Paying for Africa's online shopping spree

Fraud is one of Africa's biggest industries, and the anonymity of the web offers hi-tech thieves protection from detection. That is, until they're caught out by a reporter…

Emmanuel is a thief.
Not the kind who will come in your house in the middle of the night. Every afternoon, Emmanuel sits in a hot and stuffy internet café in Osu, a commercial neighbourhood of Ghana’s capital, Accra.

Fast food chains, banks, clothing stores and a few street bars decorate the main road of Osu.

For about one dollar an hour, Emmanuel logs on the internet where he buys computers, cellular phones, Discmans and other expensive electronics. There are rarely more than 10 people sitting in the café, where about 30 computers are stacked next to each other, in neat rows.

On his lap sits a white sheet of paper with a list of neatly written numbers. Emmanuel’s job description is simple: use stolen credit card numbers to purchase pricey items in North America that will then be sent back to him in Ghana.

When I met Emmanuel, he was surfing on a Motorola web site. While sitting next to him, working on my laptop, I suddenly asked him if he could get me one of the cell phones he was looking at.

“Well, this one is 120 dollars,” he said, looking at me suspiciously, “but I can get it for you for 50 dollars.” As I pretended to look very interested, he added: “If you give me your address in America, I can send you the cell phone for free along with other things for myself. You’ll just have to send me the other items here in Ghana.”

We giggled, shook hands and I told him I’d think about it.

According to Ohad Folman, a New York IT Consultant who has worked in Ghana, Accra has become a hub for credit card fraud because of the country’s political stability and the lack of infrastructure to prevent such crime.

“Nigerians have brought the technology to Ghana,” says Folman. “It has become too big of a phenomenon in Nigeria, where a lot of emphasis has been put on internet fraud.” There are more than 16,000 internet cafés in Ghana, which are not monitored. No one has ever been arrested for internet fraud in the country.

“People don’t look at it as a bad thing, but rather a survival thing,” says Folman, “They are not aware of the moral aspect of it….It comes from a different point of view; whatever I can do to get some stuff.”

Not surprising, considering that Ghana’s average monthly income is of 30 dollars. Typically, a defrauder will have access to accounts through internet sites which generate credit card numbers (www.darkcoding.net) or through contacts who work in hotels and large restaurants.

A few days following my encounter with Emmanuel, a young boy of about 14-years old was sitting next to me at the same internet café, chatting on an online dating service.

Looking over his shoulder, I noticed the picture on the right-side corner of the conversation box: a 30-something white woman with a shy smile and an unflattering hair cut. I couldn’t help but read their conversation:

Young Boy: You are so beautiful my darling.

Woman: Well, thank you!

Young Boy: I love you so much.

Woman: How can you love me? You’ve never met me!

Young Boy: If you give me your address, I’ll send you flowers.

Woman: Really? You will?”

In less than a minute, the young boy had been able to get a safe address in North America where to send internet purchases made with stolen credit card numbers. Folman says this practice is common.

“They will make connections with innocent women on AmericanSingles and make them feel good about themselves,” he says. “They use an emotional aspect to get women to agree to send them the illegal purchases back to Ghana.”

There is no monitoring done at Ghana’s borders, which makes the process easier. “I know of someone who ordered a sound system and was able to bring it back into Ghana,” says Folman.

Most internet café managers are very aware of the trend. “They don’t care…. These [criminals] are really good for their business,” explains Folman. “They are regular customers.”

Last January, the FBI tried to prevent purchases online at Busy Internet, Ghana’s largest and most modern internet café, by forcing the management to ban access to secure websites. Busy Internet now has private monitored booths available to customers who wish to access their bank accounts or make purchases online.

During my last week in Ghana, I stayed at the Blue Royal, a mid-range hotel in the same thriving area of Osu. When check-out came around, I had no cash and had to pay with my visa card. I knew the risks, but all the staff there had been so kind and trustworthy.

A few days after my return from West Africa, I got a phone call from the fraud department at my bank. The agent asked me if I had made purchases at Dell Computers, Tower Records and Peopledata.com.

I smiled, imagining Emmanuel sitting behind a computer, my credit card number in his hands.