We receive a lot of correspondence from people who have been contacted by young Gambian men on social networking sites such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter and and are wondering how to respond. We have found that, more often than not, this has led to difficulties where the legitimacy of the case in question cannot be easily verified.
We have robust procedures in places to ensure that the work we carry out in The Gambia is ethical and legitimate. We have years of experience working in Gambian communities, and our staff in both the UK and The Gambia are well aware of internet scams and the potentially devastating impact this can have on real children in The Gambia.
We have seen first-hand how internet scams and hoaxes can draw attention away from children who are desperately in need of support, and how people who thought they were helping others have lost vast quantities of money to scammers and organised crime rings.
Scammers prey on innocent people with no remorse for their actions – the risk to the scammer is minimal, but the consequences for the victim can be life-altering and devastating. Through emotional and financial abuse, scammers have the power to destroy lives.
THE NATURE OF SCAMS
Many people pretending to represent families in need on social media have a common trend of phrases and scenarios they use to build up a story and evoke sympathy. We have seen the same exact scenarios repeated almost word-for-word amongst hundreds of requests for aid since we began working in The Gambia, and we ask everyone who comes to us with a similar story to exercise discretion and care when encountering a request.
Internet scams first gained notoriety in the 1990s, with many people falling prey to stories of need or requests for money transfers from Nigeria and other parts of Africa. More recently, great numbers of scams have been recorded in Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), and unfortunately now The Gambia has also seen a significant number of financial scams.
From our experience, we have seen victims lose hundreds or even thousands of pounds, dollars or euros through scams, drawing money away from legitimate children in need and inadvertently feeding organised crime. In many cases, scammers trawl the Internet for victims, and spend weeks or months building a relationship with their victims. Scammers can be very clever and deceptive, creating sad and believable stories that will make you want to send them money. Scammers work in networks, and often when one victim has handed over money, they will be contacted by more and more people requesting donations. Online crime is seen as a very easy way to make money, and the details of victims can be passed through networks of scammers or even sold on the dark web.
Gambian scammers are using social networking sites to find victims targeting people in far-away countries. They create fake profiles to prey upon the sympathies of their intended victims, many of whom they identify as well-educated or wealthy. They are masters of manipulation, intentionally seeking individuals who are vulnerable in one way or another – those who are lonely, bereaved, divorced or struggling with mental illness. Artistic people are more likely to be scammed than people working in the financial sector.
To the scammer, the act of requesting money from strangers online is not at all personal – it is a business. Internet scammers can earn tens of thousands of pounds – or millions of Gambian Dalasis – simply through having a convincing enough story to lure in potential donors. Many of them try to justify their actions by stating that The Gambia is an impoverished country, but in reality, they are only exacerbating poverty and inequality that already exists in The Gambia. None of the money collected by scammers is ever given to women and children who truly need it. It is used almost solely for clothing, jewellery, electronic devices, or even drugs and alcohol.
For these reasons, Child Aid Gambia is unfortunately unable to take on any cases of individuals who have been referred to us through social media.
THE ANATOMY OF SCAMMERS
Gambian scammers are young men who prey on individuals they meet on the Internet, to trick them into handing over vast quantities of money. Scammers are known as ‘cafe boys’ (due to conducting their work in Internet cafes), ‘fraud boys’ or ‘game boys’, and the victims are referred to as ‘clients’ or ‘targets’. The most successful scammers work though the night targeting the USA and Canada, which prove to be the most fruitful, where the big money can be made.
Networks of scammers in The Gambia are using sophisticated and intelligent methods to collect and share the information of potential targets, lure them in, and make requests for increasingly large sums of money. The most successful scammers are those who are just beyond the age of childhood, so as to still appear ‘young’ to their targets, and the majority are young men between the ages of 16 and 21. Even those who are just 18 or 19 can have several years’ experience in contacting strangers online, and despite their young age may already know all the most successful tricks. Instagram is the preferred social media platform, but you may also be contacted on other sites such as Twitter or Facebook. Many scammers will have many false accounts using different names, and some may even use the same photographs.
Scammers have a tendency to work in groups – if one is successful, they will pass on the details of the person they have received money from to other scammers. They will work their way through your friends list several at a time, with the victim’s account eventually becoming a hub for organised crime. You may find it difficult to believe that you are being scammed, and this is understandable – the stories are often elaborate and designed to evoke sympathy, but this is all part of the ‘job’ of the scammer.
Scammers work primarily by building up a sense of trust and friendship. They may provide selfies, update you on how they are doing several times a day, and even hold up signs in photos and videos explaining why they need money. They enjoy video calling and chatting over the phone, and persistence is a significant factor in their success. We have experienced some individuals who have asked the young person to hold up a photo of a name as ‘proof’ of their identity, but this does not necessarily mean that they are being honest and legitimate about who they are. Many victims believe that because they have seen the scammer in photos or on video calls that they are legitimate, but this is not necessarily the case.
Gambian scam artists will reject all notions of being provided support by charities or local organisations. They will claim that charities are dishonest, and that they want money provided directly to them, rather than being referred to an organisation or service that can provide them with more long-term support. They will reject any attempt of contact from anyone in The Gambia, dealing with foreign nationals only, and will ‘talk down’ the effectiveness of local aid. They will justify what they are doing by claiming that they are not committing a crime – that they are living in poverty, and that stealing from people in the Western world is simply taking what is ‘owed’ following The Gambia’s history of colonisation. Child Aid Gambia is working to support Gambian families who have been impacted most by generations of colonisation and subsequent poverty. Giving money to scammers is increasing the suffering of Gambian children who are truly in need.
A hard-working scammer with a few years’ experience can easily earn in the region of $1,500 a week or $78,000 a year by talking to many targets at the same time, This is great deal more than the President of the Gambia earns in a year, they are able to earn more through targeted scams than they ever could working a legitimate job in the Gambia. Scammers take pride in their ability to trick and deceive. Some scammers have even been found to have emigrated from The Gambia completely, travelling to Europe via the ‘back way’, while sending photographs of The Gambia to victims and insisting they still live there.
In order to avoid falling for a scam, we recommend that you only donate to a known charity or organisation operating in The Gambia.
Child Aid Gambia is a grassroots charity working in partnership with communities in The Gambia to reduce poverty, and nobody working for us in the UK receives any salary or expenses. We have full-time staff in The Gambia, who are themselves Gambian and are knowledgeable about the impact of scams.
THINGS TO LOOK OUT FOR
- The request is likely to come from a young man who claims to be between 16-20 years old. We have never experienced a request of this nature from a young woman or a child under 15.
- The majority of these cases we have encountered involve a young man from the Brikama region – we believe this is due to the high volume of internet cafes in Brikama. We have also received requests from the following areas in and around Brikama:
- Hawla Kunda
- Jaliba Junction
- Khan Kunda
- Mansaring Su
- Nyambai/Nyambai Forest
- Sammeh Kunda Ba
- We have also received requests from Bakau and the Sukuta Town area of Bakau.
- The young man almost always claims to be the sole caregiver to several younger siblings and an elderly and frail relative, such as a grandmother or aunt. He may also claim to be running an ‘orphanage’, or tell you that he is taking care of many young children that have previously been living on the street.
- He may claim to have found an abandoned newborn baby in the bush that he is now taking care of.
- Both parents of the young man and his siblings have passed away. He may also claim that his parents have abandoned him.
- The young man is currently unemployed, and is not in school or university education. He may be requesting money for a loan to start a business. We have commonly encountered people asking for money to buy a car that they can use as a taxi, despite not being able to drive or produce a valid driving license.
- He claims to need money for his siblings to go to school, but he is unable to provide any school reports, receipts from paid school fees or evidence of his siblings’ enrollment in school.
- He will be a friendly and chatty young man, and will attempt to appeal to someone based on common interests or background, such as sharing a faith e.g. Christianity, or reaching out to those who have children of their own. He will want to be friends, appearing grateful for your contact, and in some cases even refer to you as ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’ or ‘Dear Brother/Sister’ to evoke a familial relationship. Scammers are charismatic and use their social skills to appeal to victims.
- He may claim he and his family are persecuted Christians, and that none of their neighbours will help or even talk to them because of their faith. While Christians are a minority faith group in The Gambia, the Gambian people are happy to live, work and intermarry between faiths, and do not discriminate against anyone on the basis of faith. In reality, he is most probably not a Christian at all, even though his Instagram or other social media account will contain quotes from the Bible. Gambian scammers hold the belief that all Americans and Europeans are Christian, and that posing as a Christian online will gain a greater chance of receiving money.
- He will appear to take an interest in your background and circumstances, inquiring about your job, income, family and marital status. Their intention is to establish and build up trust between you. They will have already looked through your social media account to see if you are a worthy victim.
- He may also target you specifically due to your own circumstances of personal hardship, such as a bereavement, relationship breakdown, or serious illness. He will appear to sympathise with you at first, only to begin asking for money soon afterwards. He may seek to fill a gap in your life, such as when your children have left home or if you have lost a partner.
- He will often send photographs of himself, his siblings or relatives, and his local area such as a house that he claims to be his. He may want to initiate video calls on platforms such as WhatsApp, as many people believe that video chatting or talking over the phone provides a sense of legitimacy – even if this is not truly the case. He will often appear emotional and may even cry while talking to you, in an attempt to manipulate your feelings towards them.
- He may attempt to manipulate you with sudden and dire circumstances, pleading that one of his young siblings is in a life-threatening condition and will die or starvation or illness without your help.
- The young person will begin to ask for money soon after contacting you, sometimes within a matter of days. An emergency may suddenly occur after a number of days, such as an accident or sudden medical need.
- He will give you his name and phone number within a matter of days, and ask you to send money using sites such as Worldremit.com (international money transfers). The first donation is never the last, and once he has successfully received a donation from you he will begin asking for the next. The requests for money are likely to increase in size as time goes on.
- He may ask you to set up a Go Fund Me page or a similar crowdfunding platform for him, often with a large target of thousands of pounds or dollars. He will ask you to collect the money from the page into your bank account before transferring it to him, and will also ask you to encourage all of your friends, family and colleagues to donate to the fund. This is an easy way for a scammer to collect vast sums of money from multiple sources.
- The young man may have been collecting firewood in the local forest area in order to sell to buy food for his family, but he claims that local authorities have ‘stopped’ this. However, the Forestry Department and police have no right to prevent anyone from gathering firewood in The Gambia. (Source)
- He may also claim that he is unable to collect firewood in the forest due to the presence of dangerous animals, insects and snakes.
- There is a sense of urgency to the story, usually in the form of unpaid medical bills. The young man claims that an accident has occurred, such as himself having fallen out of a tree or one of his relatives being hit by a car. They have received medical treatment but are now in possession of a substantial medical bill. They may produce a forged medical bill, or a legitimate bill which has been altered to include an extra ‘0’ on the end, multiplying the true cost by 10.
- The young man may claim that he or one of his relatives is suffering from untreated malaria or HIV/AIDS. He may claim that a relative has recently died and that he needs money to buy land where he can bury them.
- The young man may claim that the family is starving hungry, or that he is forgoing food for the sake of his relatives. He may tell you that he has not eaten in several days, or that he is surviving only on a single cup of rice.
- The family may be unable to pay rent, and may be facing imminent eviction or homelessness. He may ask for financial assistance to build a house or provide house renovations to defend against adverse weather (such as The Gambia’s rainy season). He may inform you that building materials are ‘expensive’ in The Gambia, which we know not to be true from our local experience.
- He may pose himself and his family in front of derelict or unused buildings, claiming that is where the family has been sleeping.
- The social media pages associated with the young person may have been created very recently, and may only have a small number of posts. His posts will often involve photographs of children or locations in The Gambia, and may involve references to religious beliefs or quotes from religious texts such as the Bible. The person may have many accounts running, posting the same photos under different names.
- The young man is most likely to contact someone who has never been to The Gambia before, and lives in a country far enough away to prevent them from visiting (e.g. the USA or Canada), and will often be online all night long talking to potential targets.
- The person is likely to be talking to several different people at once, and so may occasionally respond in a way that does not make sense. He may have mixed up the response intended for you with a response intended for someone else. A scammer can be juggling up hundreds of different instant messaging conversations over a certain period of time.
- You may feel a general sense of unease about the situation; something about it may not feel ‘right’, and certain details of the story may not add up.
In all situations we have encountered, the young man has been urgently requesting funds, without making clear how exactly they will be used. In many cases, requests for small donations increase gradually until the young person is requesting hundreds or even thousands of pounds, euros or dollars.
We have contacted many individuals claiming to represent families in need through our case workers in The Gambia, and they are often unresponsive to contact from Gambians or organised charities. They insist that they are only taking donations from the people they have contacted online.
As well as the above points to look out for, there are several ‘red flags’ which may indicate that the young person you are talking to is not being entirely truthful about their circumstances. They may claim to be in significant poverty, unable to afford to buy food, but in photographs they are smartly dressed in designer or branded t-shirts and clean shoes. Having a stable enough internet connection in order to message and call on a high-quality smartphone camera may also indicate that the individual is more financially stable than they appear, as Wi-Fi and 4G internet in The Gambia both operate on monthly contracts which need to be paid continuously.
If the young man sends or posts photographs of himself with several children, both he and the children may be wearing the same clothes in every picture. This suggests that the photographs were all taken on a single day, and that the children in question may not be related to the young man himself. We have had instances where scams involving Gambian children have resulted in the children being taken from their families for photo opportunities, receiving nothing in return.
The young man may have photographs on his page that do not appear to have been taken by him. It is likely that these photographs have been stolen from another source and reposted without credit, and a reverse Google Image search can quickly reveal the original source of the image.
When requesting sponsorship for school or education, the young man is likely to send you a fake Gambian I.D. card and school invoice or documentation. They may have no documentation to show what school or university that they attend, claiming that it got lost or was water damaged in the rainy season. If you seek verification of forged documents and discover that things have been altered, they will suddenly begin to claim they had to resort to deception as a way to survive.
Slow down, and think carefully about what someone is telling you. Is there anything about them or what they are saying that makes you feel uneasy? Talk to someone you trust and ask them for their opinion on the situation, as it is easy to feel trapped and pressured when someone is consistently messaging or calling you to beg for money.
In our experience, many individuals who contact us with stories matching those listed above struggle to believe that they have been a victim of a scam, even when presented with overwhelming evidence such as fake hospital bills or proof that the scammer has been telling conflicting stories to other victims.
Any money wired to the scammer will be lost forever and irretrievable, and so in all cases we would urge you to act with caution. Treat all anonymous people who message you on social media as scammer until proven otherwise, and do not donate money to strangers you have met online.
THE IMPACT OF SCAMS
We entirely understand the circumstances that may lead young Gambians to ask for support online. The Gambia has a very high poverty rate at present, with 75% of families living under the poverty line, and so there is always a level of legitimacy to a young person’s claim.
However, social networking sites are not the best way to contact Gambian children in need, and in doing so you may be putting yourself at risk of being scammed. The children we support live in remote and rural areas, and have no access to mobile phones, computers or connections to the internet. Their parents and caregivers are often desperate for help through lack of contact with any charitable organisations, and many of our sponsored children have had extremely limited contact with the outside world.
In giving money to someone you cannot verify the identity of, you may be contributing to organised crime rings or the sexual exploitation of Gambian children. This is why we urge you to trust us and work directly with us in sponsoring children and communities that we are familiar with. We understand that a great proportion of the Gambian population lives in significant poverty, and this is one reason why someone may reach out online – but we always ask those with internet friends in The Gambia to exercise caution when someone asks for money. Please check any medical bills carefully to look for any forgeries, such as alterations to the price of treatment.
Additionally, the impact on the victims themselves are enormous – A number of victims of West African scammers either contemplate or attempt suicide due to the impact of the scam. Being scammed out of large sums of money can ruin lives and destroy families, with scammers often purposefully isolating their victims from their support network.
Anyone and everyone can be targeted by online scams. We do not want you to lose money – nor do we want scammers and criminals in The Gambia to receive funds in the name of charity. If you have spoken to someone online whose story matches the above description, please think twice before handing over money.
The United States embassy in The Gambia has a useful and informative page about the nature of online scams, which can be found here: https://gm.usembassy.gov/u-s-citizen-services/scams/
If you have been a victim of a Gambian Scammer you can report it to The Gambia Police and Law Enforcement Officers here or by Telephoning The GPA Crime Unit on +220 776 30 15.
OUR WORK IN THE GAMBIA
All the sponsor children on our records are known to us personally, and their identity has been verified by us and our case workers. We are familiar with their personal circumstances and needs, and we are working to improve their standards of living and secure their future. Our vetting procedure means that we strive to prioritise Gambian children with the greatest need, and we have dedicated links with schools and children’s homes in order to do this.
We work tirelessly in The Gambia to ensure that all of the people we support have genuine need. Our process of introducing a new community or school into our sponsorship schemes and various projects is rigorous and extensive, allowing us to determine the precise needs of the children we help. In supporting us directly, you are helping us to bring real change to The Gambia safely and effectively.
We receive a great number of messages from people who have been contacted by Gambians online. If everyone who wrote to us about potential scams donated £10/$10, we would have no need to host any fundraising events for a whole year.
We want to ensure that you get the best possible experience from supporting a Gambian child. If you would like to help us in giving Gambian children a brighter tomorrow, consider sponsoring a child on our waiting list or sending us a donation today.