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NEW AFRICAN FEATURE

In getting rid of the nuisance of electronic waste by dumping them in African countries, Western countries are harvesting the proverbial whirlwind in return and in astounding measure too! In Accra, GEORGE SYDNEY ABUGRI has been examining the link between Internet crimes and e-waste dumping in Ghana.

How a young Ghanaian resident in Accra managed to obtain sensitive personal information about United States Republican Congressman Robert Wexler and tried to blackmail the congressman remains a puzzle.

Eric Kwame Agbosu, 27 called Wexler from Accra and told the US congressman that he had Wexler’s Social Security number and other information and threatened to turn the data over to identity theft specialists if Wexler didn’t pay him.

Wexler reported the matter to the United States Capitol Police who contacted the Ghana Police Service and Agbosu was traced and arrested in Accra for attempting to extort money and for identity theft.

Prior to Agbosu contacting Wexler, unidentified persons had made unauthorized attempts to gain access to the US congressman’s personal bank account and to use his credit cards. It was also established that the Ghanaian had managed to obtain personal information about other prominent US citizen’s apart from Wexler.

The US secret service has been trying to establish how scammers like Agbosu have managed to obtain personal information about prominent US citizens like Wexler.

This correspondent has been examining some possible explanations about Ghana’s unenviable record as the second most Internet fraud-prone country in Africa after Nigeria and the seventh most cyber crime-prone country in the world { The Global Internet Report ranking}.The US State Department also lists Ghana as one of the top sources of cyber crime in the world.

An international team of investigators who arrived in Ghana in June 2009 to investigate the dumping of e-waste in the country accidentally established what appears to be a very strong link between the dumping of junk computers in Ghana and the epidemic of Internet fraud in the country.

The investigative team was made up of Frontline/World correspondent Peter Klein and a group of graduate journalism students from the University of British Columbia who undertook a global investigation on behalf of Frontline World “to track a shadowy industry that is causing big problems around the world.”

According to a report by the team, “Agbogbloshie in Accra, Ghana, has become one of the world's largest digital dumping grounds.”

A hard drive from a discarded computer purchased from the Accra suburb at GHc 35 by the team, was found to contain confidential and sensitive details of a US$ 22 million dollar contract between the government of the United States and Northrop Grumman, one of the largest military contractors in the US. Northrop are the manufacturers of the famed Grumman Tomcat war planes.

The hard drive was also found to contain defence and security contracts involving the US Defense Intelligence Agency, NASA and the US Homeland Security.

Other hard drives purchased by the team and sent to a computer scientists at Regent University in Accra for immediate analysis, were found to contain what the investigators said were “intimate details of people's lives” as well as files left on the drives by their original owners.”

The files contained private financial data including credit card numbers, account information and records of online transactions undertaken by the original owners of the computers.

The investigators believe that some of the information “sakawa gangs” {Internet fraudsters} in Ghana have been using to illegally buy goods from abroad and to defraud foreigners, came from junk computer hard drives.

Ghanaian computer scientist Enoch Kwesi Messiah of Regent University where some of the hard drives were sent for analysis, was quoted in a report of the investigating team as saying with the hard drives, “I can get your bank numbers and retrieve all the money from your accounts.”

The team subsequently showed the hard drive containing details of the defence contracts entered into to by the US government to the US Federal Bureau of Investigations in June 2009. James Durie, who is described by the investigating team as “an expert on data security for the FBI”, told members of the team that he was concerned about the possible use of the information by Internet fraudsters “to breach Transportation Security Administration (TSA).”

According to the report, Durie said that “the government contracting process is supposed to be confidential. If I know how you're hiring the people for security related jobs, I can prepare the profile of a person to fit that model and get my guy in. Once I have my guy in, you have no security.”

He reportedly said the FBI would conduct an investigation into the source of the hard drive.

Klien and his team also talked to some junk computer traders in Accra who admitted that organized criminals sometimes “comb through these drives for personal information to use in scams.”

The Ghana police Service recently disclosed that an average of 19 complaints of cases of “sakawa” is reported in Ghana weekly. Most of the victims are citizens of the United Sates, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and other countries in the West.

The common scams include romance fraud in which male criminals create the identities of females and begin to date foreigners eventually defrauding them.

In these romance scams, the criminals operating from Ghana prey on single people and lonely hearts who are looking forward to having some fun or marrying their internet dates. In the course of the Internet dating they manage to convince their victims to send them money and again or obtain their victims’ bank accounts and empty them.

On April 14, 2010, 19- year-old Adnan Abdul Ralph, of Agona Swedru in Ghana’s Central Region appeared before Swedru Circuit Court Judge N. K. E. Osam, charged with defrauding American Simone Layfield Duke of $6,420.

Prosecutors said Ralph’s payday came fairly easy: Posing on the Internet as a young lady called Grace Rockson who was looking for love the Ghanaian youngster got Duke to send him $1,300, $2,000 and another $2,000 on different occasions for the acquisition of US visa and to meet other travel expenses, to travel to the US to meet Duke.

Ralph failed to make the trip on several occasions and asked Duke for another $1,500 ostensibly to pay the medial expenses of an ailing mother before “she” could make the trip.

Duke became suspicious and alerted the Police Swedru Police who asked him to send the money and then, request Ralph to withdraw it from his bank account. Detectives were wafting for Ralph when he went to a bank at Swedru to withdraw the money.

Other notable scams have always included requests to internet users to provide personal information about themselves in order to claim a prize in an Internet lottery, receive a foreign government grant or so that fraudulent insurance claims or money stolen from a bank or other sources, could be lodged in them in return for a fee.

To be able do this, scammers “harvest” e-mail addresses from internet pages using “webbots” {programs designed to scan the web and collect information.}.

“I receive between five and 20 or more scam email in my inbox and junk boxes everyday. The grammar is generally so bad and some of the reasoning in the messages so illiterate and illogical that I wonder why so many people fall for the”, one Internet user in Ghana’s port city of Tema told me.

With the mountains of hard drives piling up as part of the dumping of e-waste in Ghana, scammers will find it even easier to steal all the information they want for scams with. The Ghana Police Service recently said most of the scams were worked out in Internet Cafes and operators of the cafes have a role to play in the war against cyber crime

The police say most of the criminals are young unemployed people, many of them residing in the crowded Accra suburbs of Nima, Maamobi, Accra New Town, Mallam Atta. Other towns and cities across the country have become notorious for Internet fraud.

In the wake of the startling discovery of US defence contract secrets on the hard drive in Accra, the FBI’s James Durie is reported to have suggested the physical destruction of data on hard drives to prevent their use for cybercrimes.

An environmental NGO, Global Environmental Services however insists that , “smashing a hard drive with a hammer will not destroy data from a discarded computer because digitally encoded data resides deep within the drive on rapidly rotating platters with magnetic surfaces.”

Kenny Gravitt, of GES, has been quoted as saying “the only sure way to get rid of the data on a hard drive is to sanitize it with software that makes multiple passes, or to completely grind it up, as taking a hammer to a hard drive or shooting it with a nail gun will not keep data out of the hands of cyber criminals or terrorist cells.”

Three universities have begun a collaboration to investigate the problem further. They are Longwood University in the US, Glamorgan University in Cardiff, South Wales and Edith Cowan University in Western Australia.

The technicians involved in the study have tested applications and tools that are available from the internet and which can be used by anyone with simple knowledge of computers to recover data left on hard drives by the original owners.

In the course of their study the technicians also discovered sensitive details of a US military missile air defence system located on a second-hand hard drive bought on the online auction site “e-bay”.

The data related to test launch procedures for Terminal High Altitude Area Defence ground to air missile defence system, used to shoot down Scud missiles in Iraq.

The technicians have so far recovered hundreds of hard disks containing bank account details, personal medical records, confidential business plans, financial and accounting company data and personal PIN numbers.

The drives were collected from the UK, USA, Germany, France and Australia, five countries which have complained that their citizens are being defrauded by cyber crooks in Ghana.

The United Nations Agency for Information and Communication Technology says it will in collaboration with the International Telecommunications Union undertake an investigation into the problem in Ghana soon.

Ghana’s Minster of Communications Mr. Haruna Iddrisu has pledged the government’s determination to fight cyber fraud with all the resources at its disposal.

“The Government is setting up an emergency Cyber Crime Response Team, to review existing legislature governing the Information Communication and Technology (ICT) activities and strengthen the country’s cyber security.

The is part of efforts the government is making to deal with the growing incidence of cyber crime, popularly known as ‘Sakawa’ ”, Mr Haruna told police officers at workshop on cybercrime.

The Communication Minister said Ghana’s present ranking among the world’s top 10 cyber crime-prone countries was “a disincentive to investment in the country’s ICT sector. “ { George Sydney Abugri, Accra.}