Uche Usim, Abuja
“They are the first to send you a friend request on facebook masquerading as Customs officers. But do not let the uniform fool you.
“You may also notice they literally stalk you on social media where they display non-existent seized vehicles with the sole intent of defrauding you, do not budge.”
These are the usual words of the Public Relations Officer of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS),
Joseph Attah, whenever he has to provide some illumination on the dark world of online auction fraudsters who survive on the gullibility of their victims.
The perennial scam has flourished because the scammers keep tweaking their modus operandi to mimic contemporary business realities.
Though the NCS has apprehended some of them, the number of culprits and their punishment seem not to have provided sufficient deterrent to other scammers.
The yuletide is their ‘peak sales period’ as many anxious Nigerians fall prey in their desperation to buy vehicles to heighten their fun during the festivities.
So, the online predators create a plethora of platforms and lay in ambush for victims.
For instance, they clone the accounts of real Customs officers, grab the pictures of seized vehicles from cyberspace and create a bidding platform.
The targets are usually officers from the rank of Deputy Controller to the Comptroller-General. They
also create accounts of officers in the Enforcement Unit and Area Controllers who make the seizures,
all in their efforts to confer some level of authenticity on the illicit trade.
The fraudsters also generate phoney friends and mutual friends on facebook or hack into the accounts of other responsible citizens to give their potential victims an impression that they are dealing with an upright person.
The exotic vehicles are then displayed on their Facebook pages, accompanied by the price tags and contact phone numbers.
Usually, a vehicle like 2007 Toyota Venza which sells for N4.5 million in the automobile market will purportedly go for N800,000 on the Facebook auction platform. A 2009 Honda Accord on Facebook sells for N350,000 instead of N2.8 million in car marts.
Same goes for sports utility vehicles (SUVs) with prices that are ridiculously low to the point that a buyer should naturally be concerned.
Also on display are buses, house-hold items, bags of rice and drinks, among others. All fake. For the gullible buyer, the low cost of the goods make them almost irresistible and when they initiate a business deal by bidding, the scammers follow through the entire process confidently and smartly, until payment is made. It is at this point that they block all forms of communication and patiently await their next victim.
Narrating her experience, Miss Amanda Akinfenwa, a young architect who nearly fell victim of the cyber criminals’ antics in Gwagwalada, Abuja, said she saw the auction on Facebook.
Hear her: “It was on a friend’s Facebook wall and I thought it was real. I didn’t even know the account was fake. I must have accepted the second friend request. But it was actually cloned. I was totally captivated by the alluring pictures of the vehicles and the low prices I saw were hard to resist. I was in Lagos on vacation at that time. I wanted a 2008 Toyota Matrix. I love that car a great deal.
Like we all know, auction cars are far cheaper than the real market situation and so I felt I had hit the jackpot.
“On the bottom of the page was a phone number. I dialed it and a young man picked up at the other end. He spoke so eloquently. It was very convincing.
“He asked me to come to Customs office at Idi-Iroko border in Ogun State to see what I wanted
to buy. He also gave me an option of having it delivered to me at my office in Abuja if I preferred that. However, I chose to go to Idi-Iroko. He didn’t expect me, a woman to want to tread that path. I insisted.
“As I set out for the trip the next day, we were in touch. But at some point, he was no longer taking or returning my calls or replying my text messages. Soon after, his number was switched off.
“It was then I smelt a rat. I knew something was not right. I wanted to immediately transfer money to him had I seen that car. But I narrowly escaped being duped,” she said.
Another victim, Helen Johnson, was not so lucky. According to her, she asked her mechanic to follow through the auction deal she saw on Facebook.
“It appears he connived with the fraudsters because I never saw him after that crooked transaction. I lost N700,000 because I wanted a Lexus SUV. It was so painful,” she said.
Unfortunately, several warnings and appeals by the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), dissuading the public from patronising the cyber criminals seem to have fallen on deaf ears as many still become victim of these nefarious activities on a regular basis.
According to the PRO of the customs service, the NCS does not sell cars, rice and other commodities on Facebook or other social media platforms.
Attah said: “We’ve continued to enlighten the public on the menace of online fraudsters and as we have always said, the Nigeria Customs Service does not auction overdue cargos through Facebook
or through some phoney internet creations.
“The only authentic auction is the one that has a link and the link is app1.trade.gov.ng/e-auction
and to be able to use it, you need to have a TIN, that is Tax Identification Number. So, you go on the platform, fill in the number and all the information you gave to Federal Inland Revenue Service when you got the TIN.
“You will go further to access the bank of your choice, pay the administrative fee of N1,000 and continue to bid and when you succeed, you go to the same chosen bank and pay the auction fee and others. You notice that this is not the same as the fake ones you see around on Facebook, WhatsApp, where you are asked to go and pay money into some private bank account, where you are asked to fill in your chieftaincy title, your state of origin and all that. That is not correct and those ones have nothing to do with TIN number and all that.
“So, we want to tell the public to be wary of these so-called offers that are going on on the social media. There are situations where you are even asked to pay some money for transportation that they will deliver it to your doorpost. For God’s sake, which security agency will do that? There are so many things that an average intelligent person should know that this is not genuine but it beats our imagination why you see people fall into these cheap traps. My advice to the public is to be wary of those online publications.
“Even when the fraudsters open the Facebook account using a Customs officer’s picture, I think it should not be difficult for anybody to know that the fact you see anybody in uniform does not really mean you are dealing with a genuine person. What does it take for criminals to go online, pluck the picture of anybody in uniform and give him a name and open a fake Facebook account? And with that name and picture, people are made to believe they’re dealing with the right person, which is not true. That person does not even know that his picture is being used somewhere.
“So, I think the important thing is to get to know what is genuine and what is fake and the only way to know this is to go to the nearest Customs office to make an enquiry or go online.
“Our online auction platform is completely different from those ones that you will even see a Customs officer wearing Customs uniform on the Facebook and advertising it. Our online auction opens every Monday to Wednesday by noon of every week,” he explained.
Many Nigerians believe the NCS should step up its public enlightenment campaigns on auctions and other activities of public interest to increase awareness.
Jude Onah, an IT specialist said, “the enlightenment campaign should be more aggressive. It should be on radio, television, social media and newspapers.”
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