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Why catfishing and other Internet scams thrive in Nigeria

  • Let me begin with a disclaimer. I am not talking about fishing and certainly not the delicious, marine animal that happens to sport whiskers and an extremely slippery body. Now, that we have gotten that out of the way, I bet you are hooked, and it is time to reel you in (pun intended). 

    I heard the term ‘catfishing’ quite recently even though what it denotes is not a new phenomenon. Simply put, it refers to the Internet practice of presenting yourself as someone you are not. Usually, the Internet predator tricks his target into beginning a romantic relationship with him/her by creating a fake online identity.

    I bet you have heard of at least one person who has been romantically involved with someone online. Amusingly, it seems innocuous enough. The point of the Internet is to ease communication and bring different people, scattered all over the world together, right? It is not that simple because people get hurt.

    The practice came to limelight through the 2010 documentary called ‘Catfish’ in which the protagonist, Nev Schulman related his experience in the hands of a catfish, Angela Pierce. Schulman was involved with this woman for 9 months, only to discover that she was married and not who she claimed to be. That is a pretty sick thing to do, isn’t it?

    Sadly, even certain celebrities have revealed that they have been victims — for example, the Australian singer Casey Donovan and NBA star Chris Andersen. So, it is not something that happens to just the average person on the streets. Anyone could be a victim.

    Related: Things you may want to delete from your social media for security reasons

    If you are wondering how the term was coined (I wondered about that too), well Angela’s husband, Vince used to be a fisherman and in the documentary he explained how catfish nip the tails of the cod to keep them active during transportation, which is pretty much what the catfish (Internet predators) do. 

    Over the years, the practice has become increasingly common and why? The reasons vary but usually revolve around stuff like loneliness, revenge, low self-esteem, bullying or just for the fun of it. It is really twisted but bringing it home to Nigeria; it is a different ball game.

    It is rare to find a Nigerian who catfishes for any of the reasons listed above. The motive is usually good, old money; the ability to access certain luxuries and play a fast one on poverty. The catfish are generally men, preying on foreign women or in some cases, they take on the identity of a woman to lure wealthy men. In the local parlance, it is called ‘yahoo’. 

    It is so common these days that songs have been sung about it and once a young man is seen with a laptop, he becomes a suspect. This practice is also one of the reasons, people say terrible things about Nigerians, even in movies. 

    Recently, Dr. Phil aired an episode about this, and a woman’s catfish turned out to be none other than a Nigerian and what got me was that one of the panellists screamed, “I knew it,” when the tidbit was unveiled. Saying that I was embarrassed is an understatement, but then I had to ask myself why. Why is it so rampant here?

    Of course, I talked to a few friends about it and here is our conclusion:

    It is a mindset problem. Too many young people here in Nigeria just want to hit it big. I don’t think it is a problem of only young Nigerians, by the way. These days, almost everyone feels entitled and wants a quick buck. What could be quicker than getting someone else to give you money?

    Secondly, our economy is a mess. I have heard stories of people who really needed to make something of themselves, but the opportunities weren’t forthcoming. They believed all they could do was to use their wit to scam people. They discovered it was super easy and that they were really good at it. 

    Third, the porosity of the Internet is alarming. The ease with which people can target others makes catfishing a game of sorts. It becomes fun to see how simple it is to make a fool of someone else. 
    As long as people keep thinking this way and the economy remains the cesspool that it is, Internet scamming is not going away anytime soon. About the porosity of the Internet, the government can’t really do anything about that - trying to regulate the Internet like that would be an infringement of people’s rights. This brings me to something else. Those of us who are not remotely interested in catfishing others are automatically prey for catfish. This is the reason it is important to watch what you post online. 

    Carelessness with your information means that people can track your activities and create a database about you which can be later used to bait you. Come on! No one needs to know what you are doing every second of the day, and social media is definitely not the place to lay bare your insecurities. 

    Also, if you are not the prey, you could be the person whose profile is used to attract someone else. So, in the same way, watch what you post online. 

    Lastly, I have one request. Can we all just put a knife to our throats? No, I am not suggesting mass suicide. This is not some cult. I am asking that we bring our desires under subjugation. Let’s learn to be happy and contented with what we have. When we do this, it is difficult for anyone to lure us with some promise of magic, starry nights and experiences that are out of this world. When we do this, it will also be hard for us to resort to hurting people just so we can get what we want. Sometimes, making this world a better place does not cost as much as we think. And don’ forget: whatever you do, don’t end up in anyone’s net.

    Read also: How to monitor and ensure your kid’s safety on the Internet

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