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Web of Deceit: Unmasking the Yahoo Boys and Their Global Cyber Scams

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Matthew Burgess

Brazen Fraudsters Operate in Plain Sight

Contrary to the majority of digital thieves who prefer the anonymity of the online world, the Yahoo Boys stand out. This group, consisting of young individuals from West Africa, is notorious for their bold internet scams, marking them as some of the most formidable and escalating threats in cybercrime.

A WIRED investigation has uncovered that numerous Yahoo Boy networks, spanning across Facebook, WhatsApp, and Telegram, boast memberships reaching into the thousands. These fraudsters engage in schemes that cumulatively rake in hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Additionally, they maintain multiple accounts on platforms such as TikTok, YouTube, and Scribd, attracting thousands of views.

Within these online collectives, rampant illicit behavior is prevalent, with perpetrators openly revealing their identities and exchanging methods to defraud individuals alongside fellow participants. They freely circulate guides on executing extortion schemes and orchestrating sextortion plots—actions that have tragically led to suicides—offer collections of numerous photographs for sale, and promote counterfeit social media profiles. Additionally, these scammers employ artificial intelligence to generate fabricated "nude" pictures of individuals and conduct live deepfake video conversations.

The Yahoo Boys make no effort to hide their operations. Numerous collectives openly incorporate "Yahoo Boys" and similar phrases into their group names. According to an investigation by WIRED, there are 16 Facebook groups dedicated to Yahoo Boys, boasting nearly 200,000 members in total, alongside 12 WhatsApp groups, approximately 10 Telegram groups, 20 TikTok profiles, 12 YouTube channels, and over 80 documents on Scribd. This, however, only represents a small fraction of their overall presence.

Generally, firms prohibit any material on their sites that supports or advances unlawful activities. After we alerted the corporations to the explicit presence of these groups, most of the Yahoo Boys profiles and communities that WIRED discovered were taken down. However, despite these actions, numerous other Yahoo Boys communities and accounts are still accessible on the internet.

"Kathy Waters, who helped start and currently leads the nonprofit group Advocating Against Romance Scammers, which has been monitoring the Yahoo Boys for a considerable time, states that these individuals are not operating under aliases. According to Waters, social media platforms are effectively offering these fraudsters a cost-free environment to plan and execute their schemes. "They're trading in scripts, images, and people's identities, all over social media," she points out. "The reason these profiles are still active is baffling," she adds.

The term "Yahoo Boys" doesn't refer to a united entity but to a vast array of fraudsters operating solo or in small groups. Predominantly located in Nigeria, they derived their name from initially focusing on Yahoo service users, tracing their roots to the infamous Nigerian Prince email frauds. In West Africa, these scammers are frequently part of different confraternities, which are essentially secretive societies with a gang-like structure.

"Yahoo acts as a repository of information that facilitates the execution of fraudulent schemes," states Gary Warner, who serves as the intelligence director at DarkTower and oversees the Computer Forensics Research Laboratory at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Warner notes that there is a variance in the complexity with which Yahoo Boys operate, yet a significant number manage their activities solely through their mobile devices. "The majority of these malicious individuals rely on a single device," he mentions.

Lauren Goode

Simon Matt

Paresh Dave

Pearson,

Yahoo Boys engage in various fraudulent activities, ranging from love scams to corporate email deception. They initiate interaction with prospective targets by flooding them with a barrage of messages across dating platforms or Facebook accounts. According to Waters, "They're willing to say whatever it takes to secure the next bit of money for themselves."

Looking up Yahoo Boys on Facebook triggers two alerts, both indicating that the search results might be associated with scam operations, which are prohibited on the site. Proceeding past the alerts uncovers Yahoo Boy groups boasting memberships in the thousands—one group surpassing 70,000 members.

In these communities, among listings for SIM cards and photo collections, numerous fraudsters encourage individuals to move conversations to different chat services like WhatsApp by Meta or Telegram. In these spaces, the so-called Yahoo Boys operate with greater audacity. Several groups and channels on these messaging apps see daily activity in the hundreds of posts, serving as integral components of their extensive scamming network.

Following inquiries from WIRED regarding 16 groups identified on its platform, Facebook proceeded to eliminate these groups, with several WhatsApp groups also being deactivated. "Scammers exploit every possible platform to deceive individuals and are constantly evolving their methods to evade detection," Meta spokesperson Al Tolan commented. The specific accounts removed or their ease of discoverability were not directly addressed. Tolan added, "Intentionally taai-allcreator.com">king advantage of others for financial gain violates our guidelines, and we respond promptly upon discovery of such actions. We are committed to advancing our technology and collaborating with law enforcement agencies to bring scammers to justice. Furthermore, we proactively provide advice to the public on safeguarding themselves, their accounts, and how to steer clear of scams."

After WIRED contacted the company’s media relations department, certain Telegram channels were deleted, although there was no comment from the platform regarding the reason for their removal.

On various social media platforms, scammers known as Yahoo Boys share detailed "scripts" they utilize to deceive individuals. These scripts, which can extend to thousands of words, are easily transferable and can be reused on multiple targets. Many of these scripts have been circulating online for a considerable time. Ronnie Tokazowski, the principal anti-fraud expert at Intelligence for Good, an organization assisting victims of cybercrime, observes, "I've encountered scripts with up to 30 and 60 steps before the scammer needs to actually improvise," highlighting the extent of manipulation involved. "This is precisely the method they employ to trick people," adds Tokazowski.

Scammers adopt numerous disguises, including impersonating military personnel, individuals proposing casual encounters, the FBI, medical professionals, and those in search of romantic connections. They use a "good morning" routine composed of approximately twelve messages designed to ensnare their victims. One message reads, "In a universe rife with falsehoods and deception, I consider myself fortunate to witness the affection in your gaze. Good morning." However, the situation often takes a more sinister turn.

Paul Raffile, an intelligence analyst with the Network Contagion Research Institute who has been meticulously monitoring these criminals, has identified the Yahoo Boys as the primary culprits in a recent uptick in sextortion incidents in the United States and beyond. Sextortion typically involves a fraudster attempting to extort money from someone by threatening to release their sensitive or sexually explicit photos. "The Yahoo Boys are the key perpetrators driving the significant increase in sextortion cases we've witnessed in the last year and a half," states Raffile. "They have played a role in driving numerous teenagers to take their own lives."

Lauren Goode

Simon Matt

Dave Paresh

Pearson,

In a collection of messages featured on a Telegram channel, spotlighted by Warner, affiliated with Intelligence for Good, a cybercriminal demonstrates the process of executing a sextortion scheme. The individual reveals how they deceived others into disclosing explicit photos, sharing screen captures of the exchanges, and outlines methods for others to emulate the scam. A typical message that potential cybercriminals might send reads, “Hey, I am distributing your explicit images on social media and Facebook.” The message continues, “I'm not just sharing them; I'm also sending copies to people in your vicinity,” before requesting a payment of $700.

In an investigation, WIRED uncovered that numerous scripts were being disseminated across various social media platforms, identifying over 80 on Scribd, a popular document-sharing website. After being alerted by WIRED, Scribd promptly took down these scripts. A representative from the company stated that Scribd has policies in place to limit the type of content that can be uploaded, employing both automated systems and human review to eliminate inappropriate content. The spokesperson also mentioned that the company is in the process of enhancing its content moderation tools to more effectively identify and combat a broader spectrum of problematic text and imagery. It was noted that some of these scam scripts had been accessible since 2020, and even after their removal, the site's "reading suggestions" feature was pointing users towards similar scam-related scripts.

Raffile mentions that the Yahoo Boys have succeeded in flourishing on the internet because there's minimal oversight concerning the illegal content they distribute. "They're operating without fear of consequences, believing they're beyond the reach of law enforcement," Raffile states.

Apart from utilizing messaging apps, the Yahoo Boys are also active on TikTok and YouTube. "Our application is engineered to deter exploiters from taking advantage of our users, and we've eliminated such content for breaching our guidelines," a representative from TikTok stated.

A spokesperson for YouTube stated, "We enforce strict guidelines against spam, scams, or any misleading behaviors that exploit the YouTube community. Additionally, we do not allow content that promotes illegal or hazardous actions. Consequently, the channels in question have been shut down due to their violation of our rules and terms of service." They further mentioned that the platform has deactivated accounts for infringing upon regulations concerning dangerous content, spam, and overall breaches of its service terms.

Profiles shared guides on deceiving individuals, provided links to chat groups, and advertised tools for counterfeit video conversations. On TikTok, several profiles showcased collections of photos for fraudsters to aid in crafting convincing fake identities. Among these were images of older women targeted at scammers requiring "grandmother photos for verification" of their fabricated personas and additional ones for fraudsters seeking "children's pictures" for their schemes.

The Yahoo Boys pose a danger to countless individuals globally and are known for their rapid adoption of emerging technologies. David Maimon, who holds a professorship at Georgia State University and leads the fraud insights team at the identity-verification company SentiLink, has been tracking the Yahoo Boys for an extended period. He observes that their methods have advanced in step with technological innovations.

Maimon explains that to establish a connection with their targets, scammers initially relied on text messages, before progressing to voice recordings, and eventually employing deepfake technology for real-time communication with their victims. He notes that in certain circles, there's now also the adoption of voice cloning techniques. This approach has evolved to include the dispatch of tangible gifts to the victims, ranging from presents and meals to bouquets. Additionally, within some factions, there's the application of software capable of altering images of dressed individuals into undressed versions, along with the use of deepfake technology for video calls.

Experts interviewed for this article emphasize the importance of addressing the threat posed by Yahoo Boys more stringently, advocating for social media platforms and law enforcement agencies to take a firmer stance. Raffile suggests, "We need to begin recognizing Yahoo Boys as a perilous group, akin to international criminal networks, and accordingly assign them such classifications."

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