The cash crunch that drained Nigeria’s economy by N20 trillion, according to the Centre for Promotion of Private Enterprise (CPPE), was the last straw for Omotoke* (not real name), who started to consider migrating abroad permanently. She said anywhere would work, “so far as it’s no longer Nigeria because [she] was tired at that stage.”
As if Facebook read her mind, she said she started seeing sponsored ads about how she could travel to Canada and what to take note of. One of the ads said one could become a Canadian citizen by marriage and get an instant visa. She followed through with the ad and connected with one Facebook name she no longer remembered. Her eyes were already welling up at this stage.
“I coughed out about $1,750 (N1,298,500 or N742/$ parallel market on April 18, 2023) to this guy for the process. He didn’t collect it at a go; it was in batches. We dragged it from January to April 18 when it finally dawned on me that I had become a cash cow for him. He blocked me afterwards. Our conversations were entirely on Facebook because he didn’t want to give out his contact.”
Many Nigerians migrate or ‘Japa’ –a Yoruba term that means ‘Escape’- because of the country’s economic hardship and unfavourable state of living. Among the diverse options readily accessible, Canada is the most sought-after.
According to the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), 5,755 Nigerians gained Permanent Resident status in 2023’s first quarter alone, a 32.5% increase from the previous year at 4,345. About 15,595 Nigerians had moved to Canada in 2021. By the following year, the statistics rose by 41.9% to 22,130.
In a 2020 survey carried out by the Africa Polling Institute (API) on 772 respondents who had migrated (120 or 15.5%) or are considering migrating to Canada (652 or 84.7%), 75% chose greener pasture as a core reason for their choice while 55% moved to provide a better future for their children.
Indeed, Canada became a canaanland for young immigrants due to the government’s Express Entry programme that started in 2015 to reduce the proportion of senior citizens in the North American country. The programme eased access for immigrants to become permanent residents, provided they were skilled enough to earn points for eligibility. According to Worldometer (a data aggregation website), Canada’s median age is 40.6 as of Oct. 2023. In contrast, Nigeria’s median age is 17.2.
An offer that glitters
Meanwhile, such sponsored ads contravene Meta’s advertising rules under “Unacceptable Business Practices.” An overview of the policy revealed that “Advertisers can’t run ads that promote products, services, schemes, or offers that use identified deceptive or misleading practices, including scams to take money from people or access personal information. We do this to protect people from being taken advantage of by advertisers.”
We read through the comments and found some users who informed the interested persons to send them in boxes on Facebook. Among them were the users named Sam Charles and Barbs Opez Awolowo.
DUBAWA proceeded to send messages to the two identified users. Only Barbs Opez Awolowo replied at the time the report was filed.
The conversation was relatively straightforward, as he informed DUBAWA that the form to begin the whole process would cost $500 (N575,000, N1150/$ as of Oct 19).
He also revealed that an old woman who is interested in the marriage arrangement exists.
Typical of fraudulent moves, he attempted to hurry his prey into making the hasty payment, with the assurance that there would be no need for any further payment, even though he had previously said the payment would open the path to the next stage, which is expected to come at a cost.
After begging him to consider the economic situation, we negotiated over the estimate of $500 to N500,000, and he compromised. The discussion ended for the day.
Barely 48 hours later, DUBAWA contacted him again to inform him that we’d raised about $300 or N300,000 for the form. He revealed that the money should be sent to his ‘manager’ with the account number 8066183676 on Opay mobile bank.
When we checked for the bank details, his full name was Opeyemi Peter Babalola. The name agrees with his usernames on Facebook: Opez (Opeyemi) and Barbs (Babalola).
Customers using Opay confirmed that their phone number is automatically converted to an account number after the first digit (0) is removed. This implies that his phone number is 08066183676 since his account number is derived from his phone number.
We assured him that the balance of the money would be paid the following week.
It was the last time we contacted him, though he sent reminders twice. The last, on November 2, was a thumbs-up emoji, like a man who resigned to fate.
When DUBAWA looked up the phone number on Truecaller, which was used as an account number on Opay, the name “Ope Ope” appeared along with the email “Opeople381@gmail.com.” One notable aspect of this discovery is the consistent appearance of the name “Ope” in the registered phone number and the associated email address. “Ope” is generally a shortened form of the full name “Opeyemi,” which is the name associated with the account number, as mentioned earlier.
Apparent red flags
As DUBAWA followed through with the process, we discovered common traits. The sponsored ads promise a hookup opportunity (a term denoting a physical sexual relationship) for unsuspecting victims.
However, the ads do not have a direct means to reach out to interested persons. Instead, we were redirected to websites explaining how an immigrant can legitimately gain citizenship in Canada.
Also, the ads are not always accessible, except they are retained as a saved post on Facebook. As a result, the copied link to the ad can only lead to the page itself if shared with external platforms. The ad cannot be accessed by merely clicking the link.
Meanwhile, attempts to inbox the pages will be met with automated responses that will spam the conversations till the budding victim becomes frustrated and forfeits the conversation entirely.
This leaves victims at bay, with no choice but to signify their interest in the ad’s comment section, a sea of victims from where the perpetrators fish out their prey.
Is marriage of convenience legal?
Irrespective of gender, a marriage of contract is struck with an opposing gender that has attained citizenship status in the country, with the sole aim of securing a visa as an immigrant.
However, the process is illegal and punishable by Section 292 of the Criminal Code (R.S.C., 1985, c. C-46) as it is described as “marriage fraud.” False representation, fraud, and knowingly concealing material circumstances are reasons the Canadian government also revoked citizenship status – a lengthy process kickstarted by the IRCC’s minister.
An instance was in 2019 when the Canadian government stripped Yan Yang, a Chinese immigrant, of the citizenship status he had already attained since 2010 because he became a citizen through a bogus marriage with Lisa Marie Mills.
Biola* finally took the proper route by applying for scholarships to fund her move. But she also fell victim to the long-standing scheme in 2021 because she “thought it was the quickest means then.”
“My academic qualification then was worth it, but I thought that the process would guarantee my safety faster compared to taking the permanent residency path, which I felt was a slow process. To date, my dad dare not know I fell victim because I don’t know what can happen.”
Chinonso* was more daring, though. After he fell victim in 2021, he tried again. This time, a close friend helped him out by connecting him with an Indian lady who agreed to the contract.
“If not because my friend had already arranged for me, I wouldn’t have probably taken the risk again. But the money I lost then threw me into huge debts. I had to leave town and forfeit my family mocking me since I lost money and my supposed quick fix.”
‘Do your due diligence’- Expert warns
Olufemiloye Ajiboye (Olu of Canada), an immigration policy analyst, urged aspiring immigrants from Nigeria to make personal findings to avoid falling victim to fraudulent schemes.
He revealed that citizenship by marriage is legal, but due process must be followed; otherwise, the involved parties will “bear the consequences from the law they tried to manipulate.”
He said, “One of the ways Canada fights against marriage fraud is through the strict policies and regulations they introduced. If your spouse or partner depends on you, you must sponsor your partner financially for three years after arrival before he/she becomes a citizen.”
He also revealed that some consequences provided by the Canadian constitution and administered by the IRCC include a 5-year visa ban and deportation from Canada.
To avoid falling into such a scheme, he advised Nigerians to compare the information they obtain with available details on reputable social media platforms that discuss migration through appropriate means. Also, aspiring immigrants should only process their migration through licensed agents and read more about the country’s migration policies on the official website.
Editor’s Note: Names of victims are changed to protect the identities of the victims.