ACCRA — As a teenager, Kasim was the star striker of his school’s football team in Ghana, earning him the moniker Starflex. But the 22-year-old has since abandoned both his studies and football for a vocation that keeps him up at night: finding and luring victims into online romance scams.
In one bedroom in Accra, Starflex and his two friends Suleiman, 19, and Patrick, 18, huddle over their phones and laptops, exchanging intimate messages with “pals”, their code name for potential victims they meet on dating sites.
To bait a suitor, they comb Facebook and Instagram, swiping photos of influencers, actresses and adult film actors to create fake accounts on dating sites.
“We use photos or videos of you shopping, cooking or hanging out with friends to keep up the format,” Starflex told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, referring to their playbook to trap and defraud victims globally.
Starflex and his sidekicks are known as the Sakawa boys – meaning ‘putting inside’ in the Hausa language, a young generation of school drops-outs in Ghana who dabble in identity theft and romance scams on social media.
Their activities can be traced to the Yahoo boys, or fraudsters in Nigeria. Ghana’s Cyber Security Authority estimates victims have lost 49.5 million Ghanaian cedi ($4.5 million) to identity theft schemes since the beginning of the year.
Starflex is posing as Joan, a 23-year-old masters’ student from Turkey, while chatting with an American realtor he befriended on online dating site Zoosk.
Joan’s boyfriend believes her parents died of COVID-19 and has been convinced to cover her $5,000 tuition lest she get deported.
“He sends me $500 for my monthly upkeep from the US. What work in Ghana will pay me $50 a day?” Starflex said, grinning.
When he cashes the money through his crypto wallet in Ghana, Starflex said he shares the proceeds with his crew of keyboard warriors running shifts to keep the web of lies.
Such scams are becoming increasingly common in Ghana due to persistent poverty and a youth unemployment rate of more than 30%, while the country fights its way out of a generational economic crisis.
“If you pick eight out of every 10 children in any of the slums in Greater Accra, they are into internet fraud,” said Kwadwo Agyemam, an IT teacher in a public school in Accra, the capital.
“Just go through their phone, and you’ll see those nude pictures they’re using to entice men online.”
Starflex and Suleiman grew up in New Town, an impoverished area of Greater Accra. Both said economic hardship forced them to fend for themselves as teenagers and turn to scamming.
When his father became sick following a stroke, and his mother, a petty trader, could no longer put food on the table, Suleiman said Starflex introduced him to the criminal trade.
“To come to school was hard … there was no money for breakfast or lunch,” Suleiman said. “He said he was getting paid by white men. I could make money that way, too,” he added, pointing at Starflex.
Agyemam said students who should be in classes can be found chatting with foreigners in internet cafes, hoping to extort cash.
In July, the government launched a national school program to educate students about social media use and cyber risks.
Earlier this year Ghana and Nigeria pledged to ramp up efforts in tackling transborder crime, especially cybercrimes such as online scams.
Both countries have cyber laws and regularly investigate offences, but prosecutions are rare, said forensic and internet litigation expert Mike Roberts, who founded Rexxfield, a firm specializing in cybercrime investigations.
“The biggest disincentive to fraud is justice. If you feel you’re not going to get caught defrauding others, you won’t stop,” Roberts said.
In 2022 the Cyber Security Authority said identity theft accounted for most reported cases of online fraud, attributing the trend to the ease of creating social media accounts.
The agency did not respond to a request for comment.
Sean Gallagher, a researcher at Sophos X-Ops, a British cybersecurity firm, said West African criminals are borrowing techniques from Chinese romance scams, including using crypto accounts to send money.
“There’s a marketplace to purchase hacked Facebook and Twitter accounts, and you can buy these with crypto or cash. Then some people create a full persona using clip art or photos from other social media accounts,” Gallagher explained.
“Then people are paid to generate the content for that profile. And you get to the 15 and 16-year-olds in West Africa doing the keyboard work and pretending to be this person. It’s an industrial-level operation,” he added.
Roberts said conmen are becoming more brazen, teaching victims to open crypto accounts to bypass scrutiny from banking institutions.
Single mother-of one Tina, who owns a medical billing company in New York state, said she met a gemmologist who called himself Ray Dixon on Tinder in 2019.
Over two years, her online boyfriend swindled her of $200,000, claiming he needed money for plane tickets, rent and upkeep, among other reasons.
“I borrowed from friends, my bank, and I only stopped sending money when I had nothing left,” Tina, 57, said in a video interview.
Frequent requests for money prompted her to search for his name online. “It didn’t come up at first, but I later found it on a Turkish dating site,” Tina said, adding that when she confronted him, he denied faking his identity.
Tina said she contacted Roberts – whose company works with law enforcement and victims to investigate and trace crypto scams to help her recover her money.
Roberts said his team of investigators tracked Tina’s scammers to criminal networks in Ghana.
When he thinks of women like Tina, Suleiman says he hates himself.
He has decided to quit scamming within a year, and is putting aside $200 monthly to pay his way through college.
“I have no option for now. I have to care for my sick dad and help my mum,” he said. – Thomson Reuters Foundation
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