These dangerous scammers don’t even bother to hide their crimes

Summary: This article discusses the activities of the Yahoo Boys, a group of young men in West Africa who are prolific scammers and engage in various types of fraud.

Threat Actor: Yahoo Boys | Yahoo Boys
Victim: Various individuals | various individuals

Key Point :

  • The Yahoo Boys are a loose collective of scammers in West Africa who openly engage in fraudulent activities, including sextortion scams.
  • They operate in online groups across platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, and Telegram, openly sharing scripts and techniques for scamming people.
  • These scammers generate hundreds of millions of dollars each year and have a significant online presence on platforms like TikTok, YouTube, and Scribd.
One hundred dollar bill Benjamin Franklin portrait looks behind brown craft ripped paper

Most scammers and cybercriminals operate in the digital shadows and don’t want you to know how they make money. But that’s not the case for the Yahoo Boys, a loose collective of young men in West Africa who are some of the web’s most prolific—and increasingly dangerous—scammers.

Thousands of people are members of dozens of Yahoo Boy groups operating across Facebook, WhatsApp, and Telegram, a WIRED analysis has found. The scammers, who deal in types of fraud that total hundreds of millions of dollars each year, also have dozens of accounts on TikTok, YouTube, and the document-sharing service Scribd that are getting thousands of views.

Inside the groups, there’s a hive of fraudulent activity with the cybercriminals often showing their faces and sharing ways to scam people with other members. They openly distribute scripts detailing how to blackmail people and how to run sextortion scams—that have driven people to take their own lives—sell albums with hundreds of photographs, and advertise fake social media accounts. Among the scams, they’re also using AI to create fake “nude” images of people and real-time deepfake video calls.

The Yahoo Boys don’t disguise their activity. Many groups use “Yahoo Boys” in their name as well as other related terms. WIRED’s analysis found 16 Yahoo Boys Facebook groups with almost 200,000 total members, a dozen WhatsApp channels, around 10 Telegram channels, 20 TikTok accounts, a dozen YouTube accounts, and more than 80 scripts on Scribd. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Broadly, the companies do not allow content on their platforms that encourages or promotes criminal behavior. The majority of the Yahoo Boys accounts and groups WIRED identified were removed after we contacted the companies about the groups’ overt existence. Despite these removals, dozens more Yahoo Boys groups and accounts remain online.

“They’re not hiding under different names,” says Kathy Waters, the co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit Advocating Against Romance Scammers, which has tracked the Yahoo Boys for years. Waters says the social media companies are essentially providing the Yahoo Boys with “free office space” to organize and conduct their activities. “They’re selling scripts, selling photos, identifications of people, all online, all on the social media platforms,” she says. “Why these accounts still remain is beyond me.”

The Yahoo Boys aren’t a single, organized group. Instead, they’re a collection of thousands of scammers who work individually or in clusters. Often based in Nigeria, their name comes from formerly targeting users of Yahoo services, with links back to the Nigerian Prince email scams of old. Groups in West Africa can be often organized in various confraternities, which are cultish gangs.

“Yahoo is a set of knowledge that allows you to conduct scams,” says Gary Warner, the director of intelligence at DarkTower and director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Computer Forensics Research Laboratory. While there are different levels of sophistication of Yahoo Boys, Warner says, many simply operate from their phones. “Most of these threat actors are only using one device,” he says.

The Yahoo Boys run dozens of scams—from romance fraud to business email compromise. When making contact with potential victims, they’ll often “bomb” people by sending hundreds of messages to dating app accounts or Facebook profiles. “They will say anything they can in order to get the next dime in their pocket,” Waters says.

Searching for the Yahoo Boys on Facebook brings up two warnings: Both say the results may be linked to fraudulent activity, which isn’t allowed on the website. Clicking through the warnings reveals Yahoo Boy groups with thousands of members—one had more than 70,000.

Within the groups—alongside posts selling SIM cards and albums with hundreds of pictures—many of the scammers push people toward other messaging platforms such as Meta’s WhatsApp or Telegram. Here, the Yahoo Boys are at their most bold. Some groups and channels on the two platforms receive hundreds of posts per day and are part of their wider web of operations.

After WIRED asked Facebook about the 16 groups we identified, the company removed them, and some WhatsApp groups were deactivated. “Scammers use every platform available to them to defraud people and constantly adapt to avoid getting caught,” says Al Tolan, a Meta spokesperson. They did not directly address the accounts that were removed or that they were easy to find. “Purposefully exploiting others for money is against our policies, and we take action when we become aware of it,” Tolan says. “We continue to invest in technology and cooperate with law enforcement so they can prosecute scammers. We also actively share tips on how people can protect themselves, their accounts, and avoid scams.”

Groups on Telegram were removed after WIRED messaged the company’s press office; however, the platform did not respond about why it had removed them.

Across all types of social media, Yahoo Boys scammers share “scripts” that they use to socially manipulate people—these can run to thousands of words long and can be copied and pasted to different victims. Many have been online for years. “I’ve seen some scripts that are 30 and 60 layers deep, before the scammer actually would have to go and think of something else to say,” says Ronnie Tokazowski, the chief fraud fighter at Intelligence for Good, which works with cybercrime victims. “It’s 100 percent how they’ll manipulate the people,” Tokazowski says.

Among the many scams, they pretend to be military officers, people offering “hookups,” the FBI, doctors, and people looking for love. One “good morning” script includes around a dozen messages the scammers can send to their targets. “In a world full of deceit and lies, I feel lucky when see the love in your eyes. Good morning,” one says. But things get much darker.

The Yahoo Boys have been behind a recent wave of sextortion across the United States and elsewhere, says Paul Raffile, an intelligence analyst at the Network Contagion Research Institute who is closely tracking the criminals. Broadly speaking, during sextortion, a scammer will use intimate or explicit images to try to get someone to pay them money. “The Yahoo Boys are the principal threat actor behind the surge of sextortion that we’re seeing over the past 18 months,” Raffile says. “They are responsible for forcing dozens of teens to suicide.”

In a series of posts in one Telegram channel, highlighted by Warner, who is also involved in Intelligence for Good, one cybercriminal can be seen walking others through how to run a sextortion scam. They say they tricked people into sharing nude images—posting screenshots of the conversation—and explained ways other people can replicate it. “Hey I am posting your naked pictures on social media and Facebook,” says a sample message cybercriminals could use. “Am not just posting it am sending copies of it to your area,” the message says, before demanding $700.

While the scripts like these are shared on all social media channels, WIRED found at least 80 on the document-sharing service Scribd. The company removed them after WIRED got in touch, with a spokesperson saying there are limits on what people can upload and that the company has automated and manual reviews to remove content. “We’re actively building out new capabilities to broaden the scope of content moderation coverage to include a wider range of concerning text and image violations,” the spokesperson says. Some of the scripts had been online since 2020, and on pages where they were removed a “reading suggestions” section recommended other scam scripts.

Raffile says the Yahoo Boys have been able to “thrive” online “due to lack of moderation around all the illicit material” that they’re sharing. “They’re acting with impunity because they feel they will never get caught,” Raffile says.

Beyond the messaging platforms, the Yahoo Boys have a presence on TikTok and YouTube. “We design our app to be inhospitable to those who seek to exploit our community and we’ve removed this content for violating our policies,” a TikTok spokesperson says.

“Our policies prohibit spam, scams, or other deceptive practices that take advantage of the YouTube community,” a YouTube spokesperson says. “We also prohibit videos that encourage illegal or dangerous activities. As such, we have terminated the flagged channels for violating our policies and our terms of service.” They add that the company removed accounts for breaching policies about harmful content, spam, and generally violating its terms of service.

The accounts posted tutorials about how to scam people, link to groups on messaging apps, and promote technology for fake video calls. On TikTok, multiple accounts include carousels of images that the scammers can use in their efforts to create believable personas. Some of these include posts of elderly women for scammers who are in “need of grandma pictures for proof” of their fake identities and others for scammers who “need kids pics” for their victims.

As well as being a threat to thousands of people around the world, the Yahoo Boys can be quick to adopt new technologies. David Maimon, a professor at Georgia State University and the head of fraud insights at the identity-verification firm SentiLink, has monitored Yahoo Boys for years and says their techniques have evolved alongside new technologies.

“To build rapport with victims, the fraudsters first used text messages, then started sending recorded audio messages, to now using deepfake tools to communicate with victims live,” Maimon says. “On some of the markets we now also see the use of cloned voices. It is now accompanied with sending physical items to victims such as presents, food deliveries, and flowers.” Within some groups, they use “nudification” tools to turn photos of people clothed into nude photos, and deepfake video calls.

While the Yahoo Boys have been active for years, all the experts spoken to for this piece say they should be treated more seriously by social media companies and law enforcement. “It’s time that we start looking at Yahoo Boys as a dangerous organization, transnational organized crime, and start giving it some of those labels,” Raffile says.

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