Blog June 2, 2020

An Investigation into Domestic Nigerian Social Media Financial Scams

We identify hundreds of scam social media accounts across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and TikTok targeting individuals in Nigeria. These accounts post on compromised accounts claiming to have earned money through a fake investment scheme, and encourage others to “invest”. The potential for harm is high: by one estimate thousands have been scammed.

On April 26 the Stanford Internet Observatory began investigating scam social media accounts targeting individuals in Nigeria. These scam accounts impersonate binary option trading companies, semi-legitimate firms that let people bet on currency fluctuations (most commonly Binomo and Olymp Trade). The scam accounts entice individuals to send money via bank transfer with the promise of offering instant returns. Although the real companies also promote get-rich-quick schemes on social media and have affiliate networks of their own, they fall short of targeting and scamming individuals, acting more akin to gambling platforms. Scam pages and accounts, by contrast, encourage users to contact them (most commonly via WhatsApp) and post fake screenshots of supposed successes, depicting bank account transfers in large amounts. They also compromise user accounts and create posts and screenshots on the stolen accounts claiming to have earned money. The potential for harm is high: large accounts of popular Nigerian influencers have posted about being impersonated by such scammers. Some accounts have tried to warn others, with one Instagram account claiming to have received thousands of messages from people who lost money to the scam. SIO identified hundreds of accounts spanning across several social media platforms, including 129 Facebook Pages and personal accounts, 59 Instagram accounts, 21 Twitter accounts, 18 LinkedIn accounts, and five TikTok accounts. Twitter has since permanently suspended about 270 accounts linked to this scam, and Facebook suspended dozens of Facebook and Instagram accounts. 

Recently a scam Binomo account hacked into the personal and business Instagram accounts of Yemi Adewoye, a Lagos-based researcher who identified this scam. The hacker additionally gained access to her Gmail account and deleted the password-change email Instagram sent when that account was compromised. The hacker assumed her identity and posted screenshots in which she appeared to be encouraging her followers to invest with “Binomo Investment”, touting large returns. The post directed people to the Instagram account @mrs_rukayar_binomo_uption. Several of Yemi’s friends commented on the post, asking if it was real; the hacker pretending to be Yemi said yes.

Screenshot from Yemi’s Instagram account. When Yemi’s friends asked questions, the hacker assumed Yemi’s identity and assured her friends that the investment opportunity was real.

Yemi was particularly concerned about the reputation of her business account because she advertises on Instagram. Several clients called to ask if she had really changed her line of business to the “Binomo investment scheme.” 

Yemi sent a message to support@instagram.com, but received a response that the email was no longer active. Instagram’s help documents say that individuals concerned about a password change should follow the instructions in the email they send upon password change -  but the hacker had gotten into her Gmail and deleted that email. Yemi then followed the steps Instagram outlines to regain control of one’s account in the absence of that email, but they did not bring her to the advertised “request support” form.

What is the Binomo scam?

The Binomo scam involves individuals appropriating the name of a binary trading company (which we discuss further below). Social media users are encouraged to “invest,” but their money is simply stolen. Most of these fraudsters appear to be based in Nigeria, and target Nigerians. 

@mrs_rukayat_binomo_uption is one example of these fraudsters, but there are many more. One is called instagram.com/biinomo (with two i’s, 9,400 followers, now suspended). This account has edited Binomo logos so their brand looks almost identical to the real Binomo, except with two i’s. @Biinomo’s contact details are (probably intentionally) hidden in its Stories. It says its email is investmentbinomo7@gmail.com, an email address linked to this Facebook account. It says its website is the real binomo website, binomo.com. 

The instagram account @biinomo, linked to the Facebook profile on the right.

@Biinomo acknowledges the existence of scam Binomo accounts, but reassures people that this account is legitimate. But @Biinomo is almost certainly also a scam account; similar to accounts like Mrs. Rukayat’s, it posts screenshots of (almost certainly fake) SMS exchanges where customers express that they’d had reservations that Biinomo was a scam but happily received their money. 

Screenshot of a (likely fake) WhatsApp exchange tweeted by a now-suspended account.

Mrs. Rukayat and @biinomo are just two of many similar Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and TikTok accounts. Usernames often begin with “Mrs” and include platforms like Binomo and Olymp Trade in their names (eg, “mrs_aisha_binomo_trading_44”). The accounts assure visitors that they are not scammers, and use phrases like “Trade with profit and no loss.” They generally have 1,000 to 6,000 followers, but some have more than 10,000.  

These scammers additionally appear to compromise Facebook Pages and profiles, LinkedIn accounts, and a range of other social profiles which then display similar activity to the Instagram accounts. In order to appear more credible, the Pages list Nigerian phone numbers, and in some cases Nigerian or foreign addresses. One of the larger Pages SIO discovered, Binomoinvestment001 (over 16,000 followers), originally bore the name of a Nigerian actress, only to be changed to “Binomo Investment option” in April 2020.

Top left: A LinkedIn scam Binomo account. Top right: A TikTok scam Binomo account. Bottom left: A post on a Binomo Facebook Page. The woman pictured here may have been hacked, as a similar post was made with Yemi’s photo. Bottom right: A Twitter scam Binomo account.

Like the Instagram and Facebook accounts, the LinkedIn accounts frequently have stolen profile photos. They appear to monitor who looks at their profile, and proceed to try to connect with them. Many of the LinkedIn accounts expressed “interest” in the LinkedIn Guide to Networking page.

The scam expands to newer platforms as well: while the “real” Binomo has a large presence on TikTok through its global affiliates working to sign up traders, the scam Binomo has a smaller presence on TikTok. We found three accounts that fit the previously discussed patterns. Their videos were unsophisticated slideshows of images

Across the platforms, Nigerians constantly call out these accounts as scammers. Roughly half of the mentions of Binomo on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are people warning social media users about the fraudsters, or requesting that the platforms take action. Nelly Agbogu is a woman who has been especially vocal about the scammers, because photos of her and her family have frequently appeared as profile photos on Binomo accounts. Nelly shared 50 Instagram and Facebook accounts with SIO that she had previously reported to Facebook for impersonation. She showed us automated responses saying the fake accounts are under investigation, but enforcement has been incomplete - when we investigated the accounts, 28 of them were still live. 

An Instagram account that stole Nelly’s photo.

The effect on Nelly has been profound. She is a Nigerian social media influencer and business trainer. “It is ruining my reputation,” she told us. “People keep threatening to kill me because they feel I scammed them. I am losing influencer jobs. People are reporting my account thus messing up with my visibility.” 

A Facebook post of someone saying they hope coronavirus visits Nelly’s family.

In investigating these accounts, Facebook did not see evidence of coordination. Rather it seems possible that similarities across accounts may be due to individuals managing multiple accounts. There are layers and layers to this scam. We found scammers who were claiming to help people who lost money to Binomo fraudsters: “if you lost your money on Binomo, just contact X on Whatsapp who helped me recover all my money!” Many of these messages are found in reviews on TrustPilot and reviews of Binomo’s official Facebook page. The real Binomo struggles to keep up with reporting these reviews, while also responding to negative reviews about its own product.

The “real” binary trading companies

The real binary trading companies are a weakly regulated web of inter-linked similar companies, many of which appear to be run by Russian individuals: mindtrade.uk, bifxtrade.com, 7bforex.com, binomo.com, olymptrade.com. These companies have their own levels of inauthenticity baked into their business model. These off-shore companies let users bet on whether currency pairs will increase or decrease. However, they make it exceptionally difficult for users to withdraw funds. Jyotindra Dubey has reported on these companies, and starts one of his articles with the following anecdote:

 

Excerpt from an article on these binary trading firms. Click to see article.

In addition to the $3,000 threshold, firms like Olymp Trade will overwhelm users with paperwork before permitting withdrawal, or simply block their accounts without cause. Olymp Trade says it has 20 million customers. Its Facebook Page has 1.1 million followers. The real Binomo Facebook Page is smaller, with 46,000 followers.

These binary trading companies appear to have a rewards system where individuals are incentivized to write positive reviews on their Facebook Pages. Many reviews end with a numeric ID, which is presumably how the platforms know which user to reward for writing the positive review. Additionally, many reviews claim to thank Binomo “agents” for financial success, and reference their Facebook profiles and Whatsapp numbers (we suspect that these reviews are a part of the same scam referenced above, and not necessarily solicited by the platforms). The majority of these referenced accounts are middle-aged women from the U.S. or Canada, voicing their support for binary trading (and often Trump). They are using stolen pictures from public Facebook profiles. 

A likely fake review for Binomo on Facebook

Both Binomo and OlympTrade have obscure restrictions on what affiliates may display in advertising materials, such as prohibiting advertising in Crimea, Muslim symbols in Turkey, LGBT references in Kenya, homosexuality in Indonesia, and negative references to soccer in Turkey. 

Example restrictions for affiliates

A conclusion to Yemi’s story

Yemi’s story had an unexpected ending: two days after hacking Yemi’s accounts, the hacker messaged her on WhatsApp and offered to return her accounts for N5,000 ($13). Yemi refused, but after a back-and-forth the hacker agreed to restore her accounts free of charge – and then proceeded to block her. Although Yemi got her accounts back, one of her friends had unfortunately already been scammed out of N5,000. Yemi remains worried about how the experience may have affected her reputation. By both stealing funds from ordinary Nigerians and compromising accounts, this operation had caused a great deal of stress for its victims. We are glad to see that Twitter and Facebook have suspended these accounts, and we hope platforms remain vigilant to prevent them from reemerging.