Alarming rise in catfish dating scams in Ghana as poverty takes hold

During his teenage years, Kasim was a standout goal-scorer of his school’s football squad in Ghana, leading to his nickname “Starflex.”

However, in his early twenties, he has forsaken both education and football, opting instead for a pursuit that occupies his nights: engaging in online romance scams by ensnaring unsuspecting victims.

Inside a single bedroom in Accra, Starflex and his companions Suleiman (19) and Patrick (18) gather closely around their phones and laptops. They share intimate messages with individuals they refer to as “pals,” a coded term for potential targets they encounter on dating platforms.

To attract potential suitors, they scour through Facebook and Instagram, selecting images of influencers, actresses, and adult film performers and then use these pictures to fabricate fraudulent profiles on dating websites.

Starflex says they utilize images or videos depicting themselves while shopping, cooking, or socializing with friends to maintain the facade.

Starflex and his accomplices are recognized as the Sakawa boys, a term signifying “putting inside” in the Hausa language. They represent a new wave of Ghanaian school dropouts who delve into identity theft and romance scams through social media platforms.

Their actions draw parallels to the Yahoo boys, a group of scammers in Nigeria.

According to Ghana’s Cyber Security Authority, victims have suffered losses amounting to 49.5 million Ghanaian cedi ($4.5 million) due to identity theft schemes since the start of the year.

Assuming the identity of Joan, a 23-year-old graduate student from Turkey, Starflex engages in conversation with an American realtor he met on the online dating platform Zoosk.

Believing that Joan’s parents passed away due to Covid-19, her boyfriend has been persuaded to cover her $5,000 tuition to prevent her from facing deportation.

Starflex says her boyfriend sends $500 each month for expenses from the US, and then asks with a grin “What job in Ghana would offer me $50 a day?”

After converting the funds through his cryptocurrency wallet in Ghana, Starflex explained that he divides the earnings among his team of online operatives, who work in shifts to sustain the intricate web of deception.

These scams are growing more prevalent in Ghana as a result of ongoing poverty and a youth unemployment rate surpassing 30%.

Out of every 10 youngsters in any of Greater Accra’s slums, around eight are involved in online fraud, remarked Kwadwo Agyemam, an IT educator at a public school situated in Accra, the capital city.

“Just go through their phone, and you’ll see those nude pictures they’re using to entice men online.”

Starflex and Suleiman were raised in New Town, a disadvantaged district in Greater Accra. Both recounted how financial difficulties compelled them to navigate their teenage years independently and resort to engaging in scams.

After his father fell ill due to a stroke and his mother, a small-scale trader, struggled to provide sustenance, Suleiman revealed that Starflex introduced him to the world of illicit activities.

“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 mentioned that instead of being in classrooms, students can often be found in internet cafes engaging in conversations with foreigners, aiming to extract money from them.

In July, the government initiated a nationwide school program with the aim of educating students about responsible social media usage and the potential risks associated with cyber activities.

Earlier this year, Ghana and Nigeria made a commitment to intensify their collaborative endeavors in addressing cross-border criminal activities, with a specific focus on combating cybercrimes, including online scams.

Both nations have established cyber laws and conduct frequent investigations into offenses; however, according to Mike Roberts, an expert in forensic analysis and internet litigation, prosecutions remain infrequent. Roberts is the founder of Rexxfield, a company 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.

Scam scam scam

In 2022, the Cyber Security Authority highlighted that identity theft constituted the majority of reported instances of online fraud. The authority attributed this trend to the convenience of establishing social media accounts, which facilitated such fraudulent activities.

Sean Gallagher, a researcher from Sophos X-Ops, a British cybersecurity company, remarked that West African criminals are adopting methods seen in Chinese romance scams, such as employing cryptocurrency accounts to facilitate money transfers.

“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 explained that fraudsters are growing bolder, coaching victims on setting up cryptocurrency accounts to evade scrutiny from financial institutions.

Tina, a single mother of one who runs a medical billing company in New York state, recounted how she encountered an individual who identified as a gemmologist named Ray Dixon on the dating app Tinder back in 2019.

Across a span of two years, her virtual partner managed to defraud her of $200,000, asserting various reasons such as plane tickets, rent, and living expenses.

“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 reached out to Roberts, whose firm collaborates with law enforcement and victims to probe and track cryptocurrency scams, aiming to assist her in reclaiming her funds.

Roberts and his team of investigators managed to trace Tina’s scammers to criminal networks based in Ghana.

Reflecting on individuals like Tina, Suleiman admits to harboring self-hate.

He has made the decision to cease his involvement in scamming within a year and is setting aside $200 every month to fund his college education.

“I have no option for now. I have to care for my sick dad and help my mum,” he said.

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