Once upon a time, the Nigerian 419 scammer was a hero in the streets of Lagos. Viewed as transnational Robin Hoods, they took from the undeservedly well off in the west and gave to the financially challenged in western Africa, including themselves. Girls wanted to date them, they got lauded in popular music, and were viewed as a measure of revenge against the same shades that took so much from the continent.
Now? Many ecommerce sites block Nigerian ISPs. Mass emails are restricted when they have a sub-Saharan point of origin. The Nigerian government has given in to legitimate tech industry in the counry and toed the line to crack down on the so-called "Yahoo boys" for giving Nigerian businessmen (and possibly princes) a bad name. The creators of emails offering you a percentage to help move money out of Nigeria now have to live underground, hiding their money and themselves from popular view.
In the western world, if you're a smart person with technical skills, you can cobble together an existence by working at an electronics store or helping neighbors and their friends keep their computers going, maybe even design a web site on the side or develop a trade in used games or electronics. In Nigeria? The number of opportunities are far fewer, and the border of starvation far closer. That's not an excuse, that's a reason.
We found a story from TechCrunch about one such person who developed a massive criminal undertaking not out of some mustache-twirling misanthropy, but because it was one of the few intellectual challenges available to him. He tried to figure out how the person who set up the security system he's trying to break thinks, and outsmart him at his own game. If he couldn't crack the software, he studied the hardware and learns its vulnerabilities. It's like an elaborate game of chess with credit card numbers at checkmate.
There's a new game afoot as well. The latest scam revolves around online dating. Yahoo boys find a lonely man– sometimes a single man who wants a mail-order bride; sometimes a married one with kids who wants an escape on the side. They key with 419 scams is always finding someone who wants a easy shortcut in money or love. An elaborate relationship over IM begins.They can use carefully constructed porn clips for video chats or hire actresses to portray the fictional girls. One scammer in the story carries on five to seven relationships at once, being such a supportive girlfriend that they help victims pick out clothes for work. When one suitor lost a job, he used the Web to help find him an interview and pumped up his confidence to apply. He gave him several months to get back on his feet before asking for more cash. Never asking for a lot of money at once, it's a long term game of constant maintenance, getting a piece of money here and there, a parasite with a plan.
If they had the time, they'd be trading Star Wars quotes with us and arguing about why the hell DC thought having Gorilla Grodd rule all of Africa in Flashpoint was a good idea. Fighting to stay alive, they're forgotten geeks who instead use their powers for crime. We're not so different after all …