Gay sex scams – and community responses – in Ghana

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 scammer hopes to reach a tourist who had hired a prostitute and saw himself as a potential target for extortion, or a person who hadn’t hired a prostitute but was sufficiently embarrased by the prospect of being confronted in a hotel lobby that he pays hush money.

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. As Haute Haiku suggests in the post on Global Voices, this type of scam is particularly likely to ensare gay people who are just coming out and trying to discover the gay scene.

A number of websites discuss this phenomenon in Ghana and Kenya and offer worthwhile, practical advice. Other take a more direct approach – Fakers2Go offers a photo gallery and profiles of men believed to be scammers posting their profiles on gay dating sites, and asks anyone else victimized to post information on the website as well.

The Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) is trying to determine the extent of blackmailing schemes, asking victims to call a hotline and report anonymously. They report that victims have been asked for sums of money ranging from $6 to $25,000. Because GALCK is so involved with this issue and willing to defend victims in court, scammers have evidently taken to asking potential victims if they’ve heard of the organization and backing off if they have.

It strikes me that this story can be read either as an extremely depressing narrative about how human beings treat one another over the Internet, or as a testament to the power of virtual communities. I’ve written and spoken in the past about 419 scams as evidence that the connections we can build over the Internet are at least as likely to be negative as positive ones. It’s no surprise to most of us that random individuals we’ve never met before they contact us on the Internet seldom mean us well. But gay dating sites are a slightly different story – they’re designed to introduce people who’ve never met before, and there is, I suspect, an assumption of a common ruleset for people participating within the community (i.e., if you’re here, you’re probably gay and looking to meet someone.) This sort of community norm may be a dangerous thing in open spaces like the Internet – if you’re assuming that everyone’s motives on the site are the same as yours, you’re susceptible to attack by someone abusing the site for fraud.

But it’s the response by groups like GALCK and Fakers2Go that strikes me as extremely encouraging. Imagine if eBay had begun without a feedback mechanism and a community, say of record collectors, began monitoring bad trades and developing a website to identify scammers. Scammers would surely change names, but there would likely evolve a “whitelist” of known participants in the community who hadn’t defrauded people, as well as blacklists, and there might emerge a karma system more nuanced than eBay’s positive/negative method targetted to the specific needs of a community. (It’s pretty common in record collecting to buy a record that isn’t quite the condition it was advertised as being in. Is this a mostly satisfactory transaction? A completely bad one? Disagreement on condition between buyer and seller or a form of fraud? A community based rating system might address these issues…)

I’ll be interested to see whether community sites emerge to try to police and mitigate the dangers of gay sex scams. The relative anonymity of the internet, the dangers of the scams and the benefits of removing predators from a community seems like the perfect recipe for this sort of community policing – I’d expect to see dating sites encourage this sort of policing as well. What would be more disappointing – but certainly possible – is dating sites eliminating profiles from Kenya and Ghana in the hopes of protecting people from scams at the expense of actual gay individuals in these countries looking to meet people.

The story was also a reminder for me of what Global Voices is able to do that can be difficult for other media outlets to replicate. Because we’ve got an author who’s integrated into the African GBLT community, we were able to find a topic of community discussion that hasn’t crossed into mainstream media yet. While this story has been amplified by a gay-focused blog, I’ll be very interested to see whether it crosses over into mainstream media.

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10 Responses to Gay sex scams – and community responses – in Ghana

  1. Solanasaurus says:

    I’m glad you picked up on this story. Inspite of the dark story, I too was heartened by the online community and outward communication LGBT bloggers in Africa are fostering. I would love to know what international dating websites like Outpersonals and the other mentioned in Haute’s post are doing to crack down on the scams. A ranking system like eBay’s would surely be awkward (“this person went on 50 dates, and has medium approval rating”…). But it seems to me they should be pushed to offer more advice about risk, sor links to those who are, if the scams really are being conducted this systematically. Pre-moderation by eager members? I checked out of curiosity, and the help section of OutPersonals has only a vague warning telling people to use their common sense.

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  3. Victor says:

    Am very happy to read this story thus enlightening most foreigners about this menace.What in the name of good sex do people travel all this way for pleasure if i may put it.Mr Ethun thanks a hundred times for promoting this on your site and i would always here to contribute.Any one who needs information for a research work on the scamming practices in my country can contact me on here and am willing to give my possible best.thanks and may the good lord bless us all from this scamming practices.Be wise foreingers.

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  5. Gayle Pescud says:

    I’m pleased you wrote this story and it was picked up at GV. It is a worry. I see it on this side, here in Ghana, almost every time I enter an internet cafe. When I moved north, I wondered if geography and distance would make a difference, but even in the far north, children and young men frequent gay dating sites and chat with foreigners, posing as men or, at the non-gay sites, women, almost every time I go to browse. If they’re sitting at the next desk, I can sometimes watch these ten year old children who should be in school chatting on, usually, yahoo. I was recently traveling and I met a gay man who had picked up a young Ghanaian man online at a gay site. This was the British man’s first visit to Ghana so they could meet. They happened to have breakfast at our table and the British man told the whole story. It was clear that the Ghanaian boy, still in high school, was ashamed to discuss the situation with us, hanging his head and not making eye contact, which was in great contrast to the enthusiasm with which the middle-aged British man described the situation. My Ghanaian partner and I saw through it, and tried to find out if all was well with the boy. The man was paying the boy’s way through school and implied that he’d continue to pay for university close to him in the UK. They met on a dating site. The Ghanaian boy looked wretched and hardly spoke. If Ghanaians had more options in life, more access to financial support, perhaps they wouldn’t have to resort to this. It is a very big issue, all over the country. Thanks for bringing it to everyone’s attention.

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  7. wali ali says:

    hello am wali from ghana and single

  8. Ethan says:

    Seriously, dude? This post is about scammers in Ghana trying to lure people by seeking gay contacts online. This is probably the single worst place on the web to try to get someone to correspond with you, since the whole post explains how many of these contacts are leading towards fraud or violent crime. Try somewhere else.

  9. Peter the Irishman says:

    I have read this article with extreme interest – as I have all the other sites which warn others about negotiating a relationship with those from Ghana. I live in the UK, and met my current partner some 6 years ago this way. He acknowledges that there are those who do this for a living – he has seen them, 12 year olds who pretend to be adults looking for love, at his local internet cafe and who seem to spend all of the day there – he is from Sunyani – and says finding a seat in the local internet cafes for legitimate use is almost impossible. He can see why many use this as a means of earning a livelihood as the “obroni” (the white man) has “lots of money” and can support others with a little effort – a dollar or a pound of a euro can go a long way if used properly.

    I married my partner here in the UK exactly 3 years ago – we live happily together with his 12 years old son, whom he was supporting and now we both support, and is developing into quite the young man! His mother still lives in Ghana and has no wish to come to the UK – but understandably, has the best wishes and hopes for her son. My partner was expected to “match up” with his son’s mother when he was a teenager, but it didnt work out – to his and her parent’s chagrin.

    I can easily envisage many more happy years between us to come; we have a fulfilling relationship, and we get along like a family – even though it is an all-male family, of sorts. It can work – but only with perserverance. There are real men in Ghana, who are really gay, and who need to escape from the illegal and grinding reality that they have of necessity had to embrace as life. My partner is now 34, we met online when he was 28 – but no money exchanged hands under any circumstances until I managed to meet him in the flesh. That way, I suppose, I was able to keep our relationship “clean”.

    I have come across others who ask for money on the 2nd or 3rd email, when trying to establish friendships. These, I refuse to reply t again, as it is obvious what their main intentions are. They spend all day in front of a computer to make a living by deceiving others – not a good way to do it, but unless some form of legitimate employment with decent wages comes their way, this is what they are restricted to.

    I am 48 – no spring chicken, but at least young enough and with still some life left in me. 14 years of an age gap isnt much, when one examines things truthfully. My partner and I have often discussed retiring to Sunyani and setting up some kind of business to keep these internet hounds TRULY busy, earning an honest living for a change – without cheating the “obroni” for once in their lives!

  10. martinl1919 says:

    Gayle Pescud Says> “If Ghanaians had more options in life, more access to financial support, perhaps they wouldn’t have to resort to this. It is a very big issue, all over the country”

    I feel the problem is of a different nature, (cultural or something else) rather than financial support or poverty. All other countries in Africa are poor or extremely poor, (not to mention 99% of them homophobic) and yet this phenomenon seems to be happening ONLY in Ghana (and from what I read only one other country> Kenya).

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