This weekend we’re watching: Those who scam the scammers
‘Sakawa’, showing at the Encounters Documentary Festival, is an absorbing deep dive into Ghana’s scamming industry and the bizarre rituals that have grown around them. Scammers go to ridiculous and ingenious lengths to keep up the ruse... How do they do it? And more importantly, why?
Sakawa begins at the centre of a bizarre and eerie scene. It’s the kind of place people might theoretically assume exists, but scarcely ever actually think about – a Ghanaian Internet fraud racket.
A young man in a soccer shirt rubs his hands together and excitedly tells his friend that: “This client might be a good catch, if you look at his profile.”
“I’m looking for someone to spend the rest of my life with,” he types.
“I’m from London and you?”
Out in the streets, a car cruises around blasting rhetoric from a megaphone:
“Sin is the cause of all problems. It is against human nature and a bad way of life.”
Ironically, scammers typically hook their prey by tapping into what the church would call “the seven deadly sins of man”.
“Make millions in just three months!,” says Greed, the pop-up ad. “Congratulations! You’ve won the grand prize! You deserve it,” says Pride, in your uncle’s emails. “Hey there, big boy,” says Lust, on a dating site. In this story, she is the most ruthless of them all.
Sakawa follows the lives of locals in a Ghanaian town caught at the back end of the scamming web – “One Dollar” is a young man trying to earn enough money to escape to Italy and work as a farmer; Ama is a widow who dreams of becoming a hairdresser, but with no money to put food on the table for her child, she has turned to scamming.
It’s easy to think of the conman who sends you internet phishing scams as a greedy leech, choosing to sponge off of others’ work rather than work himself. It takes some measure of humility to consider that the person trying to scam you might be desperate, forced into criminality to stave off ravenous poverty.
Scamming is hard work, very hard work. It’s reiterated over and over again in the film. They sift through dating sites, looking for lonely, vulnerable men who are gullible enough to take the bait, and that’s not even the hard part – most “marks” (marks are people who have been identified as potential clients), figure out what’s going on before you can reel them in. Scammers go to ridiculous and ingenious lengths to keep up the ruse.
Pre-recorded Skype calls and stolen photographs are just the tip of the iceberg. You’ll meet “the magic voice phone”, a cellphone which has been modified to distort a male’s voice to sound feminine so that they can extend their dating scams to phone calls. These phone calls are as comical as you might imagine on the side of the scammer, with Ghanaian men speaking tenderly in a pathetic shrill imitation of a woman, but from the victim’s end, it is sinister to witness how little it takes to implement this trick.
The Holy Grail is a second-hand hard drive. People spend days rummaging through electronic graveyards, salvaging computer scraps and circuit boards littering the dust. If you find a used hard drive, you can gain access to the personal information of it’s previous owner, and badabing badaboom, you’re in business – the blackmail business. Unless the hard drive is unsalvageable. Or it was wiped before being discarded. Or there isn’t enough sensitive information on it. Or the previous owner didn’t have much money either. The point is that being a scammer is not easy money.
Half-way into Sakawa, a man delivers a shocking monologue, as earnestly as any actor could hope to be. “I’ve been through it all. I used to be a house boy, a man cooking for a white woman. Can you imagine? I can’t even cook. In one week, she would eat fish worth 250 euros and she’d pay me 12 euros a month …”
Sakawa flips the scamming narrative on its head and lets you in from the other side. The director, Ben Asamoa, migrated from Ghana to Europe at a young age. Having ties to both Ghana and the West, he is well-positioned to portray a nuanced perspective informed by local insight.
It’s strange to humanise an internet scammer. Each of them is just trying to find out a better way to make a buck and each has their own theories that they swear by. “Ohio is the best place to phish.” “No, it’s got to be Finland!” “UK men are the most difficult.” “No way, I have great luck in the UK.” One of the best quotes in the film is when a man confidently tells an aspiring scammer that: “In the whole UK, the stupidest guys are called Peter.”
Sakawa is a deep dive. At no point does a subject address the camera, it’s just candid footage the whole way. There is no expert or well-spoken statistician to hand you a narrative, you need only observe. The footage is so natural that sometimes it’s a little repetitive, but such sincere access into the scammers’ lives is thoroughly fascinating. The camera work is patient and poetic, and the music choices are unusual and emotive – you can feel the atmosphere in the streets.
It is only late in the film when we meet the old-school fraudsters who give Sakawa its name – the traditional herbalists – the swindlers who are scamming the scammers. Sakawa is a Ghanaian term for African traditionalist rituals surrounding internet fraud. The priests who perform these rituals, which are often sacrifices, claim that they spiritually manipulate victims so that the scammer’s fraud will be successful.
On a radio broadcast, one proudly asserts: “Those of you who engage in internet fraud, if you have found a white man who is proving to be stubborn, come to Baba, and by the grace of the gods, whatever you desire will be granted.” Ama, the struggling young widow, visits a witchdoctor who has pictures of white men hanging in a shrine, the victims who the witchdoctor’s clients pray to scam. It is staggering that this is real life.
This despicable loop is so convoluted, one doesn’t even know who to pity, but there is a notable difference in the rationalisations of the internet fraudsters (also known as Sakawa boys) who fancy themselves as Robin Hoods, taking money from the hoarding West; and the traditional priests who cannot even claim that much – on the contrary – while there is big money for the priests performing Sakawa, their business usually targets the most desperate people.
People are seldom willing to sell their souls. They do so out of desperation. Sakawa reveals the sinister nature of scamming; but the message communicated most strongly is that internet fraud is so prolific because the global wealth gap is so large that it is the best option for some people. Sakawa acquires empathy for the struggling people on the other end of the hoax. Nobody is asking you to play into the deceptions, but your anger is wasted on scams. Let them be nothing more than reminders of how lucky you are not to be desperate enough to turn to crime. DM/ML
Sakawa will be available 24/7 on the Encounters website until the end of the festival.
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