The Romance Scammer on My Sofa

The Romance Scammer on My Sofa

A writer’s quest to find the con artist in Nigeria who duped his mother.

By Carlos Barragán

The Atavist Magazine, No. 140

Carlos Barragán is a Spanish writer. He previously reported for El Confidencial and is currently enrolled in the MFA program at Columbia University, thanks to a Fundación “la Caixa” scholarship.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kyla Jones
Illustrator: Kumé Pather

Published in June 2023.

Natasha Bridges blanketed the Facebook inboxes of men she didn’t know with the simplest of greetings:


Plenty of the men never replied to Natasha, but it was striking how many did. Even more striking was how quickly some of them seemed to fall for her.

Can you love an older man?

So wrote a guy named James* after just a few hours of messaging. James said that he was 56 and rode a Harley. After sending Natasha pictures of his bike, James told her, unprompted, how he would perform oral sex on her.

*Unless otherwise noted, the names of scam victims have been changed.

Other men were starry-eyed. They told Natasha that she was gorgeous, that they liked her smile and her flirtatious way of chatting, that they couldn’t wait to meet her one day. There were also sentimental types, like Brett:

I don’t know if I’ll ever be truly happy again. I think the only dream I have is if I had a special woman with me.

You know I mentioned it a couple of days ago, but I haven’t seen you for a very long time. Would you please send me a few of your pictures? I would really like to see you.

Natasha had yet to respond to Brett’s latest lovelorn message. Her silence would have been callous if she was who she said she was. But given the truth—that Natasha Bridges didn’t exist—the real cruelty might have been replying.

The person sending messages to Brett, James, and dozens of other American men was named Richard, but he preferred to be called Biggy. He was 28 and from Nigeria. The photos he used in the Facebook account where he posed as Natasha—a 32-year-old single mother from Wisconsin, interested in economic development and cryptocurrency—were pilfered from the social media of a real woman named Jennifer. He’d used other accounts to pretend to be a gym instructor, and a lonely American soldier deployed abroad.

I knew all this because Biggy was sitting on a green sofa in my hotel room in Lagos, playing the video game Pro Evolution Soccer 17 as I read the private messages he’d sent to unsuspecting foreigners on his iPhone 6. When I asked why he was ghosting Brett, Biggy, scoring yet another goal for Australia in the Asian Cup final against Japan, shrugged. “Bro, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Being a Yahoo boy is very stressful,” he said without taking his eyes off the game. “Do you find it easy to make someone fall in love with you? The hustle is the same as real life, with just one difference: You have to pretend to be another person.”

In Nigeria, Yahoo boys are online fraudsters. Their nickname comes from the email service Yahoo, which became popular in Nigeria in the 2000s, and they are descendants of the infamous 419 scammers, who, first with letters, and later in emails, promised to help strangers get rich for a nominal advance fee. (The number is a reference to a section of the Nigerian criminal code pertaining to fraud.) Biggy is a particular kind of Yahoo boy: a romance scammer who pretends to be other people online to seduce foreigners into trusting him and giving him money.

Biggy’s game is all about intimacy. He invests time in building what seems like a real relationship with his victims. He flatters them, tells them jokes, asks intimate questions. “The most important thing about being a Yahoo boy is keeping the conversation alive,” Biggy told me. “Dating is all about patience. It takes a long time before a client starts trusting you.”

Yahoo boys, I was learning, love euphemisms.

Biggy estimated that over his ten years—and counting—as a romance scammer, he’d lined his pockets with $30,000 from people he conned. People yearning for love. People like my mother.

Hi Silvia, how are you? This is Brian. We contacted each other on Tinder, I hope you are having a wonderful day. It would be a delight for me if we can get to know more about each other, and to answer your question, I was once married, but now I am single after the divorce.

I would hope to hear from you soon
warm hugs
Brian Adkins
Carmel, NY 10512
[email protected] 

By a lot of metrics, my mother, Silvia, is a successful woman. She opened her own dental clinic in Spain before she was 30, and over the next two decades she served some 10,000 patients. She got married and gave birth to three boys, of which I am the youngest. But her divorce from my father in 2003, when she was 44, was turbulent and costly. After the split, my brothers and I lived mostly with our mom in various rented apartments around Madrid. For a long time, her only asset was an old Citroën C1. The bulk of her income was spent on food, education, and yearly vacations with us. “Books and travel—no matter what, there’s always going to be money for that in my house,” she’d say. 

One day in December 2015, my mother’s face seemed brighter than usual. She told us at Sunday lunch that she’d met someone. They’d connected on Tinder, an app I’d encouraged her to use. The man was named Brian, and he was a handsome, divorced 52-year-old American soldier. My mother said that her feelings were real, and that Brian’s were, too.

At first my brothers and I didn’t pay any of this much attention. Jaime and Miguel were in their twenties, launching their careers. I was 19 at the time, the only one of us still living at home, but I was busy studying at university. My mother’s blossoming romance was background noise. But when she later told us that Brian was on a mission in Syria, Miguel, a pilot in the Spanish air force, scoffed. “Come on, you really believe that? It’s sketchy,” he said.

After that my mother shared updates about her new love more sparingly, and mostly with me. She showed me some of the long, passionate emails she and Brian exchanged. She’d studied English in high school but still used Google Translate to better express herself. Brian’s messages had grammatical mistakes, too—but I thought, so what?

“Sometimes I tell Brian, ‘You’re going too fast!’ ” my mother confided in me. She’d said as much in one of her messages to him:

I hope there will be many ends of the year together. I think the love of a couple is a way to go, I am sure our beginning is good and I like it. We are in different situation, my life is very comfortable, yours not, I am surrounded of friends and family, you are only with other men fed up like you. And so…and so. I understand you hang on me and in some way I appreciate it very much, but in other way it makes me feel a little bit anxious about responsibility of being what you expect of me. 

Whatever doubts she had, the joy she felt overrode them. One day she came home with two rings: one for her, and one for Brian. “He’s coming to Spain,” she said, grinning. He’d told her that he wanted to leave the military and be with her.

Now my brothers and I were officially concerned. We asked her if she’d ever had a video call with Brian; when she said no, we told her we found it shady that, apart from a few photos, she’d never even seen the guy who claimed to love her. We argued, and my mom, hurt that her sons weren’t supporting her, shut herself in her bedroom. “I’m going to talk to my boyfriend,” she said before closing the door.

In early January 2016, about five weeks after my mother first connected with Brian, Jaime sent me a message while I was studying at the library for a microeconomics exam. “Carlos, we have to do something,” he wrote. I could feel his anxiety behind the typing bubble on my phone’s screen. “This guy told mum he’s going to ship her some bars of solid gold he’d found in a terrorist stash,” Jaime continued. “It’s a scam.”

I put down my books and did something I should have done already: I googled “scams” and “American soldiers.” Dozens of results appeared. There were warnings about con artists, many of them in sub-Saharan Africa, professing love to victims at warp speed, then asking for money. Some of these scammers told their targets that they could deliver gold, gems, or cash that would help them build a new life together, if only the target helped cover shipping costs or customs fees. Once the victims delivered the money, the scammers either continued stringing them along or simply vanished.

My mom was almost certainly being targeted. It didn’t make sense—I was sure that she was smarter than the people you hear about on the news who lose their life savings to online con artists. Still, realizing that it might take hard evidence to convince her that Brian wasn’t who he said he was, I did some research and found an app that could trace an email sender’s location through their IP address. Now I just needed to get into my mom’s Gmail account to pinpoint where Brian really was.

In the meantime, Jaime confronted her with the truth over lunch. My mother was confused: Brian had sent her so many emails and photos, confessed his feelings and fears. How could he not be real? “Mom, I’m sorry, but there will be no gold,” Jaime told her. “End of story.”

When I arrived home that evening, my mom was alone and upset. She wasn’t ready to let go of the fantasy—she clung to a glimmer of hope that it was all a misunderstanding. We sat on our sofa and, using the app I’d downloaded, I showed her how it could determine where an email came from. As an example, I used an email from my father, who lived in China. “You see? He sent me this email from Shanghai,” I told her. My mom then gave me her Gmail password, and I used the app to locate Brian. His emails weren’t coming from Syria; they were coming from Lagos.

My mother’s face went as white as the wall behind her. When she spoke, it was with quiet shame: “What a fool I am.”

Then, within days, she seemed to move on. She deleted most of the emails from her scammer, as well as the dating apps on her phone. “I’m done with men for a while,” she said, laughing. She kept busy at work, and a few months later was interviewed by a newspaper about her clinic. In the photo accompanying the article, she wore a uniform and a big smile. She told the reporter that she liked restoring people’s self-esteem.

Eventually my mom dated again, but never seriously. From time to time she would tell me, “I think another scammer contacted me.” She acted as if falling in love with someone who didn’t exist was funny. I remembered how, when I was a child, she taught me that each morning was a new opportunity to put the past behind you. She seemed to be living her own advice.

In February 2020, four years after learning the truth about Brian, I moved into an apartment with a friend. I was 24 by then and working as a journalist. Jaime was living in Germany, and Miguel was stationed in Badajoz, over 200 miles from Madrid. I knew that my leaving would be difficult for my mother, but then, just two weeks after I moved out, the prime minister declared an unprecedented state of emergency: Spain was one of the hardest-hit countries in the early stages of the pandemic.

During three months of mandatory lockdown, my mother became anxious and depressed, so I started violating COVID rules to stay with her three days a week. I would drive through Madrid’s deserted streets, hoping to avoid the police, mad at my brothers for not being close enough to help, mad at the world for putting me in this position, and mad at myself for being mad. My mother and I would watch the news over dinner, and she’d talk about being alone. This led to arguments. “You don’t understand what it’s like when no one needs you,” she said. Sometimes I felt like I might as well have been invisible.

I was surprised to find myself thinking about Brian, now four years gone from our lives, and wondering again why my mom never suspected him. She was capable and independent, our family’s anchor, the constant amid the ups and especially the downs, which could have put me or my brothers on a disreputable or self-destructive path. How did she become so unmoored? What had I missed? It was as if there were a mirror in my mind, and when I put my mother’s sadness and isolation in front of it, the reflection I saw was her scammer. Except of course I had no idea what Brian looked like, what his real name was, or how he plied his criminal trade.

A year and a half into the pandemic, I told my mother I wanted to go to Nigeria to find her scammer. She was in the kitchen, whipping up something to eat, and as soon as I asked the question, I worried how she would react. “If not find him,” I quickly added, “at least try to understand why he did it.”

My mother looked at me and smiled. She nodded several times. “Every time I hear John Legend’s ‘All of Me,’ I remember him,” she said. “He dedicated that song to me.”

No one has been able to quantify the precise number of romance scammers in Nigeria, but it may well be in the hundreds of thousands.

My fixer, Bukky Omoseni, was waiting for me at the Lagos airport when I arrived close to midnight in March 2022. I already knew that Bukky, whom I met through a journalism acquaintance, was skeptical that we’d be able to locate Brian. “It’s easier to find a needle in a haystack,” he told me on a phone call before I left Madrid. He was probably right. No one has been able to quantify the precise number of romance scammers in Nigeria, but it may well be in the hundreds of thousands. The only lead I had was the email address Brian had used with my mom. I sent a message to it, pretending to be her, saying that I missed him, but the email bounced.

At the very least, Bukky promised to connect me with other romance scammers, and he was true to his word from the start: He brought Biggy with him to the airport to pick me up. Biggy, whom Bukky referred to as his “assistant,” took his nickname from Biggie Smalls, and he bore a slight resemblance to his “mentor,” as he called the long-deceased rapper. “He’s the Notorious Biggie, I’m the glorious Biggy,” he joked.

With Bukky’s driver, who called himself Skulls, at the wheel, we headed to my hotel in Ikeja, on the mainland. It was a two-story building with a patio, a club, and an indoor swimming pool on the ground floor. When we got to my room, I could feel the walls shaking—the party downstairs was at its peak. A hotel waiter knocked at the door; he’d brought up a bottle of whisky and some ice. “Let’s celebrate,” Bukky said. “Carlos is here!”

Drinking quickly set things in motion. After two glasses, we went down to the club, where dozens of women were dancing, a band was playing Afrobeat songs, and men were throwing cash on the floor, making it rain. Bukky joined in with a few Yoruba singers while I sat on a couch with Biggy, who was drinking and smoking silently. I tried to start a conversation, but the music was too loud. Instead, I asked him for a cigarette, to have something to do as I watched the scene before me.

The next morning, Bukky started acting strangely. He went to the bank to deposit some money but couldn’t remember his PIN. When he got back he looked unwell, and he kept repeating a single word: September. September. September. I wondered if he was still drunk from the night before or if he’d taken drugs. Biggy calmed me down. “He’s probably sick from malaria,” he explained.

Bukky fell into a fitful sleep. He woke up periodically and apologized to me; each time, I begged him to go to a doctor, only to have him say that he was feeling better before closing his eyes again. The cycle continued for several days. (Bukky did eventually go to the hospital; his mother later said that he was diagnosed with malaria and typhoid.)

That was how I wound up spending most of my time with Biggy. When I wasn’t interviewing one of the dozen other Yahoo boys I met during my trip, we watched old Hollywood movies and replays of British soccer matches in my apartment. Biggy also became my unofficial guide to Africa’s largest city.

One morning the two of us went out for breakfast. It was a Sunday, and the streets throbbed with life. Lagosians abhor slackness; as the pidgin saying goes, I no come Lagos come count bridge (I didn’t come to Lagos to count bridges). The phrase refers to the city’s geography, which includes a coastal lagoon. As Biggy and I snaked through the stalls of vendors selling food, animals, and every ware imaginable, a spirit of entrepreneurship was palpable.

“Do you want to eat something international? Pizza? Sushi?” I asked Biggy.

“Tired already of jollof rice, man?” he replied.

“No! Love it. But maybe you want to try out something different later.”

“I’ve never tried sushi, but I don’t like Chinese food.”

“Chinese don’t eat sushi, Biggy. Japanese do.”

“Are you drunk?!” Biggy shouted over the noise of the street. “Sushi is Chinese. Everybody knows that.”

We settled on pizza.

Biggy was stout, with a carefully groomed beard and stylish outfits. That day he wore an Adidas hat and a Toronto baseball jersey. He moved around Ikeja as if he owned the place, even though, when he wasn’t crashing at my hotel, he lived more than an hour away, in a working-class neighborhood. Biggy seemed to have a sixth sense for where danger might lurk, but he betrayed no fear. He waved at everyone who made eye contact with him and spoke boastfully in his deep bass voice.

“Look,” he told me at one point, slowing his pace and grabbing my arm. He discreetly pointed to two young men with dreadlocks and fancy clothes who were climbing into a Lexus. “Those guys are into Yahoo.”

You just have to mention the words Yahoo boys to a Nigerian and watch their reaction to understand how deeply embedded scammers have become in the national conversation. A lot of people see them as young men who’ve chosen a life of crime, preying on foreigners and marring Nigeria’s reputation. “They are blinded by greed and the desire to make fast money,” Ademola Adeeko, a political writer, told me. A high-ranking police officer said that their upbringing was to blame: “It is not an issue of ‘what can the police do?’ It’s only their parents that can guide them properly.”

There’s another side to public opinion, however, one that sees Yahoo boys as young men pushed to the brink by their circumstances. Nigeria has an estimated 53.4 percent unemployment rate among 15-to-34-year-olds, and an average monthly income on par with what it was in 1980. Many people complain that the government is riddled with corruption far more serious than what the Yahoo boys are up to. “Scammers steal from foreigners, and they spend the money here,” a Lagosian musician told me. “Politicians steal from us and spend the money abroad.” One romance scammer I spoke to put it this way: “Are you going to apply for a job that will pay you 25,000 naira when a bag of rice in Nigeria is 30,000 naira? Inflation is crazy. Prices are skyrocketing. The only thing in Nigeria young people can do to survive is joining Yahoo. No office work can give you the kind of money that Yahoo will give you.”

That’s why Biggy began “hustling,” as he calls it, in 2012. He was 19 at the time. He noticed that some of his friends had nice clothes, watches, and phones. They were Yahoo boys, so he became one, too, focusing on romance cons. “I started doing it for a better life, because the country itself is fucked up,” he said. “We are brainers, not scammers. Would you be able to cook up a story and tell it to someone who has never seen you in your life and get them to send money?”

The playbook for romance scamming starts with creating, buying, or hacking a social media account to pretend to be another person, usually a white, attractive American. Biggy’s first identity was Frederick Bolten, a U.S. soldier based in Afghanistan. Biggy told me that it’s better if a fake account has existed for a while, because that helps it appear legitimate. When he created Natasha Bridges’s profile, he joined lots of American Facebook groups, prompting members to send Natasha friend requests, which in turn made it seem like she had a network. Then he left the account alone for two years before he started “bombing,” slang for sending messages to hundreds of strangers.

Think for a minute—you may have received one of these messages on Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, or any number of dating apps, asking how you’re doing or complimenting your profile pic. You may have even joked about it with your friends. Scammers know that most people won’t reply, but occasionally someone does. That person becomes a “client,” and the dance begins.

At first, Biggy wasn’t sure what to do when someone responded to him. How am I supposed to start a conversation? he remembered thinking. How can I build a relationship with this stranger? In time he decided that he had a real gift for making people fall in love with him. He was able to work in a range of emotional registers. He saw that a simple “How was your day, babe?” could mean a lot, and that making a client laugh kept them interested in a conversation. “You need to have a good sense of humor,” Biggy said. “If they crack a joke, you should also crack a joke.” On the flip side, he had to be ready to go deeper. Take his exchange, as Natasha, with a man I’ll call Bob:

B: Im battling Father Time and Mother Nature. And losing both races
N: Well you can’t run both races one has go for one
B: Which one becomes more influential?
N: Well those that make u happy
B: Hmmmm. What makes you happy?
N: Being able to handle my financial business without stress.

How long it takes to earn a client’s trust varies. “It might take a month, it might take a week, it might take two days,” said Biggy’s friend and fellow scammer Smart Billion. “All you have to do is keep talking.” What’s certain is that, once they establish a close relationship, a reason will come up to ask for money. He’ll say that he has a medical emergency or unexpected legal fees, or that he wants to get a plane ticket to meet in person. “Just don’t be a dumbass. Don’t ask for $50 after two days,” Biggy said. “That will be a red flag.”

One of Biggy’s strategies as Natasha was to ask for money for child care, so that she could visit a client for a weekend without her daughter. Mentioning money causes some victims to become suspicious and drop out of the conversation, but others are so emotionally invested that they give the scammer whatever he requests, no questions asked. They don’t care that they’ve never met the person asking for money, someone who speaks in clichés and whose messages are often filled with typos—a function, Biggy explained, of talking to so many people at once. (English is Nigeria’s official language, and many scammers are college educated.)

Some Yahoo boys are so successful, they live lavish lifestyles by Lagosian standards—hence the scammers we saw getting into the Lexus, and the young men filling fancy clubs around the city night after night, buying bottles of Moët. Visible affluence has made scammers into powerful symbols in some circles, where they inspire not shame but pride. In Nigeria’s hip-hop culture, for instance, they’re synonymous with wealth and luxury. “Yahoo Boyz” and “Am I a Yahoo Boy” are just two of the songs about con artists to rack up millions of views on YouTube.

Some musicians also paint Yahoo boys as populist heroes—modern-day Robin Hoods, taking what they need from those who have more than enough, because their country won’t provide for them. “No job for street / No pay, no way, how boys eat / … Dem no go do Yahoo if dem get choice,” raps Xbusta. In 2019, Naira Marley, a popular hip-hop artist, said publicly that Yahoo boys aren’t doing anything wrong, implying that their cons are a price the West must pay for the legacies of slavery and colonialism. His statement stirred up considerable controversy, particularly after Marley was arrested on online fraud charges. (The case is still pending.)

Biggy told me that he earned enough from hustling to cover his personal expenses as well as his parents’ rent. When I asked what his mom and dad thought about how he makes his money, Biggy bristled slightly. “It isn’t they don’t care, bro, but do you have a solution to unemployment?” he said. “If you say I should stop this hustle I’ve been doing for years, would you give me a job? That will pay me more than I’m collecting? If you can’t answer the question, then you can’t judge me.”

“For every successful Yahoo boy that makes $100,000 from a victim and buys a house,” Bukky said, “there are hundreds with a phone in the slums who get no more than a hundred dollars.”

History shows that cons beget cons and rackets evolve. The first documented 419 scam, according to Stephen Ellis’s book This Present Darkness: A History of Nigerian Organized Crime, was staged by P. Crentsil, a former employee of the colonial government in Lagos. On December 18, 1921, he wrote a letter to a contact in the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) presenting himself as “a Professor of Wonders.” The recipient, he promised, would experience the benefit of Crentsil’s magical powers—if they paid him up front.

Crentsil, however, was merely putting a twist on what, in 1898, The New York Times referred to as “one of the most successful swindles known to the police authorities.” The so-called Spanish prisoner con involved a scammer sending a letter in which they posed as someone writing on behalf of an inmate in one of Spain’s notoriously brutal prisons seeking funds to secure release; the people who received the letters, often merchants, were promised a reward for their support. As it happened, prominent individuals living in Nigeria during the colonial period were the targets of some Spanish prisoner cons; in April 1914, the Nigerian Customs and Trade Journal reprinted a letter from the British ambassador to Spain, Arthur Hardinge, who wrote, “It is considered advisable that the public in Nigeria should be warned to be upon their guard.”

Incidence of 419 fraud ramped up in the 1980s, as Nigeria’s share of the global oil market shrank and the national economy contracted. Letters purportedly written by Nigerian princes or petroleum executives were sent around the world, becoming such a problem for the country’s image that Nigerian embassies bought full-page ads in European newspapers warning readers about the too-good-to-be-true offers that might show up in their mailboxes. When the World Wide Web was born, scammers went paperless. Where previously a lot of them had worked for organized syndicates, now anyone could be their own boss—all they needed was an internet connection, which was readily available in Lagos’s proliferating cybercafes. The police sometimes raided these establishments, but with the advent of wireless internet and smartphones, there was little law enforcement could do. Not that they haven’t tried: Cops have been known to check young people’s phones for messages sent to Westerners via Facebook or dating apps. The practice led to backlash during Nigeria’s End SARS movement, a series of massive protests against police brutality, and in 2020 the government ordered law enforcement to stop.

These days, Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is tasked with cracking down on scammers and anyone aiding or abetting them. Outside the commission’s headquarters, there’s a sign with the slogan “EFCC will get you, anywhere, anytime,” under a picture of a menacing-looking eagle. But the truth is that at best the EFCC is playing Whac-a-Mole. Meanwhile, foreign authorities are barely in the game: By the time victims in Western countries inform law enforcement what happened to them—if they do at all—the perpetrator is almost certainly in the wind.

There are still criminal organizations running rings of scammers in Nigeria; Biggy told me that he worked for one when he first started out, sitting in a cramped apartment and sending 20,000 spam messages a day to foreigners, hoping for a few replies. He made about $30 a month, and described it as the worst time of his life. It’s much more lucrative to go it alone, he explained, if you can pay for your own internet. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to get rich right away, or ever. I remembered something Bukky told me on the phone before my trip: “For every successful Yahoo boy that makes $100,000 from a victim and buys a house in Lekki,” an upscale part of Lagos, “there are hundreds with a phone in the slums who get no more than a hundred dollars.”

Biggy told me that he often hangs out in a “crack house” on the outskirts of Lagos, where five to ten guys huddle in a room, discussing clients and doing drugs to stay awake—Yahoo boys tend to work at night because of the time difference with the United States. They swap stories about their experiences to help one another. “We grab a joint, listen to music, and share ideas,” Biggy said.

Recently, one of his friends had been scamming a 61-year-old truck driver in Florida who, after 33 years of marriage, was in the middle of a divorce. “He said his wife had sued him in court,” the friend told me. “I think she’s gonna win the case, and my client will lose his properties. That’s bad for me. I’m sad for him. I’m telling him everything will be fine, trust me, believe in God.” As for Biggy’s friend Smart Billion, he once didn’t sleep for three nights in a row because he was talking nonstop to Jennifer, a woman in Iowa. She sent him more than $500, then abruptly blocked him online.

Had he said the wrong thing? Did Jennifer get wise to his con? Smart Billion might never know, but there were Yahoo boys who, when their scams weren’t going well, turned to higher powers for help. Early one morning, Biggy, Skulls, and I drove to the working-class neighborhood of Ejigbo to meet with a practitioner of what’s known as “Yahoo plus.” The man was a juju priest who claimed to help romance scammers improve their game.

We met Gbenga in the middle of a road, and he led us to the backyard of a building through a worn metal door as a cluster of kids watched from a distance—they likely weren’t used to seeing oyinbo (white people) in the area. There were boxes holding live animals in the yard, and tires were scattered about on the dusty ground. Gbenga pulled out plastic chairs for us, then went inside the building. When he returned he was wearing orange pants, an apron, and a belt covered in small skulls. He was holding a potion made of soap and snake’s egg—one of his most in-demand products, he explained. The cost: 250,000 naira (roughly $500).

Gbenga told us that he made around 1.25 million naira ($2,500) every month selling the concoctions, many of them purchased by Yahoo boys, who then consumed them. His is a family business: “All my ancestors were herbalists, and I hope my kids do the same.” At one point during our visit, Gbenga grabbed a pot, poured liquid from a recycled bottle of Fanta into it, then mixed in a few eggs. He said that if he made this potion while looking at a picture of a Yahoo boy’s client, it would make the scammer “successful in love.” 

Drinking potions isn’t the only form of Yahoo plus. On the instruction of juju priests, young men will sleep in cemeteries, eat feces, or bark like a dog, all in the hope of improving their relationships with clients and making more money. Footage of these rituals has gone viral on social media, and even made the international news. Some scammers scoff at the stories. They think Yahoo plus is bullshit and call juju priests “the 419s of the 419s”—the scammers’ scammers.

Yahoo boys also have a word for their victims: maga, which means foolish, senseless, or gullible. One of the most popular hip-hop songs about scammers is “Maga Don Pay.” Brian, who as my trip wore on I came no closer to finding, probably used the term to describe my mom.

When I asked Smart Billion over lunch one day how he perceived his own clients, he said, “I don’t see them as fools. I see them as my helpers.” He reached for another slice of pepperoni pizza as he spoke. Biggy had bought us a huge meal: several pizzas, boxes of chicken wings, soft drinks, and ice cream. All told he’d spent around 45,000 naira ($60), more than many Nigerians’ monthly income. As we talked about clients, he posted pictures of us on Snapchat.

Data from the Federal Trade Commission suggests that Americans over 60 lose the most money to online fraud. This trend is likely true in most Western countries with a lot of scam victims. But Biggy and other Yahoo boys told me that age isn’t what makes someone fall for a romance scam—loneliness does. “It’s only a lonely person that will pay attention to you,” Biggy said. “Loneliness is the number one key to be scammed.” Exploiting it, he said, required feigning empathy. “You have to fabricate a story saying that you also are lonely,” he explained. “Because if you can’t show that you are also lonely, how can you convince your partner that you share the same problem?”

A recent Harvard study suggests that more than a third of the country feels “serious loneliness,” including 61 percent of young adults and 51 percent of mothers with young children. A deep sense of isolation has been linked to elevated blood pressure, dementia, anxiety, and paranoia. It can also affect how we reason with ourselves and interact with the world. “Loneliness is the inability to speak with another in one’s private language,” author Yiyun Li has written. “That emptiness is filled with public language or romanticized connections.” It’s no mystery why the romance-scam business skyrocketed during the pandemic, when so many people found themselves cut off from normal life. According to the FTC, Americans lost $1.3 billion to romance scams in 2021, an 80 percent increase over 2020 and a sixfold jump since 2017.

Biggy said he sometimes felt like his clients’ therapist. “Their lives would be worse without me,” he claimed. Take Pamela, whom he’d been talking to for almost three years. Pamela lived in Texas, and was the mother of two daughters, one of whom had died in a car accident. She thought Biggy was an American named Christopher. At some point, despite divulging that she was on welfare, Pamela began sending money to Biggy, eventually depositing about $2,000 into accounts he directed her to. She also suggested more than once that she might commit suicide. In December 2021, Biggy replied to one such threat:

I swear to God I will help u baby
I don’t wanna lose u or let u die
I don’t know if u can open coinbase and binance baby
That’s the one going
Let’s do this fast my queen
You been out in the cold too much
I love u

A few weeks later, when Biggy wished her a happy New Year, she replied bitterly:

Who cares that it’s a new year, another year the same fucken bullshit.

Later, in January 2022, she got drunk and sent him a raft of messages:

I might not show it I smile for everyone to see but inside I’m broken nobody knows cause I don’t talk about it.

The love I feel for you will never change.

Seeing these messages was like reading someone’s diary without their permission—I felt uncomfortable, even embarrassed, knowing what Pamela had said. I asked Biggy if he ever felt the same, or if he at least worried about her. “She’s not going to kill herself,” he said. “She just craves attention.” It sounded like he was convincing himself as much as me.

“A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, you know?” he continued. “If I feel sorry, how I’m gonna get money?” 

If it was only about money, I asked Biggy, why was he still talking to Pamela when she hadn’t sent him any in a while and he didn’t think she would again?

“Dunno,” he said.

He told me that he knew of clients who didn’t get angry when they figured out they were being conned. “When they’re totally in love with you, when they fall fully in love with you, they don’t give a fuck if you are a scam or not,” he said. “There are some whites that know you are a scam, but they will still pay you. They will tell you, ‘I know you are a scam, but I love you.’ ” He burst out laughing at the thought.

Like everyone else, Smart Billion didn’t have a clue who Brian was, but he did have an opinion about my mom: “She was ready.”

Biggy acknowledged that he thought about quitting the Yahoo life, but not because he felt guilty for swindling his clients. “I don’t want my kids to know that their father was a scammer,” he explained. Plus, he was in love with a Nigerian woman he’d met on Facebook, and he wanted to start a family with her. (She was real, he insisted. He’d talked to her on video, and Biggy, like all my sources, said there are very few female romance scammers.) Like a lot of Yahoo boys, he also hoped to become a hip-hop musician one day. Maybe then he could stop scamming.

There are stories of Yahoo boys who left the game because of their clients. I visited one of them, a man I’ll call Bamidele, in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, near the end of my trip. It was morning when I arrived, and already stiflingly hot. I was thankful to cool off in Bamidele’s Toyota Corolla.

Bamidele said that he’d been living on his own in Abuja since he was 18. He moved there from his hometown south of the city because he wanted to be a hairdresser, and he got a job in exchange for a place to stay, which turned out to be a small shipping container. He hated it—“surviving was hard, I only ate gari for a while,” he said, referring to ground cassava root often cooked into a porridge. One day in 2018, someone took him to a house where young people scammed Americans for a criminal syndicate. He became a Yahoo boy but again made no money; payment was in the form of food and accommodation. Eventually, he got a paying job as a scammer, and he became better and better at duping his targets. He told me that he’d persuaded a Dutch client to send him $3,500, and that a woman he messaged with ended up traveling to Afghanistan, thinking that the man she’d fallen in love with was there.

Then there was Yolanda, who gave me permission to use her real name. (When I first spoke to her on the phone, she told me, “My story is like a movie.”) Bamidele found her on Instagram, where he pretended to be a white American man. They chatted for two months before Yolanda, who was from Spain, became suspicious and read up on romance scams. She wrote a message to Bamidele, translated it online into Yoruba, then sent it off.

When Bamidele read it, his face grew hot—he’d been discovered. He tried to deny the truth, but Yolanda was no fool. Normally, this was when Bamidele would block a client and turn his attention to other targets, but Yolanda surprised him by asking for a video call. He accepted, and an unlikely friendship was born. Yolanda even flew to Abuja to meet him. She started an NGO to support women and girls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram, and she gave Bamidele a loan. After meeting Yolanda, he stopped scamming to become an Uber driver.

Over beers and wings on a terrace overlooking Jabi Lake, I told Bamidele about my mom and Brian. Because Brian’s emails had come from a computer instead of a smartphone, my hunch was that he worked for a syndicate with the resources to provide scammers with hardware. Bamidele, who had a boyish face, chuckled at my ignorance. “It could have been anyone,” he said.

Then his tone turned serious; the sun was setting as he spoke. “You must understand that victims tell everything to their scammer. Everything!” Bamidele said, emphasizing each syllable of the word. “I’m 100 percent sure that your mother told things to her scammer that you don’t know. Things about her that you have never imagined in your life. Her ambitions, her flaws, her broken dreams. They are looking for someone that will listen to them, period.”

I resented the suggestion that someone my mother never met might know more about her than I did. But Bamidele’s words echoed something I’d heard from Smart Billion. At the end of each interview with a Yahoo boy, I’d show him messages between my mother and her scammer, hoping he might know who Brian was. “This guy is goooooood,” Smart Billion had practically crooned. Like everyone else, he didn’t have a clue who Brian was, but he did have an opinion about my mom: “She was ready.”

All my life, since I was a child, then as a wife and then as a working mother I spend my life taking care of the others and now I wish someone takes care of me.

I really want to hear your voice before year ends. I want this present from you. As I told you if you would be able to tell me by email you are going to call me I could answer it is allright. I have seen WhatsApp is not a good idea. Anyway I have written I want the time passed very quickly and to be with you as soon as possible. 

Take care of yourself. There is someone in Spain waiting for you!

Un beso, Silvia

One of the most vivid memories from my childhood is holding hands with my mother as she walked me to school. I was probably seven years old; this was in the middle of my parents’ divorce. I remember my mom looking down at the ground as we walked, and I was vaguely aware that she was sad. To cheer her up I squeezed her hand, and she answered me by squeezing back. We created our own silent language with our fingers.

Perhaps because my parents’ split was messy, I felt older than other kids my age, which made for a kind of loneliness. To keep myself company, I made up stories. I also spent countless hours in front of my PlayStation, pausing between games or levels to look through the window and wonder if the world outside was getting away from me. I don’t remember feeling particularly sad, just empty, like a shoebox without shoes in it.

At one point, my mom entered a romantic relationship that lasted several years. Rather than be happy for her, my brothers and I were mostly annoyed. Where’s mum? Who is this guy? We don’t like him! Sometimes, instead of going out, she would invite her boyfriend and others over to the house on a Saturday evening, fix them drinks, and play Nina Simone or Amaral on a loop. I remember being at least somewhat aware that she was staying in because otherwise I’d be by myself. There were other Saturdays when it was just the two of us, and we’d play Monopoly for hours, rolling the dice and buying properties late into the night.

When I started university I became less solitary, but I still enjoyed spending time with my mom. On weekend mornings, I would read novels and she would make jewelry, with classical music playing in the background. We’d have lunch, and drinks later in the day. We talked, of course, but I was convinced that our relationship was built on a comfortable silence. We didn’t need words. “My last son,” she sometimes said, “what am I going to do when you leave?”

My mother never had another serious boyfriend, which confused me. She was intelligent, funny, and pretty, with hypnotic eyes she inherited from her own mother. Privately, I began to wonder if her trouble finding a partner was because she was too picky (Hes bald) or because she actually wanted to be alone (He can’t keep up with me). That was easier than acknowledging her when, after another failed date, she would ask me, “Is this the price I have to pay for having three wonderful sons?”

At some point my mindset changed. I spent time with my mom more out of pity than anything else. I told my friends that I felt bad for her, that I felt guilty leaving her alone. There’s a thin line between compassion and condescension when it comes to one’s parents, and it’s hideously easy to tip from one sentiment into the other.

It’s also easy to judge the victims of romance scams—I did it with my mom, wondering how she could have been so foolish. Speaking to others like her, it became clear that this knee-jerk reaction could be devastating. During my reporting, I joined several Facebook support groups for victims of romance scams, shared my mother’s story, and talked to anyone who reached out. There were widows, divorced people, and retirees. Some of them had lost tens of thousands of dollars, gone deep into debt, or mortgaged their homes to get scammers the money they asked for. I spoke to the loved ones of victims still in thrall to their scammers, including Zed, who was trying to convince his father he was being conned. “I’ve told him, I’ve showed him articles, I’ve sent him videos of scammers admitting they scam,” Zed wrote to me. As a last resort, he posted his father’s email address to a Facebook group so strangers who’d been victimized could contact his dad directly and share their experiences.

Several victims talked about vengeance. Even more talked about shame. They’d heard the same question over and over, or had asked it of themselves: How could you be so stupid to fall for a romance scam? “It’s the saddest crime on earth,” a California woman told me. Another woman confessed that she’d been in communication with multiple scammers and that cutting them off had been hard. “I used to miss talking to my scammers,” she wrote, “but I quickly realized it wasn’t them, it was how they filled my day.”

I heard Smart Billion again in my head: She was ready.

He meant that my mom was ready for Brian—or for someone, anyone, like him. Whatever affection there was in the silences of her life, in the unspoken bond with her sons, the people who loved her most, my mother longed for certain words, needed them, and for a while Brian had provided them. He once wrote to her:

At the end of the day I have this joy in my heart because I have found you. it is a beautiful feeling, I feel like I’ve not felt like this in a very long time. Do you also have that feeling like you were in high again? the feeling of being happy and scared at the same time? I am just keeping my fingers crossed, hoping for the best. I want to be happy and I know I can be happy with you.

By the time I left Bamidele to his Uber shift, it had become clear that visiting Nigeria was never entirely about finding Brian. It was also about trying to bridge the gap between my sense of my mom and her sense of herself.

I’d also recognized that my mom had a mask of her own—she often wore it with me and my brothers, to protect us as much as herself. And she’d cast it off for a stranger, a choice that was perhaps never mine to understand.

Bukky looked like a new man. When I returned to Lagos from Abuja, we spent my last few days in Nigeria together. Fully recovered from his illnesses, Bukky took me to the Nike Art Gallery, a massive compound that hosts more than 8,000 works from artists across Africa. I met with the founder, Nike Davies-Okundaye, an artist known for her exquisite embroidery and cloth work. “If there’s no love, if there’s no adventure, what is life for?” she said to me.

On the final day of my trip, after I settled my bill at a hotel on Victoria Island, Bukky and I spotted an elderly white woman and a twentysomething Nigerian man holding hands. We wondered to one another if he’d scammed her, and whether, once she found out, she’d traveled to Nigeria and they decided to be together. “If we were making a movie,” Bukky said, “you couldn’t make this thing up.”

As I waited at my gate to fly home, I opened my notebook to review everything I’d written down during the trip. On the first day, in capital letters, I’d scribbled an Igbo proverb I read in an interview with author Chinua Achebe: “The world is a dancing masquerade. If you want to understand it, you can’t remain standing in one place.” In Igbo culture, masquerades involve acrobatics, dance, and elaborate costumes that conceal the wearers’ identities. The regalia, beautiful and often fearful, is intended to evoke the spiritual realm. Achebe’s interpretation of the saying was that “we, as inhabitants of the world, must learn to adapt, to change, and to move.”

When I read it again, the proverb struck a new chord. I’d spent a long time standing in one place, seeing things one way. By traveling thousands of miles, I’d encountered young men who donned masks to manipulate people and get what they wanted from the world. I’d also recognized that my mom had a mask of her own—she often wore it with me and my brothers, to protect us as much as herself. And she’d cast it off for a stranger, a choice that was perhaps never mine to understand.

My mom listened carefully when I told her about my trip, and she only had compassion for the Yahoo boys I’d met. “I understand why they do it,” she said. She mentioned the John Legend song again, the one she associated with Brian, and it occurred to me that she had never outright blamed him for scamming her. Now 63, my mom goes every week to a book presentation, a painting class, or a flower-arranging workshop hoping to meet a man she’ll fall in love with. She’s optimistic about her future; momentary disappointments always give way to new hope.

I’ve kept in touch with Biggy on WhatsApp. He’s still scamming, but not as Natasha Bridges—he prefers other fake identities. He sometimes asks me about my mother, which makes me think of the last night I hung out with him in Lagos. We were in my apartment, where Biggy was rolling a joint, and I asked him if he had any advice for my mom. He laughed. “Tell her, please—do video calls.”

There was a long silence before Biggy spoke again. “You have to be skeptical in life,” he said. “Not all that glitters is gold.”

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