On June 4, 2013, armed robbers invaded a house in Apapa GRA, Lagos and among the goods stolen was a blackberry phone. Shortly after the incident was reported at Apapa police division, the phone was tracked down at Harvester Hotel along Ojo Road, Ajegunle, a densely populated area of Lagos state.
Armed detectives stormed the hotel. In the hotel, the officers discovered that, for three months, five young men had been occupying three certain rooms. And they were promptly apprehended. Those arrested were Desmond Isreal Ozore, 27, Solomon Miebi, 38, Jamiu Adigun, 23, Hakeem Apejoye, 25, and Umukoro Jerry, 22. Although, they claimed that the controversial blackberry phone was bought in an open market, they admitted that they decided to relocate to that hotel for easy access to their unidentifiable and undisclosed business. Police say they are internet scammers, allegation the suspects have not denied.
The suspects were arrested and owners of the hotel invited to explain why they harbored such young men for such a long time without alerting the police. According to the police at Apapa division, this arrest is one out of several cases especially of fraudsters that have been traced to hotels where they take permanent or prolong residence. “In most cases, the owners of the hotel will be arrested and prosecuted, while others will be released if it cannot be established that they are accomplices to the crime. It is no longer news but we gladly storm any hotel, if we can get concrete evidence that fraudsters are resident there. We have discovered that most of them, although they claim they are merely internet fraudster, are also armed robbers at night.”
At the police, the suspects sensationally told why they decided to relocate to hotel rather than stay at home or business centers. According to Desmond, whose family lives in Ajegunle, the hotel remains the safest place to operate from. “Shortly after I dropped out of school due to lack of funds, I decided to try my hands in online dating. Initially, we use to patronize business center but we were constantly raided. If you decide to stay at home, your family members will disturb you and your neighbours will see you as a deviant. In this era of one million boys, your neighbours can point at you as a suspect.
“But if you can lodge in a hotel room, it is easier and safer. Most big time scammers are resident in big hotels but since we are still young in the game that explains why we are currently staying in this hotel and pay as much as N5000 per night.”
On their modus operandi, Desmond, who claimed that he is yet to record a major breakthrough, said: “We make use of online dating networks by applying as older men or young girls with a stable background. Most of these men and women are more comfortable when they know you are advanced in age. In this era of facebook, you can easily access the photography, names and detailed information of an individual. You keep trying your luck till it finally clicks. Luckily, the money that I have made in this business is enough for me to comfortably pay for this room on a daily basis and still save money. You need concentration to succeed in this business.”
Another suspect, Solomon pleaded that they have no case to answer since their victims were not forced to part with money. “They normally give us money out of sympathy. It is becoming more difficult because they are aware that some people are out there. This is why we had to device another technology which ensures that if your target demands to see your face, the programmed image will appear at her own end. People are frustrated and in need of love that is why they are easily deceived.
“My family has written me off as a liability because I am still at home at the age of 38. I had no choice but to relocate to the hotel and do my job from there. I was the one that bought the blackberry phone that exposed us. I never knew it was stolen, I believe that this is God’s way of telling us that there is nothing hidden under the sun.”
Another suspect, who felt that he could be exonerated, confesses that although he had spent two months in the hotel, he is a pickpocket. “I am a professional pickpocket and that it where I raise money to pay for a room in the hotel. It is only an intelligent person who can comfortably go into scam business; it is meant for graduates. I tried it once but it was not easy because I cannot speak good English. Ajegunle is very hot for criminals or any young man to loiter about without a definite source of living. I had no choice but to reside in the hotel since the money I make on a daily basis by picking pockets is enough to pay my bills. I am not an armed robber or a fraudster. I only take advantage of people who are careless with their properties, especially their wallets.”
When our correspondent visited the hotel, the manager was said to be very busy. However, one of the receptionists who spoke on the condition that his name will not be mentioned said that the hotel has no business with whatever any client might be doing in his room.
“We are here to make money, so long as it is not a life threatening issue. Our cleaner do access the room and report anything suspicious. These boys do not owe us; therefore we are not bothered that they spend months in the hotel. It is not our business; it left for the GSM providers to track them and arrest them,” said the receptionist.
Continued the staff “When those boys were traced to our hotel, we quickly handed them over to the police. It is not a new thing; if you should invade all the hotels in Lagos state, you will discover that scammers are all there. They felt that they cannot be traced and most especially the privacy to freely discuss with their mugu.”
Meanwhile, the Special Fraud Unit, Ikoyi has declared war on hoteliers who accommodate fraudster in their premises. According to the commissioner of police, Tunde Ogunsakin, the fight against cyber crime is not restricted to the prime suspects; it extends also to the accomplice, including owners of hotels where the former are arrested. “It is part of the responsibility of owners of hotels to ensure that they monitor the activities of their guests. They flood these hotels because of easy access to the internet and it is expected that the hotel should establish a control room, which duty will be to block such activity within their premises. Such a guest should be asked to vacate the premises or is reported to the police.”
Our investigation indicates that this is becoming a phenomenon – fraudsters exploiting the impersonality, security, coziness and convenience of hotels to perpetuate their activities. Even within hotel environment, they are not hard to identify. And because of the liberalization of access to the internet and the hassles of operating from cyber cafes, hotels provide haven. According to a hotel staff in Festac area of Lagos, “the most obvious object you see them with is laptop. Once they walk into the hotel, you will know that this one is yahoo yahoo.”
With this new operational strategy, these fraudstars may just be playing catch me if you can with anti-crime agencies. Once it was plain OBT (obtaining by Trick), then they get sophisticate with the entry of internet, operating from cyber café. When the police and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) turned the heat on that, they now moved up a notch – to hotels. Reaffirmed suspect Desmond: “If you can lodge in a hotel room, it is easier and safer. Most big time scammers are resident in big hotels but since we are still young in the game that explains why we are currently staying in this hotel and pay as much as N5000 per night.”