An example of the many pictures of “marabouts”, or Muslim spiritual leaders, offering online consultations via Facebook.

“I am a marabout healer with 30 years of experience, and I can make any woman fall madly in love with you and even multiply the number of bills in your wallet.” You might have seen this type of claim in your inbox or your Facebook messages. We decided to delve deeper into these absurd— and sometimes inadvertently hilarious—claims.

More and more fraudulent “healers” are using Facebook to contact potential clients, promising impossible miracles. Many of these are self-proclaimed “marabouts” based in Benin.

Offers of remote clairvoyance services from West African countries are now widespread on the Internet—especially on Facebook, where fake marabouts sell “padlocks to control your beloved”, “magic rings” against infertility, talismans to attract women, “magic wallets” to become wealthy, and all kinds of magic formulas to deal with all of life’s problems, even incurable diseases. Typically, these types of scammers provide a phone number or Skype address, asking interested parties to call them for a “free” consultation.

We wanted to learn more about the operations of these web-based marabout scammers and how much their “services” cost, so we called several of them up and taped the conversations. They went along with all our requests, even the most absurd ones.

Outrageous promises

We contacted a “great shaman” whose website claims that he “has inherited ancestral powers and possesses magic powers, with over 50 years of experience”.

“Your wife will come crawling back to you”
  Excerpt from the audio (translated from French): “A five minute consultation … will allow me to figure out how I will direct her to come back to you ... she will be the one begging you on her knees to take her back … As for the cost, it depends on the scale of the work — sometimes it goes up to 2,500 euros, sometimes it’s only 500 euros.”

“Need cash? I can multiply the bills in your wallet”

Audio: “There are magic formulas to increase your money, as well as magic wallets, magic suitcases and talismans. I have two different types of formulas to multiply the amount of bills you have; one costs 2,500 euros, and the other costs 1,500 euros. You’ll have to go out shopping where you are [in France] and buy some materials for the ritual, for instance in esoteric bookstores. When you perform the ritual, you will use just one bill of the amount that you want. Once the ritual is over, you will need to go out and buy a bag, and you’ll put all the materials inside, including the bill used in the ritual. Within three days, the bag will be full of that type of bill. As a guarantee, I give you my word, as a man.”
“I’ll fix any problem related to sexual performance, remotely”

Audio: “I make products from natural medicinal plants that will bring you the sexual power that you desire. There are also products that will increase the size of the penis, such as a penis-enlargement ointment that costs 400 euros. Within a week, it will increase your penis to the girth and length that you desire. The ointment must be used to reach the size you want, but then you must stop using it, otherwise the growth will continue, and that will scare women.”

“I can make you grow taller, even up to three metres!”

Audio: FRANCE 24: “I’m short and scrawny, just 1m55”, and I wanted to know if you could help me become taller … I’d like to be at least 1m85” ” Marabout: “For that, I have a product, and you can use it to reach the height you want—you can be 2 metres, 3 metres, whatever you want .”
“I can make you invisible!”
The third "marabout" we contacted, “Papa Omar”, claims that he has Satanist powers that can make someone invisible and allow them to walk through walls.

Audio: FRANCE 24: “So, after this initiation ritual, I can really become invisible and walk through walls?” Marabout: “Yes, that’s no problem. I started doing that myself when I was a child with my grand-dad ... It costs 485 euros.”

All of the fake marabouts that we contacted sent us forms to fill out by email and asked for advance payments via Western Union to allow them to purchase “ingredients”. They also asked for a full name, birthdate, address, and phone number. 

The online marabout’s M.O.

José Mao (not his real name), a marabout who admits he is a scammer, was willing to disclose his online strategy for swindling clients. He refers to his victims as “pigeons”.

I dabble in all kinds of online scams, including car sales, money loans, and clairvoyance. In order to not leave any traces, I work from an Internet café. To attract clients, I post on free personal advertisement sites.

The first rule is to establish trust with the potential client. That can take weeks, sometimes. I ask them to give me their full name and a picture, because that’s what a real marabout would do. In fact, I sometimes go see real practitioners to ask them for information or clues about the person I am trying to scam [Editor’s note: despite the existence of fraudsters, consulting with marabouts and other healers is very widespread in Benin, and many people believe in their effectiveness]. I pay them between two and three euros for the consultation, but I charge between 200 and 2,500 euros to my “clients”.

Once a client has paid an advance via a Western Union transfer, I mail them an envelope full of ingredients that are actually completely useless. Normally, a marabout cannot work remotely; the person must be present in order for it to work.

A few days or weeks after sending this piece of mail, the person typically contacts me to tell me that the magic did not work. So I recommend another type of therapy and ask them to pay more. And each time they call me to tell me it didn’t work, I ask for payments, on and on until they eventually figure out the scam and stop calling me.

To avoid being caught, I never receive any money under my own name. I send a colleague to withdraw it from the local Western Union office with a fake ID card. He in turn gets a 10-15% commission.

European clients, sometimes suffering from terminal illnesses

José Mao claims that his clients are largely European, particularly from France, Belgium, and Portugal. There are various types of “clients”: entrepreneurs hoping that their business will succeed, women looking for Prince Charming, and sometimes persons suffering from terminal diseases, who turn to “healers” out of desperation.

For instance, I am currently communicating with a 37-year-old Belgian woman, to whom I just sent a 3,000 euros invoice for my “services” in helping to find her a husband and start her business. She has been sending me 200 euros per month since March 2013. I told her that the “initiation” period would last for two years and that she should pay me until at least March 2015. With this kind of business, I make a lot of money. I make at least 200 euros a month, which is a relatively large amount in Benin. Sometimes I also receive gifts. Another Belgian client of mine recently gave me a car after I brought her to see a local marabout here.

“They rationalise their actions by claiming it is a way to take back money stolen by the white people”

Bertrand K. is one of our Observers in Cotonou. He knows the online scammer ecosystem well, having worked for two years in an Internet café.

Fake marabouts, and scammers in general, make a fortune off of others’ misfortune. They feel no shame. Recently, there was an interview with a scammer who had just been arrested by the police. When he was asked if he had any regrets, he said that he was not doing anything wrong because he was only defrauding white people. He rationalised his actions by saying that it was a way to take back the money stolen by white people when they enslaved black people and stole their natural resources.
“A well-organised network”

In any given Internet café in Cotonou, roughly 7 people out of 10 are scammers. This “profession” is in fact quite widespread and very well organized. Each group of scammers works for a boss that pays for the hours of Internet connection they need to set up scams. Scammers are usually recruited when they are teenagers, typically those that are older, like 16 or 17, and no longer in school. There are different types of specialisations, depending on the type of scam. For instance, in order to set up a car sale scam, you need a group of scammers working only on extracting email addresses from websites that sell used cars. There are also developers, young programmers that are paid about 500,000 FCFA (1,000 euros) to set up fake bank sites, sites for fake marabouts, and other types of websites. Yet other groups of scammers withdraw money from banks with the cooperation of certain bank employees.

According to our Observers, online scamming is seductive for many young people in Benin, because it represents easy money in a country with a high unemployment rate. In order to warn potential victims against this type of scam, the French embassy in Cotonou and the French Interior Ministry have published a number of warning messages online. In cases of fraud, victims can file claims in France. Such claims may also be sent to the public prosecutor’s office in Benin. However, it is rare for cases to be solved and even rarer for victims to get compensation.