Ghana, Online Scamming, and the Internet’s Broken Promises

For the youth of the West African nation of Ghana, a country on the margins of the global economy, the growth of the Internet in the 1990s was full of promise — the promise of sharing in the prosperity of the information age, and of forging meaningful connections with the rest of the world, politically, economically, and socially.

But when Internet connectivity finally arrived after the turn of the 21st century, many of these optimistic youth struggled to form connections with the foreigners they encountered online.

New research by School of Information professor Jenna Burrell looks under the surface of Internet culture in Ghana, exploring why many of Ghana’s hopes went unrealized and how Ghanaians have responded. Burrell’s book Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafés of Urban Ghana, based on seven years of ethnographic research in Ghana, is being released this week.

The Internet’s Broken Promises

“As the Internet was growing and spreading in the US in the mid- to late-90s, Ghana simply didn't have the bandwidth,” Burrell explained. “And it certainly didn't have the public access facilities or Internet cafés that most Ghanaians needed. More widespread Internet access didn’t become available until the early 2000s.”

As a result, subcultures of the Internet and ‘netiquette’ — rules and expectations about how to relate to people online — developed in the US in the 1990s and were cemented before most Ghanaians ever encountered the Internet.

“Once ordinary Ghanaians began coming online, they were coming into an already organized and formed subculture, not knowing what the rules were,” Burrell explained.

When Burrell began studying the youth Internet culture in Accra, Ghana, in the early years of the 21st century, she found a widely-shared fixation on making foreign connections and specifically on possibilities for travel overseas. Although Ghana’s elite already had Internet access and international connections, the more widespread availability of public Internet cafés provided the first opportunity for many ordinary Ghanaians — especially youth — to interact with the wider world.

“The Internet provided opportunities for making faraway places very tangible and personal,” said Burrell. “This thrill was evident in the most popular of Internet activities among youth — collecting pen pals.” Burrell observed young Ghanaians pursuing a variety of relationships with foreigners online, including same-aged platonic friendships, romantic relationships, older adults to appeal to for advice, patrons offering financial support, and even business partnerships.

‘Digital Shunning’

Burrell tells a story of a burgeoning online friendship between Fauzia, a young Ghanaian woman, and an Egyptian man. While chatting online, Fauzia mentioned “ok, my phone is giving me problems and I will be very grateful if you could send me money to get a better phone or if you could send me a new phone.” After repeating the request, “I didn’t see him online again,” said Fauzia. “He stopped chatting, he disappeared.”

Although such a request might seem suspicious to a Westerner, “small transfers of funds between friends are a regular feature of relationships among youth in Accra,” explained Burrell. This kind of ‘digital shunning’ was a common experience among the young Ghanaians that Burrell encountered; although the youth were following standard social norms, their foreign conversation partners seemed to misunderstand or misinterpret their intentions.

Burrell found that many young Ghanaians had difficulty seeing the social and cultural disconnects that separated them from the foreigners they attempted to befriend. “Such enforced disconnection and avoidance followed a seemingly minor interactional misstep,” Burrell said, most often requests for money or gifts.

Internet Dating Scams

In her research in Ghana, Burrell encountered a number of young non-elite Ghanaians pursuing another approach to the Internet’s promise of prosperity: online scamming. The most familiar example may be the so-called “419” email scam. One example begins:

Kindest Attention: Sir/Madam,

I am Gerry Ogodu,The Secetary [sic] General to the former Senate President Senator Pius Anyim, of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Though this proposal may come as a surprise to you as we have not met in any way before.

I got your contact address through your country business Guide and feel you will serve as a reliable source to be used to achieve this aim, by trusting under your care the total sum of Fifteen Million, Five Humdred [sic] Thousand US dollars (US $15.5M).

In the classic 419 email, the author claims to be a wealthy former member of the corrupt Nigerian government needing to quickly transfer money out of the country, and the email recipient is asked to make their bank account available for the money transfer in exchange for a hefty percentage of the gain. Although such email scams are more strongly associated with Nigeria, they are pursued in other parts of West Africa, as well.

One young Ghanaian, Gabby, got the idea to pursue online scamming from his friends. “They were gaining a lot out of that,” he claimed. “Sometimes I would accompany them to the banks for the money.” 

Rather than email scams, Gabby’s preferred methodology was the online dating scam, colloquially referred to as the ‘come-and-marry’ scam. Gabby and other young scammers would frequent online chatrooms or dating websites, building relationships with amorous foreigners. Typically, the young male Ghanaians would assume a fictional female persona online, attempting to lure a foreign boyfriend. Once the “boyfriend” was properly seduced, the scammer would invent a scenario. He might ask for money to pay for travel so that they could meet in person or he might claim a family member was gravely ill and ask for help with medical expenses.

Gabby was confident that his plans would prove profitable. “What wouldn’t you do for your girlfriend?” he asked. “And so if I ask for money he will give it to me, definitely.”

But over months and months of effort, despite Gabby’s apparent confidence and the rumors of vast profits, he was unable to dupe anyone or make any scamming profits. In fact, the young scammers that Burrell spoke with in 2005 admitted to her that they saw few if any gains from their strategies.

The Professionalization of Internet Scamming

This had changed when Burrell returned to Ghana in 2010. Gabby, for one, had obtained a few thousand dollars from an Internet scam, by adjusting the format of his scam. He had diversified his gains, investing in the local music industry and renting out two trucks he had acquired.

These youth, disillusioned with the possibility of forging authentic connections with foreigners, instead sought attention through misrepresentation; their Internet scams demonstrating increasingly clever strategies of social engineering. Entire Internet cafés had been overtaken by scammers, and their profits were clearly evident in the young men’s conspicuous consumption of new cars, jewelry, and trendy upscale clothes.

There was also much more public visibility for the scamming subculture and considerable alarm in Ghanaian society over the activity. Scamming came to be refered to by the Hausa term ‘sakawa’. Headlines warned of “The Sakawa Menace,” and crime movies had titles like “The Dons of Sakawa.”

Despite the widespread approbation — even moral panic — a too-weak police and court system in Ghana has left scammers to pursue their gains largely without resistance, Burrell said. “Scammers did not fear the local police, though family pressures and societal stigma did compel some young scammers to quit.”

Increasing Isolation

In response to the spread of Internet scams from Ghana and other West African countries, many online businesses have begun blocking access to anyone connecting from Ghana and Nigeria. This extreme response to the Internet security issue now blocks not only scammers, but also legitimate online activity by Ghanaians.

Travel websites Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz all refuse to book airline tickets to Accra, Ghana. Paypal does not permit money transfers to or from Ghana or Nigeria. Many dating sites block all traffic from the continent of Africa.

These deliberate exclusions from the Internet only heighten Ghanaians’ sense of isolation. One blogger lamented, “if we take ecommerce as one component of modern global citizenship then we are illegal aliens of sorts, and our participation is marginal at best.”

Burrell experienced this isolation first-hand on one of her research trips. “After logging into my account on Amazon.com, I received an email that my password had been changed automatically. The email warned that I may have been the victim of a phishing scam, presumably because my IP address resolved to a location in Ghana.”

Reconsidering the “Global Village of Tomorrow”

Burrell’s research forces the reader to reconsider some of Americans’ preconceptions about the Internet.

If, as Bill Gates said, the Internet is “the town square for the global village of tomorrow,” Burrell’s research suggests that some people are being marginalized from that ‘town square’ or ‘global village’. “Westerners’ security mechanisms create a wall between African counties and parts of the Internet,” she observes. “That's really problematic.”

More than that, Burrell’s research explores the ways that the Internet exposes existing social and cultural barriers, and the creative ways that young urban Ghanaians attempt — sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully — to overcome those barriers.