Hotseat: Jenna Burrell

A Portlander researches African internet scams—by actually going to interview the scammers in Ghana.

Few with email haven't had the privilege of a Nigerian "official" requesting their assistance to transfer the sum of $47,500,000.00 (forty-seven million, five-hundred thousand United States dollars) into their bank accounts.

Despite the preposterous premise, such West African Internet fraud accounted for 7 percent of money Americans lost to e-scammers in 2010, the Internet Crime Complaint Center says—losses that total around $500 million a year.

As it turns out, most of the emails really do come from Africa. Portland native Jenna Burrell is one of the only researchers to go to Africa and meet the scammers.

In her 2012 book, Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana (MIT Press, 248 pages, $30), Burrell tells how she and a guide spent months during 2004 and 2010 at Internet cafes in Accra, the Ghanaian capital, persuading scammers to talk.

She found most were young Ghanaian men who once saw the Internet as offering economic hope and a connection to the outside world—but instead devolved into trying to con people in Western nations out of their money.

Burrell, 34, an assistant professor at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, told WW what her investigations in the ramshackle Internet cafes turned up.

What types of scams did you observe?

By and large, the scammers I talked to were doing romance scams. They called them "come-and-marry" scams. Young men would pose as women and try to meet an older man, basically snag a sugar daddy. That's a phrase they would use. 

So who are the scammers you talked to? 

It's young men who are educated up to a point, but who aren't affluent enough to be able to go to a university. A lot of the guys had started out just chatting with people but found that that wasn't really an avenue for anything productive as far as invitations to go abroad. They feel like they have to pretend to be a woman or become a caricature of Africans as orphans or victims in some way. There's an unfortunate thing that in playing to these stereotypes, they're also reinforcing them.

Was it difficult to get scammers to talk?

It didn't hurt to be young and female and foreign. They were all young men. The nature of those conversations was a bit boastful. One scammer started telling people that I was his girlfriend. 

Did you ever feel in danger?

There was a guy who was following me. He said to my research assistant when he encountered him alone, "Where's your white lady?" It was an indication of their awareness that I was there, and their suspicion I was with the CIA.

You show sympathy for the scammers.

Up to a point. A lot of them have a fairly decent education, maybe not up to the point they'd like to have reached. But there's really no clear path for them as far as employment. Some of their strategies really prey on people that are more vulnerable—[telling stories] about orphans—and appeal to people's more philanthropic impulses. That kind of scamming, you can't rationalize it.


There have been reports of kidnappings of scam victims who visit. Did you see that?

I met a British woman who'd personally lost 100,000 pounds [$160,000] in a scam and had come to Ghana to try and win her money back in court. 

She amazingly spent over a year in Ghana, and she pursued a criminal case and a civil case. My impression was that she was never able to get any successful outcome out of that. The court system at the high levels is willing to prosecute those cases, but with little cooperation from the police.

What should people take away from your research on African scammers?

These youths are kind of stuck. They don't have a lot of opportunities for more legitimate ways of doing something with the Internet or even in society. They have trouble being understood by the Westerners they communicate with. With the global Internet, there's this idea that it will be this egalitarian place. My research challenges that idea about the future of the Internet.