November 24, 2021

How the pandemic pulled Nigerian university students into cybercrime

ILORIN, Nigeria—Around November 2020, Kayode said he was invited to a house party—the kind attended mostly by others involved in the country’s illicit digital economy.

The college sophomore studying towards a hard sciences degree had reservations about attending a party during a global pandemic, but he didn’t have much other to do than spend time with other so-called “yahoo boys”—an archaic nickname that recalls when Nigerian cyber fraudsters were synonymous with Yahoo Mail and “Nigerian Prince” spam.

The market has now graduated into more complex and targeted schemes, experts told The Record. And Kayode, who wanted to be identified only by this nickname due to security concerns, is one of many young Nigerians who turned to that market as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted their education and left them with few options.

Since the start of the pandemic, experts say, Nigeria has witnessed an increase not just in the number of people drawn into cybercrime, but also in the complexity of tactics they deploy.

“The exposure to cyber fraud will continue to grow because of the economic hardship which will take time to fizzle out,” Geoffrey Okolorie, a researcher of cyber fraud and the head of Digital Forensics at Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crime Commission or EFCC, which enforces the country’s cybercrime laws, told The Record via email.

But there’s also been a shift in the country towards moral and societal acceptance of scamming as an economic necessity, or at least an opportunity many can’t pass up.

Certainly, when Kayode headed to the party last year, it seemed like an opportunity.

“It’s also a very great place to connect with bigger guys,” Kayode recalled.

So he went, a decision he would come to regret.

Around 11 p.m., a fight broke out between two of the bigger guys.

“The party became...

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