Ghana cyber crime flourishes where jobs are scarce and literacy is high

Thousands of young people in Ghana’s capital make a living doing internet romance scams, the only way, they say, to earn decent money given sky-high unemployment levels. Their desperation is evidence of the challenge facing politicians who, ahead of a presidential election on December 7, are telling voters that job creation is a top priority.

ACCRA, GHANA (REUTERS) – Some people go to dating websites looking for love. Others look for sex. Thousands of young people in Ghana’s capital use the sites for something else: to find foreign men to rip off.

The young people create aliases using profile photos of porn actresses and start chatting online. Once trust is established, they ask for money. Time and again, the scam works.

Ghana’s per capita income is $1,700 per year but the fraudsters say they sometimes earn more than that in a month.

“When they (internet fraudsters) go to the internet cafe they go to a dating site, and when they go to the dating site, they just meet so many desperate, divorced and stuff so they just chat with you and they just get your mind,” said one fraudster we will call Ama.

Twenty three-year-old Ama scrolled through dozens of recent chats with men in the United States that she had met using aliases. Most asked for online sex and she obliged by sending photos but one man agreed to her request for 400 US dollars for her internet bill.

Her cover story is that her parents moved to Ghana when she was young and then died, leaving her a small fortune in gold or land she can only access once she marries.

“I think it is bad but, because of youth unemployment, we don’t have a work, sometimes when you sit down and think what you are doing is bad but you are in it you don’t have any option,” said Ama.

Accra’s cybercrime wave exposes government failure to create jobs and suggests many are yet to benefit from growth that for years made Ghana one of Africa’s most dynamic economies.

Youth unemployment has risen since 2014 due to slower growth caused by a fiscal crisis and lower global prices for Ghana’s gold, cocoa and oil analysts say.

However, some experts say there is more to it than unemployment.

Professor Clement Dzidonu, president of Accra Institute of Technology says Ghana’s reputation for cybercrime was affecting what could be a booming E-commerce industry and like in Nigeria, which is also notorious for Internet scams, tech savvy youths are simply taking the easy way out.

“Now with these kids going around doing these funny, funny things, actually it is difficult even with us as a university to buy some product on the internet, because once you key in and they found out that your URL , your IP (Internet Protocol) show that you are from Ghana they block it. So certainly that is causing us a lot of problems but I don’t think we can blame that on unemployment. It is just youth who have gone astray and get into this,” he said.

Ghana votes on December 7 with President John Mahama locked in a tight campaign against opposition leader Nana Akufo-Addo as he vies for a final four-year term.

Both candidates say job creation is central to their plans. Mahama said this month reforms to infrastructure and the public sector created more than 400,000 jobs on his watch.

The opposition, New Patriotic Party said it will liberate the private sector as an engine of job growth, invest in inner cities and achieve double digit growth in power.

Experts say many African countries face a race to increase growth fast enough to absorb young people entering the labour market as the continent’s population swells in coming decades.

“Well, in the capitalist world, we have the private sector expanding so much to absorb the unemployed but in the socialist world we don’t have that, everything is centralized. Everything is being administered by the central governments so its up to governments to encourage the private sectors to expand so that they can absorb these teeming graduates,” said Emmanuel Ammisah, an off-duty policeman.

Dating companies warn against giving money online and Ghana’s government has proposed a security bill to make it easier to stop abuses but smartphones and mobile money services make crime harder to detect.

Several people said their email accounts had been suspended but they just created new ones. Police and agents for Western Union and Moneygram were easy to pay off, they said.