They sit in a classroom in Ghana’s capital Accra, young men in tight jeans and baseball caps, focused intently on their studies, keenly aware that doing well could be the key to unlocking a life of wealth and security. Success in these lessons could raise them out of poverty and buy them a ticket to a standard of living they might never have envisaged before signing up for this school.
Some of the subjects on the curriculum will be familiar in many third world educational establishments for ambitious students: English, Information Technology, even Elocution.
But there will be no qualifications at the end of it, just a big, fat bank transfer, because these boys are learning how to “catfish” – to trawl the internet looking for vulnerable wealthy women abroad – and then reel in their catch.
These Ghanaian graduates will use fake identities to pose as well-heeled lonely hearts, gradually persuading their trusting victims that they are the man of their dreams. Before very long, their new “boyfriend” will attempt to con the targets out of every penny they have.
They are so flagrant in poor African countries like Ghana that they even have their own nickname, Sakawa boys, a term which means “putting inside” in the Hausa language. They flaunt their ill-gotten gains for all to see and are easy to spot in their tight jeans and conspicuous gold jewellery, cruising around a particular suburb of the capital in their unlicensed fast cars, loud music blaring.
But the cost to their British victims is hundreds of thousands of pounds a year.
Last year alone, 4,555 romance frauds were reported to Action Fraud, with victims conned out of £50million (a huge rise on the year before and double the figure in 2015).
But the true scale of the problem is likely to be much higher, as many victims are too embarrassed to come forward.
Kwasi,18, is studying to be a Sakawa boy.
Two years ago, his 21-year-old cousin Manu told him that he too, could have a brand-new Range Rover Sport, wear designer watches and rent a fancy apartment.
And he will probably succeed says, private detective Jack Roberts, whose Surrey agency Global Investigations specialises in tracking down internet romance fraudsters.
The scammers are young, well spoken, computer literate, usually male teenagers who are poached after they leave school and taught how to be scammers, he says.
They use unregistered laptops that can easily be disposed of and they’re trained by older, more experienced, scammers.
They learn about Britain by watching our soaps like Coronation Street and EastEnders and learn typical British phrases to convince the victim they really are based here and are only temporarily stuck in Africa or in the Middle East. The ringleaders insist students nurture victims over many months, says Jack. They will be told to send birthday cards, poems, flowers and even money, asking the victim to hold what they claim is their wage whilst their banking issue is being resolved.
The scammers know what they are doing is wrong but are seduced by the lifestyle.
Some might draw in about £30,000 pounds a month and they are given a 30 per cent cut of that by their boss, Jack says.
A typical target will be a woman or man from Europe, America or Asia. The fraudsters pretend to be attractive suitors – choosing good-looking social media users whose identities they then steal – and start by sending a video clip to a target, saying hello. The scammer then claims the microphone or speaker won’t work so can only communicate via online messaging, usually the encrypted WhatsApp, which prevents detection.
They often say they are in the army and are separated, divorced or widowed, says Jack. They build a romantic relationship and the victim gets hooked because there is some¬thing so powerful about internet flirtations. I met one man called Kofi Tawney. He was 23 and the ringleader had invested in a course of online elocution lessons for him.
His fake identity was Alexander Baker, of Guildford, Surrey, who was widowed tragically at 56 when his wife died in a car crash, leaving huge debts.
Kofi had his hooks into a 68-year-old widow, who was keen to help her beloved in any way she could.
She had already transferred over £50,000 to help him clear his debts and keep his home. But she was being played for a further £50,000.
The majority of the victims are lonely, middle-aged or older women, but some¬times men, who have lost their life partner and are seeking companionship. The double whammy is not only have they lost what they thought was the love of their life; they find out they’ve been rinsed of all they have in the world.
All their savings for a comfortable retirement are gone, and all too often their homes, which they have remortgaged to send money to the scammers.
Pat Fitzimons, 53, was conned out of £60,000, her entire life savings, by a Sakawa boy. She had just been made redundant from her role as a charity chief executive when she was scammed by a man called Morgan Giovanni who passed himself off as an Italian-American based in Oregon.
I’d lost a job I really liked, my youngest daughter had gone off to university and I felt I could finally form a new relationship because I’d been single for 17 years, she says.
I’d signed up to an over-50s dating site and thought Morgan was really attractive and he started being very, very nice.
He said he was a box¬ing promoter who was divorced and had a daugh¬ter. He quickly asked to carry on our chats on WhatsApp and asked for my home address. He wanted to send me flowers. When you’ve been single for as long as I have, it’s so nice to get flowers.
But Morgan’s messages soon moved from flowers to finance. He asked me to send him £6,000 because he was bidding for this tournament, his account had been frozen and could I pay it into his daughter’s account, Pat recalls.
Over WhatsApp, he sent me his passport and his daughter’s University of Portland ID and her credit card to prove he was who he said he was, so I sent him £6,000.
But while Pat was convinced by the documents, her daughters saw things differently.
She says: They said it was a scam. But I ignored them. I wanted it to be true. I’d only parted with the money on the promise I’d get it back when Morgan came to London.
But he cancelled at the last minute saying he had to go to Amsterdam on business.
Then he asked for more money to pay taxes. But the only way she could help was raiding her redundancy payment. I wanted to believe him. At any other time, I wouldn’t have had the money, but I sent him £52,000.
Six weeks later, Morgan told Pat he needed another £38,000. Incredibly she went to her bank to ask for a loan.
I told them what I needed it for, and they said, ‘It’s definitely a scam.’ Up until that point I hadn’t wanted to admit it.
Despite being conned out of £60,000, Pat is still communicating with Morgan, hoping she will find him. In desperation, she turned to the BBC who had asked romance fraud victims to contact them for a new TV show, hosted by actress Kym Marsh and journalist Ashley John-Baptiste.
They said maybe we can help find out some information that might end this nightmare, reveals Pat. They said I didn’t seem to be the kind of person to be taken in by this kind of thing. But Morgan really seemed like he wanted a relationship with me. It’s scary.
The BBC discovered “Morgan” was using a Facebook photo of a man called Atlas whose account was set to public. Morgan’s daughter was an actress whose Twitter account picture had been taken.
The only thing of Morgan’s that was real was his phone number. Ashley took my phone and sent him a message, ‘It has been a busy time, but I have been thinking about you.’ He quickly texted me back, she says of scenes on the forthcoming show.
At that point, former Coronation Street star Kym is seen to jump in and turn the tables on the fraudster, telling him: “Morgan, I am really sorry, but I am not Pat. She is a friend of mine and my name is Kym Marsh and you are being recorded for the BBC. We believe Morgan Giovanni is a fake identity.”
Pat asked him to return her money and told him how evil he was: When I knew it was no longer Morgan Giovanni, I knew I’d been well and truly groomed for money. Going to the BBC has given me a sense of closure, although I’d still like to find him.
Jack says that won’t happen. He adds: The majority are operating way out of UK jurisdiction. They hide behind a virtually untraceable digital trail. But countless lives are being ruined every day.