The world should not use isolated infractions to pigeonhole Nigerians

From social networking and research to business and commerce, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) systems are now deployed to perform simple as well as complex tasks. But the cyberspace is also vulnerable to the activities of criminals. Sadly, as most Nigerians know to our collective shame, our country has not only been a breeding ground for most of these nefarious practices, some of our citizens have become notorious for committing identity theft and bank frauds facilitated through the use of the internet. A year after the American authorities announced a coordinated effort to disrupt Business Email Compromise (BEC) schemes also known as “cyber-enabled financial fraud,” or “419” in our country, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has indicted and arrested 80 individuals across the United States with 77 of them Nigerians.

While cybercrime is a global threat, what marks out the Nigerian fraud gangs operating internationally is their predominantly financial and economic focus. For instance, a damning statement by the American Department of Justice (DoJ) in June last year said, “Foreign citizens perpetrate many BEC scams. Those individuals are often members of transnational criminal organisations, which originated in Nigeria but have spread throughout the world.”

Committed mostly by the young, often called “Yahoo” boys, a precursor of the infamous ‘419’ email scammers, the fraudsters are increasingly taking advantage of the rise in online transactions, electronic shopping, e-commerce and the electronic messaging systems to engage in all manner of crimes. This is of course a reflection of the culture of poverty, greed and massive financial criminality at home. In 2015, the Cybercrimes Act was passed into law to address the challenges. The law criminalises a variety of offences – from ATM card skimming and identity theft to possession of child pornography. It imposes, for instance, seven-year imprisonment for offenders of all kinds and additional seven years for online crimes that result in physical harm, and life imprisonment for those that lead to death. But like almost every law in the country, there is the problem of enforcement.

The “yahoo boys” still daily throng cybercafé premises to “transact” their business with the owners looking away. Yet the law criminalises internet café owners who knowingly allow their premises to be used to commit crimes. Sadly, our policemen would rather harass innocent people who carry laptops. The long-term solution is for the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the police and the intelligence community in Nigeria to become more conversant with the latest techniques in combating cybercrimes. Even more important is the need to work with the law enforcement agencies of all major centres of Nigerian presence around the world. These fraud syndicates are international in nature and can only be fought through international cooperation and superior knowledge of the technologies that power cyber fraud.

Cyber criminals in some other countries are using their negative skills for espionage and illicit technology theft. Our nationals are using their skills to defraud individuals and companies to obtain funds for obscene consumerism and sickening exhibitionism. Over and above the cooperation with the FBI, etc., it is noteworthy that the federal government has issued a strong statement not only condemning the involvement of these Nigerians in the fraud schemes but to clearly state that the vast majority of Nigerians are honest and reliable. The world has no cause to use these isolated infractions as an excuse to profile or negatively brand Nigerians.

To deal with this growing crime, there is an urgent need to improve the capacity of cyber security officials and the sharing of cyber security best practice from across the globe. In addition, we must build the capacity for local law enforcement.