I ran across a press release today that gave me pause. It said that an American trade delegation will be visiting Nigeria in early September. As the press release said, "Prominent among the trade delegation to Nigeria are representatives of two companies who have interest in doing business in Nigeria." One of these companies is Instantstream, which has a product called Streamphone. Streamphone is marketed as a collaborative web conferencing service (I had not heard of it before reading their web page).
Now that's all fine and good. If companies want to internationalize and find economical ways to expand their business, it's okay in my book. But it so happens that a few years ago I got interested in all those junk email solicitations that state that someone has millions of unclaimed dollars sitting around in a fund and they need your help to transfer it, for which you will be amply rewarded. First of all, I couldn't believe that anybody anywhere ever fell for those things or took them seriously for a second. It turns out I was wrong.
According to The 419 Coalition, The Nigerian Scam is "A Five Billion US$ (as of 1996, much more now) worldwide Scam which has run since the early 1980's under Successive Governments of Nigeria. It is also referred to as 'Advance Fee Fraud', '419 Fraud' (Four-One-Nine) after the relevant section of the Criminal Code of Nigeria, and 'The Nigerian Connection' (mostly in Europe). However, it is usually called plain old '419' even by the Nigerians themselves."
What's interesting about the operations in Nigeria is that the Central Bank of Nigeria, members of the Nigerian Diplomatic Corps, and various government officials have been shown to be involved in the scam and actively operating as willing accomplices. (There are hundreds of sites on the web if you want to do research. Just use a major search engine and 419 or Nigerian Scam).
People who get caught up in the scheme are often told at some point that they need to travel to Nigeria in order to handle sensitive financial details in person. Once there, they have been threatened, kidnapped, assaulted, and worse. The State Department lists Nigeria in its International Travel Warnings with dire tales of violent crime (including by people in police and military uniforms), unsafe travel, military and religious fighting, and local police authorities unwilling to help. "No one should provide personal financial or account information to unknown parties."
I bring this up for two reasons. The first is to point out one of the funniest photo ops I have ever seen featured in a press release. Look at the poor unidentified American businessman in the press release photo. Seldom have I seen such a worried, haunted look on the face of a glad-handing business representative. Most of the apparently local Nigerian crew seems to be in a good mood, but what's up with that linebacker standing behind Mr. Businessman? I don't think I want that guy standing behind me. Certainly not with that expression on his face. And I want his hands in plain sight.
The second point is more serious (although Mr. Businessman might disagree with my rankings). I don't know what Instantstream is doing in Nigeria, but if they have any part of their computerized operations filtering through that country's networks, there is no way I would ever sign up with them and provide any personal information. I certainly would not authorize any financial transactions, including billing information, that is conducted electronically. I don't care how encrypted the data is while going over the wires, there are too many corrupt personnel involved in all facets of business and international trade there.
In the meantime, I hasten to point out that Instantstream is a New York company, and I know nothing about them, certainly nothing bad. They probably have no offshore outsourcing of any data services and I am not implying anything remotely negative about the company. Streamphone sounds interesting in and of itself. I just want to hear from them after their little trip exactly what their plans are regarding Nigeria!