how cybercriminals in Nigeria exploited schemes to help those in need
The COVID-19 pandemic, with its confinement and social isolation, has added to the vulnerability of many Nigerians in several ways. In addition to health risks and disruption of livelihoods, the shift from physical to virtual relationships has increased people’s exposure to cybercriminals.
The pandemic has changed the cybercrime landscape in the country. Government social and welfare services talksto cushion the impact of the pandemic, offered fraudsters an opportunity to take advantage of vulnerable people.
These palliative interventions included food distribution, cash transfers and loan repayment relief.
Also, with social distancing and movement restrictions, people are doing more online. This made them more exposed to cybercriminals.
I started a to study to examine how COVID-19-induced interventions in Nigeria had been exploited by criminals. My research explored which government policies created opportunities for fraud, which fraud strategies were used, and how this victimization could be avoided.
My data comes from Economic and Financial Crimes Commissionthe Nigerian Police and the Central Bank of Nigeria. I also received examples of fraudulent schemes from a professional WhatsApp group and criminology students.
I found that the lack of clearly defined parameters and beneficiaries of Nigeria’s palliative programs created loopholes for cybercriminals. I called their strategies “COVID-419” – a term combining the names of coronavirus disease and section 419 of the Nigerian Penal Code Act, which deals with fraud.
It is important to understand how cybercriminals adapt to changing circumstances and what strategies they use, in order to prevent further damage.
Context of cybercrimes related to COVID-419
The social context of the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria helps explain how it presents opportunities for fraudsters. A large percentage – 65% – of the population works in the informal sector. He contributes around 50% of the country’s gross domestic product.
People working in the informal sector depend heavily on human interaction. They also rely heavily on public transport.
The containment measures have had a devastating effect. As a result, citizens asked for help. In response, the government has formulated policies on palliatives to give to vulnerable people. A Presidential task force on COVID-19 has also been set up to coordinate the distribution of palliatives.
distribution of 70,000 tons of rice to poor and vulnerable households across the country
a three-month repayment moratorium for all Public Enterprises and Empowerment Program loans such as TraderMoni, MarketMoni and FarmerMoni.
a three-month moratorium on all federally funded loans issued by the Bank of Industry, Bank of Agriculture and Nigeria Export Import Bank
cash transfers and food rations for internally displaced persons.
But the policy had a weak point: there was no definition of who was poor and who was vulnerable. of President Muhammadu Buhari broadcast on March 29, 2020 illustrated it.
For the most vulnerable in our society, I have ordered that conditional cash transfers for the next two months be paid immediately. Our IDPs will also receive two months of food rations in the coming weeks.
Many citizens waited and waited for the palliatives. Some may never have them despite the need. It is difficult to know how many people have actually benefited. Figures are not readily available and a report said the palliatives had been diverted and distributed among ruling party loyalists.
All payments ordered by the president were part of the existing government social investment programs such as N-power, Conditional Cash Transfer and Government Enterprise Empowerment Programme.
They had nothing to do with the “new vulnerable” – those whose livelihoods were threatened by COVID-19. But everyone affected by the lockdown expected to benefit. They may have thought they were entitled to help, but they weren’t told exactly who would get what and how. This has made some people easier targets for scams.
All the schemes developed by the fraudsters have similarities with the palliatives announced by the government. Cybercriminals have also developed schemes using the identity of donors listed by the Nigerian government on the website of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19.
Relief Fund Fraud: The initial COVID-19 relief fund was established to give beneficiaries N20,000 (US$49) per month. Cyber criminals modeled their fraudulent scheme after this. They designed a website where people asked questions and were promised a payment of N20,000. The scam message had a fake government seal in the top left corner, to trick people into thinking that it was a real message from the federal government. A potential victim is congratulated on being eligible for the funds after answering a series of questions. The person must click on a green button under the page that says “SHARE NOW”. The person is advised to only share with seven WhatsApp groups. Then the person would be asked to send bank details along with sensitive information. They then hacked into their accounts and cleared the funds there.
Credit Fraud: Another scheme appropriated by cyber criminals was the emergency loan disbursement form. On the online form, people were asked to provide their names and account details. This scam was designed to align with the presidential speech which announced remittances and conditional loans. The form bore an imprint of the Nigerian coat of arms on the left side and used the national colors to give it an authentic look. He followed the same pattern with the relief fund fraud.
Fast Food Coupon Fraud: President’s announces that rice and groundnut oil from the Nigeria Customs Service would also be released and triggered fraud. These were intended for distribution to state governments. States were in turn asked to organize the distribution to vulnerable people. The scammers devised a scheme that appeared to offer a free pizza coupon – an attractive luxury for many people. A voucher bearing the name of a pizza place was shared online and potential victims were asked to fill in their financial information in order to claim the free pizza. This exposed them to hackers who wiped out their bank accounts after critical information was provided.
Data scam: With movement restrictions, one of the main ways to connect with people was to go online. Nigerians have asked phone companies to offer free data to their customers. Some companies offered their subscribers 10 free text messages per day. Cybercriminals have designed a program called “Free 16 GB to kill boredom during this lockdown”. Different websites supposedly belonging to telephone companies were created and people were told to click on them. By doing so and providing biographical data and bank details, the fraudsters were able to gain access to their bank accounts.
Nigerian government agencies have distanced themselves from the fraudulent schemes. But the way social interventions were implemented left room for fraud victimization.
To prevent this from happening again in the future, the Nigerian government must communicate effectively with the public – especially the beneficiaries – about its policies. This will help protect them from possible victimization.
Additionally, Nigerian security agencies need to be involved. They must act quickly by taking down websites where deliberate lies and misinformation are posted.