Online fraud increases in West Africa, may be potential global threat
Banking and credit card fraud has been labeled by Interpol as the most common and urgent cyber threat in Africa.
The expansion of organized gangs of cybercrime has shown cause for grave concern among police and investigators across sub-Saharan Africa - as it brings new ways to make fast money after the pandemic and the current global economic crisis with little risk of being caught.
The risks will not be contained in Africa but will potentially spread to the rest of the world, posing a further threat to victims of “hugely lucrative” fraud, as stated by senior police officials.
Professor Landry Signé, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of a report on the problem explained the situation as follows: “The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated digitalization around the world, but as life has shifted increasingly online, cybercriminals have exploited the opportunity to attack vital digital infrastructure,” adding: “States across Africa have emerged as a favorite target of cybercriminals, with costly consequences.”
Banking and credit card fraud has been labeled by Interpol as the most common and urgent cyber threat in Africa, which the pandemic has exacerbated by much as twice as other fraud online banking platforms.
One operation led to the seizure of close to $1 million in bank accounts
Earlier this month, a major operation carried out by Interpol in 14 countries highlighted the extent of the threat from cybercrime after they arrested more than 70 alleged frauds connected to a Nigerian criminal network known as Black Axe not only in South Africa, Nigeria and Ivory Coast but in Europe and the US as well.
The operation included a search of almost 50 properties, which led to the seizure of close to $1 million in bank accounts, alongside a residential property, three cars, 12,000 sim cards, and tens of thousands in cash. The success in arrests was facilitated through new improvements to coordination and communication between banks and local police forces.
In light of that, Rory Corcoran, the acting head of Interpol’s new Financial Crime and Anti-Corruption Centre, stated: “It is way wider and broader than these 14 countries. We are dealing with a highly organized international network. These guys are not opportunists … We’re mapping them out around the world,"
It started out as a student movement
The Black Axe gang started out as a student movement in Benin City in the 1970s and has evolved into a global criminal network of fraud. As reported by The Guardian, according to US legal documents, a regional hub located in South Africa was reported to be officially recognized by the Black Axe back in 2013.
Interpol was able to catch the perpetrators last month as the operation took off in Ireland after local police took hold of phones and devices belonging to frauds linked to Black Axe, and investigators recognized vocabulary pertaining to the group, thus linking tracks back to west Africa.
A former South African criminal intelligence official said: “There may be a decrease in activity for a time, but does the organization stop? Not really. They run these things really effectively and there are workarounds. You get a lot of publicity for law enforcement but really it’s little more than a speed bump for the criminals,”
Frauds use the money to invest in other crimes such as forcing African women into sex work in Europe, weapon trade, or running methamphetamine rings. With the return of air travel, the UAE has been a frequent destination for west African fraudsters and Dubai was a favorite for Ramon Abbas, a Nigerian living a luxe life run by his efforts to launder millions of stolen money.
Under the name of Ray Hushpuppi, he had more than 2 million Instagram followers before his arrest in 2020 in Dubai, as his social media flaunted his private jets, expensive cars, high-end clothes, and $200,000 watches.
Abbas was sentenced in California this month to more than 11 years in federal prison and ordered to pay $1.7 million in restitution.
Kenya another hub
The FBI and Interpol believe that Kenya could be another breeding ground for this type of organized crime, as Interpol said in a statement this month: “As well as hosting Black Axe groups, South Africa also helps enable their spread to other parts of the world … Black Axe members come to South Africa to obtain South African citizenship, which facilitates their travel to the US, Europe or Dubai,”
Cybersecurity is being bypassed through the use of online dating sites to lure victims into fake relationships and steal personal information and money. Mark Shaw, the director of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, expressed: “There’s been a significant growth in skills in the sector, with hacking and similar activities but also romance fraud. There’s an accumulation of experience about what to do and who to target,”
One incident goes back to cracking down on a major romance fraud in October 2021, when seven members of Black Axe were arrested in Cape Town by the FBI, Interpol, and South African police. The men were charged with stealing $4 million from about 100 US victims over ten years.
Gareth Newham, the head of justice and violence prevention at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, explained that weak economies and poverty are not the only reasons behind the crimes: "The South African police force is very well resourced but there has been a massive deterioration in capability. This has been more about very poor political leadership than any lack of funding,”