A few years back, I was in Accra, Ghana with friends who’d helped me organize and fund Geekcorps – they were visiting our projects in the country, staying in one of the country’s nicer hotels on the beach outside of Accra.
They received a phonecall one evening from someone who claimed he was the pimp of a prostitute the man had hired and he was demanding payment for his coworker’s services.
My friend hadn’t hired a prostitute, and contacted the front desk of the hotel, who explained that this was a pretty common scam.
The scam works because some tourists do come Accra to pay money for sex, and because some of these folks stay at nice hotels.
And because prostitution is illegal, it’s a great opportunity for extortion – I suspect that there’s probably also a practice of following people from bars where prostitutes are common, then threatening to turn them into the police if extortion demands aren’t met.
Finally, because sex is a subject most of us don’t like to talk about with strangers, it tends to leave us flustered and unsettled when accusations are made, leaving us more vulnerable to making poor decisions, like paying an extortion fee.
I was thinking about this story because Global Voices ran a fantastic piece on a disturbing new phenomenon happening online in Ghana and Kenya – gay personal ads designed to recruit robbery and kidnapping victims.
A website for gay and lesbian traveller to Ghana, quoted in the story, explains that this has become a lucrative business for internet scammers: …there are some Internet cafes that are *completely* devoted to this type of activity.
It is truly a business, with finders fees paid for arranging a meeting with a foreigner, and 11 and 12 year old year-old boys watching pornography en masse and learning how to chat ‘gay’.
On the Internet, anybody can be anything, so you really do not know who you are chatting with.
Some scams focus on building online relationships, then asking for money for help in an emergency.
Others try to entice foreigners to Ghana, engage in sex with their victims, then call the police, sometimes presenting the used condoms as evidence – the scammer might ask the victim for a payment to avoid police involvement, or might share the bribe provided to the police.
The most dangerous ones – and the ones more likely to be focused on local victims – propose meetings in out of the way places (often in Tema, a city near Accra that’s generally unfamiliar to most Accra residents) and then rob the victims when they arrive.
Because homosexual sex is illegal in Ghana (as it is in many African nations) there’s little resource to the law after one of these robberies.