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Inside the criminal world of Ghana's e-mail scam gangs

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E-mail scam artist gangs of Ghana
  • goes to Ghana to learn about Sakawa, a criminal world of e-mail scammers
  • Ghana has sophisticated tech infrastructure and calls itself the "Internet Capital of West Africa"
  • Government is scrambling to prevent Sakawa from hurting the country's business reputation
  • Ghana
  • Africa
  • Internet

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Brooklyn, New York ( -- Ghana is doing extremely well by African standards. Of course "by African standards" means there are dirt roads leading past the brand-new, gold-columned presidential palace, and it seems 1 percent of the country is blowing their country's GDP at bars with $50 cover charges while the other 99 is selling bags of water at stop lights. They have huge mineral reserves and lots of foreign money invested in their extraction, all of which ends up concentrated in the hands of the president, his cabinet, and whichever of their cousins they're getting along with at the time.

The Ghanaian government likes to boast that their unemployment rate is in the single digits and they're creating millions of new jobs a year specifically targeting the youth bulge, but when you pull up a pile of rubble and sit down with a member of said bulge, the story seems a lot less cheery. The actual unemployment rate for 15- to 24-year-olds hovers between 25 and 30 percent and unless you're a relative or close friend of someone in the ruling class, you can look forward to a long and fruitful career in water sales.

But Ghana also has a reasonably sophisticated technology infrastructure and has declared itself the "Internet Capital of West Africa," which is kind of archly tragic because right now the internet is the only thing keeping the kids at bay.

During Nigeria's oil boom in the 70s, Ghanaians flooded into the country to take guest worker jobs. Within 10 years they'd worn out their welcome and were deported en mass back to Ghana, but not before they'd picked up a popular local pastime: the Nigerian "pen pal scam." The way it works is you become pen pals with some dolt in America or Britain, bitch about how hard your life is in Africa, then wait for them to send you money and presents.

See the rest of The Sakawa Boys at

As computers made their way into the continent, the scam was adapted to e-mail and gradually evolved into the rainbow of weird phishing messages from state treasurers and estate managers and plane-crash lawyers that crowd your inbox every morning. And as scammers got hungrier for bigger pickins, they hooked up with hacker-types from the U.S. and Europe who taught them basic credit card fraud, which they combined with the playacting of the e-mail scam to create increasingly elaborate -- and profitable -- superscams. Then for some reason they combined all of this with black magic, and that's how Sakawa was born.

In the same way that hip-hop went from a music style into a descriptor for everything from pants to dancing to potato chips, Sakawa (which originally referred to a specific credit card scam) now means pretty much anything involving money -- if you wear a bunch of flashy brand-name clothes you're dressing "Sakawa," if you've got a nice car it's a "Sakawa" car -- all of which makes sense considering internet scamming is the only way most Ghanaians can afford this.

Right now Sakawa is in its salad days. The Sakawa Boys movie franchise has made it up to "Sakawa Boys 8," Juju priests are making a killing enchanting e-mails, Christian preachers are making a killing complaining about enchanted e-mails, and Ghanaians of all ages and interests (but mostly "young" and "not being poor") are packed into internet cafes finding more and more ingenious ways of ripping off Westerners.

While a lot of Sakawa practitioners have cooked up elaborate post-colonial justifications where they're just getting the white man back for taking all their gold, a few, like our guide Seva, see Sakawa for what it really is: a massive bubble just waiting to burst. As Ghana overtakes freaking Nigeria as the e-fraud capital of the world, the government is scrambling to find a way to keep Sakawa from wrecking the country's business reputation without cutting off an entire young generation from their sole source of steady revenue. And just to make things more interesting, Ghana just discovered oil.


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