Lesley Martin just wanted to pay it forward.
After avoiding a Nigerian phishing fraud, the Toronto life coach and communications consultant started wondering about the young man behind a computer screen half a world away who had tried to rip her off.
Martin, who also works as a part-time standup comic and therefore keeps her social media and email accounts public, is no stranger to attempted spam scams.
So — like a scene out of Will Ferguson’s 2012 Giller Prize-winning novel 419 — she engaged with the would-be fraudster earlier this summer and was surprised what she learned.
She was also disappointed in PayPal when she tried to help the young Nigerian man who said he was trapped in the phishing farm because he needed money to help pay his brother’s tuition fees at engineering school in Lagos.
The American online remittance company refused to allow her to transfer cash to Nigeria via its subsidiary Xoom — and makes no apologies for its actions.
That has Martin accusing the firm of discriminating against Nigerians.
“I’ve been spending some spare time lately trying to convince a few kids in West Africa who tried to catfish me to use the skills they learned in their catfish boiler room for less nefarious purposes … to pivot and do some good with it,” she said this week.
“I’m not a saint, but it seemed to me that they were really just people reaching out for help,” Martin said of the young men who speak English and are trained to dupe people around the world into sending them cash over the internet.
Terry Eze Nwachi, who was supplementing his $80-a-month salary at a transportation depot by phishing, was one of those.
“It feels wonderful and unreal that someone who is miles away from me could put me in such effort to help me. It’s an amazing feeling and I really appreciate it with all my heart. It gives me a sense of hope,” Nwachi, 23, said via a WhatsApp message.
In exchange for him going straight — and helping some of his associates use their language and computer abilities for other purposes, Martin agreed to send $400 to pay the tuition fees of his younger brother, Viktor, 19.
“It wasn’t even my money. I had a $400 Visa gift card I got from a previous job and I wanted to use it to help someone,” she said.
“(The transfer) appeared to be accepted, but an hour later I got a call from a Xoom ‘verification’ rep who wanted to verify the transaction. I answered all the questions — including what the funds were for,” said Martin, who was offended by that “intrusive” line of questioning.
“When I told them I had never met my receiving party face-to-face, they told me they could not authorize the transaction. When I asked why, they said it was because there is too much crime associated with the region,” she said.
“I offered to sign a waiver of responsibility for them … that they had a recording of me indicating I was coherent and had acknowledged the risks associated with sending money directly into Lagos, an area rife with confidence scams.”
But Xoom repeatedly declined to comply with her wishes and then ignored her complaints until hastily reaching out the day after the Star made inquiries to the company this week.
“I shared that having a policy specific to a region that restricts the transfer of money to people in need there because of the crime associated with it was institutional racism,” she said.
“And at best they were applying a moral judgment to the recipients of such assistance.”
Frustrated, Martin ended up transferring the Visa gift card funds using Xoom rival WorldRemit and she has “seen the happy results of my labours.”
That’s because Nwachi is now helping her develop “a teaching module he could give to the graduating students at his brother’s engineering school to acclimatize them to North American culture in hopes of finding gainful employment here.”
When family members suggested she might be the victim of an even more sophisticated criminal scheme, she assured them she has seen where the young man lives and where he works via WhatsApp video calling.
“I’m not worried about that, believe me,” said Martin.
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Xoom, however, remains unrepentant about its actions.
In an email statement to the Star, the PayPal company said it “offers money transfer services to 130 countries around the world.”
“It’s a more secure and convenient way to send money, reload mobile phones or pay bills for family members and people that you trust and personally know — as outlined in our user agreement,” Xoom said.
“ In an effort to help keep our customers safe from scams we encourage them to follow best practices when sending money and provide details on how to do so in our FAQ,” the company said.
“We review transactions to check for potential fraud, including scams, and to meet compliance and anti-money laundering requirements.”
In fact, Xoom’s service agreement only says it should be used with “family members and other people that you trust.”
“We recommend that senders use the service only to send money or mobile reloads to, or pay bills for, people you know personally, such as family and friends. You should never use the service to send requests or money to strangers,” it reads.
Martin noted that just because she has never physically met Nwachi does not mean she doesn’t know or trust him now.
She said she was so outraged about the apparent discrimination she reminded Xoom that under Canadian law “you can’t refuse a service based on race.”
Nwachi, for his part, was not surprised.
“It’s a messed-up situation,” the Nigerian said via WhatsApp.
“I understand that any money sent from (a) Western country down to this part (of the world) is seen as (a) scam,” he said.
“But it doesn’t have to be generalized. It may appear like they are protecting their users, but with that much detailed information that is provided the destination of the receiver shouldn’t be a barrier.”
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie