In the last quarter of 2020, the BBC Africa Eye released an investigation revealing a global chain of scams under the name Crowd1. The investigation titled “Unmasking the Pyramid Kings -Crowd1 scam targets Africa” featured testimonials from defrauded victims and uncovered the chain of personalities behind the scheme, exposing the innards of the scam.
Just days after the investigation was released, Crowd1 challenged BBC’s findings, regarding it as an incorrect perception of the company.
Some of the revelations made by BBC showed that Crowd1 has special eyes on Nigeria and India, apparently because of the population and desperation amongst the citizens to escape poverty. In Nigeria, Crowd1 appears to operate freely. Almost two years since the investigation, Crowd1 seems to have launched its campaign in Nigeria using a subtle but effective approach.
DUBAWA has uncovered a series of coordinated activities on Facebook promoting Crowd1. The strategy employs a series of coordinated ways to advertise the scheme, and motivate unsuspecting members of the public to invest.
On Facebook, the company has created over 20 pages (the ones so far identified by DUBAWA,) that impersonate popular and prominent media organisations trusted by Nigerians. These pages have the names, logos and emblems of these media houses, and across all the ones identified by DUBAWA, there are some common traits they share:
They are created from Nigeria and targeted at Nigerians. They share content about crowd1; they have thousands of followers who seem to mistake the page for a legitimate media page. The page transparency is discreet (means you cannot see the persons behind it). Although they are all created on distinct dates, the time span is within 12 months after the BBC’s Investigations (November, 2020- May, 2022).
Analysis carried out using Crowdtangle revealed that in the past 12 months, these fake pages promoting Crowd1 have made 667 posts that have attracted 235, 018 interactions on facebook worldwide. Notably, 11% (78) of those posts came from Facebook Pages with Page admins primarily located in Nigeria. This finding goes in line with BBC’s projection of the scheme targeting Nigeria.
It is possible for Crowd1 to garner such numbers since most users on facebook mistake these pages as the authentic social media handles of popular and reliable media houses. For example, on this page operating in the guise of Channels Television, (an award-winning media house based in Nigeria) users are asking how they can be part of Crowd1’s investment. This particular page has already garnered over 10,000 followers and keeps encouraging more users to invest promising users a double return on their investment within two hours.
One post featured on the page promised ‘investors’ double return within one hour, as captured in the image below:
Over 50 users commented on the post, showing an interest in the investment. These users are well responded to and then referred to a WhatsApp chat where conversations are end to end encrypted, insulating them from the public eye.
Since 2020, multiple individuals have come out to testify how they have been defrauded by the Crowd1 scheme. Abdullahi Halimat told Dubawa that she was lured into the scheme in August 2021. Halimat said she paid and joined on the premise that she will make a profit after three months.
“A friend convinced me to join, and I paid, even convinced my cousins to join. Now it’s a year, and there is nothing to show for it.”
Online, multiple users have shared their tragic story of how they fell victims of Crowd1. Yet even with these testimonies, these fake “faceless” pages on Facebook still seem to garner new victims. Their activities keep booming with no names or identities of the persons behind it.
Associated Crowd1 influencer
Using the CrowdTangle tool, DUBAWA identified Mr Simon Ater as one user with the highest interaction on Crowd1 posts on Facebook in Nigeria. Mr Ater’s Facebook page is riddled with Crowd1 promotions and positive flamboyant testimonials. He is also noticed to have made several re-shares of Crowd1 posts from these fake pages with unspecified administrators. Mr Ater’s high interactions with these fake pages and Crowd1 contents seem to indicate he shares a strong connection with them.
On his Facebook page, Mr Ater claims he works for “VNT media,” a media public relations company based in Abuja.
But noticeably, the Facebook page of the acclaimed VNT media seems to lack credibility. The name of the page has been changed 5 times since 2010:
Even more, the provided website (vntmedia.ng) is non-functional, with the domain still available for grasp.
Additionally, DUBAWA took a visit to the alleged address of the company in Abuja. Shockingly, the location was found to be a residential cottage occupied by 6 tenants and not an office complex.
When DUBAWA asked the security guard for VNT Media, he said he had never heard of the name and there was no such company operating in the building. One Mr Abdul, an occupant of the building, took DUBAWA round the house to enquire.
He said that there is no such company operating in the house. However, before he moved in 3 years ago, he was told that the EFCC had busted some persons in the building. Mr Abudul referred DUBAWA to another man, an old resident of the area. The man consented to all the preexisting testaments and added that:
“I have been here for 10 years now. I know this house too well, and there is and has not been a company called VNT Media. We have a lady who runs a daycare. But 3 years ago, the Economic, Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) busted some people in the apartment and went away with them.”
After BBC’s investigation of Crowd1 in 2020, some publications in Nigeria identified Mr Ater Simon as the head of Crowd1 in Nigeria. Mr Simon was even reported to have refuted BBC’s findings, emphasising that it was genuine.
It is also rather off that Mr Ater, who is also the founder of the “Ater Simon Foundation” is not mentioned to have worked with (or still working with) VNT media in an almost 300 words “about me” page written about him on the foundation’s website. He was also mentioned to have “received an award from Crowd1.”
A non existing Crowd1’s office
On Google, Crowd1 has registered the address of its Nigerian office as:
“1 Monrovia St, Wuse 904101, Abuja,”
With a five star rating, positive reviews, tons of pictures about Crowd1 and a non-functional phone contact.
When DUBAWA visited the location of the acclaimed Crowd1 office, the chief security officer in charge of the office complex said there was no such establishment as Crowd1 in this location. He added that several people have been coming to look for Crowd1 in the address with the narrative that they’ve made an investment with them and have yet to get their returns.
“Let me tell you, sir, there is no such office as Crowd1 in this place. They are simply fraudsters. A lot of people have been coming here to ask for Crowd1, thinking the office is here,” he said.
“I remember when one man came and said that he was looking for a Crowd1 office. When I told him that there is no such office here, he burst into tears and told me how they had collected N10 million from him,” he added.
“This office contains only government parastatals, NIRSAL Microfinance bank and three others,” the Chief security said.
DUBAWA has since then made other efforts to contact Crowd1, but all the available contacts on the company’s website and the one displayed on Google were both unreachable. Efforts to also contact Mr Ater Samuel on his Facebook account was unresponsive. Messages sent were not replied to.
While Facebook is yet to regulate these activities on its platform, countries such as Paraguay, New Zealand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Mauritius, Burundi, Namibia, Gabon, and Ivory Coast have issued statements on banning of Crowd1.