intelligence Unit (FIU), set up 12 months ago to investigate banking crime. Smith maintains, “You only have to talk to any policeman or any bank in any country who will tell you, Yes, we have a problem with Nigerians. Recently we’re seeing the problems which were identified in Germany, Holland and Spain spreading to Bulgaria, Romania and Poland.”
“The majority o f it is straight forward forgery. Once the criminals have obtained details o f a customer’s bank account they then forge a transaction on the account, normally a request for an international money transfer – frequently to a bank in Germany – the basis o f the transaction being the purchase o f goods for Nigeria”
But, as Harper points out, “quite frequently there are no goods and services involved and the money is being used to finance drug trafficking”.
In such cases the money is transferred from one bank to another in different countries to confuse the trail, or the account is cleared with a courier walking out with a suitcase full o f cash.
In recent years, West Africa in general and Nigeria in particular has become a major port o f call for international drugtraffickers – from Asia and Latin America to Europe and the US via Nigeria – replacing the old route via the Middle East and North Africa.
One third fraudsters are Nigerian
Authorities in the US maintain that one in three persons arrested on drug trafficking offences in the US in recent times have Nigerian connections.
Now the world is becoming aware of the problem, Nigerians living, working or simply travelling overseas are under suspicion no matter how harmless and legitimate their intentions may be. The last thing law-abiding Nigerians seeking to settle overseas – or do business there need is a bad reputation with police, banks and businesses. But that is what they are getting, while an anti-immigrant campaign is being waged in the European press and racism is rearing its ugly head in Germany, France and Spain.
The fraudsters cynically play on the still-widespread image of Africa abroad as economically unsophisticated and corrupt to the core.
Appealing to this kind of cultural racism in the US, Britain and other European countries, they take both gullible and greedy, as well as honest and successful businessman for a ride.
Propositions that would be laughed at and dismissed had they come from a Western source are accepted at face value, simply because they come from Nigeria.
Lyn Kuo, o f the International Maritime Board (MIB) in London, which issued a report on Nigerian oil frauds as far back as 1989, receives three or four calls every week from irate and distraught businessmen who thought they were buying a tanker full o f Nigerian oil on the cheap and ended up with a handful of fraudulent documents, an empty bank account and a red face.
“People like to believe that Nigeria has a corrupt society where you can get whatever you want”, she points out. “They would not believe this if the oil came from the North Sea.”
Ensnaring the greedy
Western businessmen, it seems, are prepared to accept just about any business proposition from Nigeria that promises quick returns – even if it is semi illegal. “They snare people who are greedy and gullible”, Lyn Kuo maintains. “I have to say that this is a problem only associated with Nigeria.
Other countries have other problems, but this kind of fraud is definitely Nigerian”.
The Nigerian authorities are now endeavouring to stamp out the menace. Foreign businessmen that enter into shady or semi-illegal deals, who don’t know their clients and send off thousands o f dollars without taking strict precautions, can hardly complain when they’ve virtually given their own money away.
One British businessman, who had been stung for £20,000 in advance fees on a typical oil fraud involving a brotherin-law with connections at the NNPC and bogus shipping documents, wanted to warn others of the danger, complaining that the British banking system seemed incapable o f preventing illegal transfers o f money.
British banking law does not, as yet, prevent banking transactions that could be illegitimate, although new legislation is in place that could change that soon.
“The money laundering directives, when they become the law o f the land – hopefully this year – will bind the banks and other financial institutions into a know your-customer principle where you can establish the bona fides o f the person in front o f you. It’s getting tighter to open an account than it was ten years ago”, maintains Harper.
However, banks at present are not obliged to do more than protect their own investment in vetting new customers, and, as Harper concedes: “Competition (between banks) dictates that they will open an account for the business they bring, particularly i f the promise is of large amounts of money for the bank”. It is not only greedy criminals and businessmen that contribute to the problem, it seems, but greedy banks too.
References and addresses are required when opening a new bank account in the UK. But these can quite easily be provided fraudulently.
According to the FIU, a favourite method is to use the stolen passports of honest Nigerians previously resident in the UK who have since returned to Nigeria, or for Western girlfriends o f Nigerian criminals to open an account in their name, or for forged documents stolen in Nigeria or the UK to be used to establish credentials.
Once the account has been opened, then no questions are asked about international transactions transferring thousands – sometimes millions – of pounds.
Victims o f these frauds can rightly ask what chance they have when frauds are operated with the degree o f sophistication recently seen.
They have been invited out to Nigeria to seal the bogus deal and escorted by a military convoy to expensive hotels and receptions, or to the Ministry of Defence or NNPC offices, where a “colonel” will sign the deal with them, perhaps showing them copies o f their cheques apparently authorised by the CBN.
Documents in keeping with British and Nigerian law pass close inspection by solicitors in Nigeria and the UK, bankers drafts are produced from the CBN or made out to the NNPC, while telexes are sent directly from genuine oil tankers to confirm a detail or request a payment. Genuine documents that bear false details can be verified by customs officials who will tell the victim, “yes, this is a custom’s document”.
So convincing are the details o f the deal that unsuspecting victims are duped right up until they are told that their payment is not, as they expected, in their account, and suddenly all is revealed to be terribly wrong. By then it may be too late to act.
A spokesman for Scotland Yard’s Company Fraud Squad poin ts out: “When the suspects are out o f our jurisdiction and may not even be identifiable, it causes great difficulty in investigation”.
There have been only a few convictions in Britain to date, a Nigerian barrister, based in London, who received four years imprisonment for an attempted oil fraud in 1989, and a South African, Roger Snyman, who was imprisoned for two years for a banking fraud in London in February this year. Two Nigerians are now on the run, having absconded on bail on related charges.
This article was first published in the our April 1992 Print edition. Did you know that you can access all our back issues free digitally, with one subscription? Try it today.