All roads lead to Cameroon.

It goes without saying that these are strange and difficult times right now due to the Coronavirus. Where there’s a crisis, a scammer will attempt to take full advantage of it in order to separate people from their hard earned cash, and this pandemic is no different. But first, let’s talk about puppies.

Puppies are great, right? Little balls of fur with waggy tails. Who wouldn’t want a puppy? But where to buy one? Online makes perfect sense. I found our dog on Gumtree, and his previous owner still loves to get updates from us about him all these years later. There are plenty of websites that sell puppies (or cats if you’re that way inclined*). You may find a site selling dogs advertised on your social media feed, and fall in love with one of the critters you see there. A deal is struck, and you pay the necessary fees. In a few days, you’ll be able to pick up your new fur baby. But then you get a message saying there are some extra bills that need to be paid first. OK, not what you expected, but you pay it while thinking of those nights in bed with a doggy snuggled around your feet. Then another surprise bill comes. And another. And another. Maybe it’s for shots, maybe for a certificate, maybe it’s because the dog’s gotten injured. You keep on paying and paying, but never get the puppy you fell in love with. Why? Because it never existed in the first place, or at least the one the website claimed to have didn’t. The entire website is fake, and all the images were stolen from elsewhere. All you have is a big hole in your bank account and a dog shaped gap by your feet at night.

Next we jump to the subject of suicide. There are people in this world who – maybe due to depression or ill health – feel that they’d be better off dead. It’s an awful situation to be in, and one I hope to never be in myself. They may decide to look online for ways to take their own life, and discover that there are sites that will sell them the chemicals to do this, maybe in pill form or as an injection. They pay, and the same thing happens to them as to the person trying to buy a puppy. This time though, the scammer who runs the fake site is now also blackmailing them for even more money by threatening to report them to law enforcement for attempting to buy illegal drugs to end their own life.

Looking at these two scenarios, it should be fairly easy to see the link between the two. So where are these people who are running these sites, and how do they do it?

As mentioned earlier, the pet images were stolen from other sites, as most likely was any text on it. Likewise, the scammer selling fake drugs has the same setup. Why would this be? Because they’re the same scammers, or at least scammers from the same part of the world. We’ve always said that 9 times out of 10 we can pretty much instantly tell you where a scammer is based purely by the type of scam it is. In this type of scam, the scammers are almost always from Cameroon. They pay people we refer to as “faker makers” to make the fake sites, fake ID, fake documents etc. (hence the “faker maker” moniker), and scam unsuspecting people using them. The sites may even be ripped (copied) directly from a legitimate site with nothing but the company name and contact details changed.

Now, back to Coronavirus. When the pandemic started, the scammers switched to making fake sites selling N95 masks or even “cures”. Some registered new site names to do this, while others repurposed site names they already had. Instead of selling drugs that don’t exist, the sites now sell masks that don’t exist.

How do we know these scammers are in Cameroon? Some simple investigative work several years ago on the fake sites revealed it to us back when they were selling other commodities. Since then we’ve been following their progress carefully. One “faker maker” may be responsible for hundreds of fake sites. When you know what to look for, you can track the new/reused sites fairly easily. Back in February we saw the change taking place, and the new sites appearing. That’s how we know where the scammers are based. No “hacking” or “vigilante” tactics are used, simply a knowledge of how to search in the right places and for the right things. Sometimes it can be as basic as knowing what terms to search for in Google.

What do we do when we spot these fake sites? Why, we work on getting them all shut down of course. It doesn’t exactly make us popular with the scammers, and we’ve even received death threats on several occasions. You have to admit though, it’s good to know there are people like us making it harder for the scammers, right?

*I can joke about cat owners as we have (not own as no one “owns” a cat) 3 here as well as our dog.