At least one out of every 100 Nigerians has been a victim of a Ponzi scheme scam. In this report, Daily Trust Saturday uncovers the trail of foreign companies turning Nigerians into professional swindlers.
Lured by a lip-smacking promise of a weekly pay of $225 to work for an ‘international non-governmental organisation,’ Francis Essien sold the car he used for commercial transport at a giveaway price of N450,000 to raise part of the N530,000 his friend told him was needed to secure an employment slot with the company.
He then embarked on a 943km journey from Kaduna, in North West, Nigeria, to Mowo in Badagry, Lagos State, with the expectation of starting a job with the said international company.
However, two months after he abandoned his commercial driving business and left home for ‘greener pastures’ in Badagry, Essien could barely hide his frustration and regret. He now knows that he had been scammed by a friend who is an alleged agent of QNET, the supposed company posing as an international non-governmental organisation and recruiting young Nigerians with a promise to pay them in dollars.
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“The employment opportunity and the mouth-watering weekly pay had all been fabricated and sold to me through a friend I trusted,” he said, and explained that QNET, also known as Quest International and their representatives had intended to recruit him as one of their agents. His starting point was to be what he described as a “swindling academy” in Badagry, where many Nigerian youths are taught the art of luring and scamming friends and relatives with job offers.
Like Essien, Haruna Suleiman claimed to be another victim of Quest International Company. He had travelled from Minna in Niger State to Badagry after his fiancé’s relative assured him of a job with the same company. Suleiman, who was offered an appointment letter by Quest International to serve as an independent representative, would later be asked to pay $1,000 to resume his new position. When he could not provide the funds, the agents abandoned him in Badagry and went after other vulnerable Nigerian job seekers.
Essien and Suleiman are only two among hundreds of Nigerian job seekers that have fallen into the traps of employment scammers like the representatives of Quest International Company.
With Nigeria’s unemployment rate at 33.3 per cent and projected to reach 41 per cent before the end of 2023, experts argue that the country has become a breeding ground for criminals who take advantage of the unemployment crisis to lure job seekers with attractive offers.
The actions of these representatives of Quest International Company are categorised by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) as a Ponzi scheme, which the commission said was difficult to track due to their growing number.
Their damage to the economy is, however, felt in the billions of naira swindled out of the country through such schemes.
The Nigeria Deposit Insurance Corporation (NDIC), in 2022 revealed that the country lost over N900 billion to various Ponzi schemes and other related frauds in the last 23 years.
QNET, however, insist that it has a zero-tolerance policy for fraudulent activities, including the false misrepresentation of its products or services.
“We maintain that these individuals posing as QNET representatives and offering employment opportunities in exchange for payment to the public on our behalf are not in any way our representatives,” said Biram Fall, the company’s Regional General Manager for Sub-Saharan Africa.
Fall, in an interview with Daily Trust Saturday said QNET was aware of the activities of “unscrupulous individuals” posing as its agents.
“We have spotted postings about these in Ireland and social media, and it is deeply concerning. What these individuals are doing is illegal, and it is shameful that they are using the QNET name for their nefarious activities,” he said.
Asked about the centre in Badagry where youths are trained to swindle others, Fall said the company did not operate an academy there.
How ‘agents of QNET’ rip off job seekers
Both Francis Essien and Haruna Suleiman share one thing in common – they were lured by people they trusted, posing as agents of Quest International. The agents advertised available ‘vacancies’ within the company with ‘attractive’ benefits that include payment in dollars, worldwide travel and placement in foreign countries.
Prospective victims are then given appointment letters and made to deposit money for alleged international bank account, accommodation, a product from the company, transportation during work hours, visa and other necessary travel documents.
Essien fell for this and made the payment of N230,000 through his friend. This gave him access to the training facility in Badagry, which he said housed teeming Nigerian youths—“over 500 of them, all eager to start making money.”
Through the use of testimonials, an effective advertising strategy, new prospects like Essien and Suleiman are convinced to become independent representatives, with the assurances that they too could achieve similar results as seen from motivational clips they are exposed to.
“That was when I realised it was a form of networking business and I confronted my friend, demanding why he lied to me. He claimed it was part of the ‘work ethics’ not to give full disclosure until new recruits make the payment.
“They (representatives) told me that I would start earning money only when I onboard two other people using the same means that brought me in, and they would each pay N600,000. Those two people would also have to bring two persons each to pay the same amount. I instantly declined and demanded a refund,” Essien said.
Employing a pyramid scheme formula, each of the six recruits under one person is expected to raise N600,000, which amounts to a total of N3,600,000. Should 10 agents successfully achieve this, N360 million would be realised. Presumably, this whopping amount of money that is taken from Nigerians eventually leaves the country illegally without paying any tax.
Should anyone make the pyramid, Essien was told he would then be paid $225 weekly and a $50 commission.
“To receive $50 dollars as commission, you would have to convince two people to pay N600,000. They will also convince two other people each under them to pay the same amount,” he said.
Haruna Suleiman was equally camped at the academy in Badagry but did not have access to the training facility. After a failed effort to raise the requested $1,000 as stated in his appointment letter, he was abandoned by the relative who lured him to Badagry.
To understand how ‘agents of QNET or Quest International’ operate, Daily Trust reporter went undercover and was approached by Bilkisu Zakari, one of the agents allegedly affiliated to the company.
Bilkisu also rolled out her conning skills, making enquiries on this reporter’s job status. After she was told that it was a small business in Abuja that had been weakened by inflation, she explained that she worked for an international company that produced jewellery, health and wellness products in partnership with the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and Manchester City. She claimed that the company had a vacancy and she would speak to her boss to offer this reporter an employment. She assured that the ‘token’ he would be expected to pay would be used to open an international bank account, process an international passport, as well as cater for his feeding and accommodation during training.
Within days into communicating with Bilkisu, she assured this reporter that he would be expected to travel to Badagry after making payment. However, when our reporter pressed for evidence of a job offer before any payment, the independent representative, who claimed to be a representative of QNET, forwarded an employment letter in less than 24 hours. The letter had the logo, Qi with a red-dotted letter I. It had a boldly written Quest International Company in full at the top of the appointment letter.
Like Suleiman’s letter and the testimony of Essien, the letter stated that this reporters’ application to work with the company had been reviewed and accepted with a weekly pay of $225, topped with a $50 allowance. It further stated that training would only commence after a payment of N600,000 was made for registration.
Having pressed for this reporter to pay N600,000 for weeks with no avail, Bilkisu Zakari eventually gave up and deleted the letter.
QNET: The multi-faceted company facing multiple allegations
In the cause of the investigation, Daily Trust Saturday identified Qi Group as the parent company of QNET, which was once called GoldQuest. The company is owned by Vijay Eswaran, a Malaysian. A quick search on twitter revealed that the company had been indicted for alleged money laundering and fraud for over a decade in Iran, India the Philippines and some African countries like Ghana.
Vijay Eswaran, founder, Qi Group of Companies
In 1998, the company was founded as GoldQuest and offered only one product: commemorative gold coins. Later, it changed to QuestNet, adding jewellery and watches to its portfolio. In 2010, QuestNet was subsequently shortened to QNET.
Many have questioned the company’s frequent name change, which QNET defended as a reflection of its expansion in new products to its catalogue.
Extensively reported in India, the company is alleged to have caused social, financial, psychological and economic sufferings to “millions” of people. The Serious Frauds Investigation Office (SFIO) in the country described its operation as “a potential threat to national security.”
In Africa, security operatives in Ghana arrested eight persons linked to QNET, who lured people under the pretext of securing a job after collecting huge amounts.
In January 2022, QNETs’ independent representatives were arrested by security operatives in Gombe State over an alleged fraud and the recruitment of 109 youths to serve as their marketers in the state.
In a bid to curb the activities of Ponzi schemes posing as legitimate businesses, the National Assembly in March passed the 2023 Investment and Security bill, which, when signed into law, would prohibit the promotion of Ponzi, pyramid and other illegal investment schemes in the country.
The bill stipulates more stringent punishments, including a jail term of not less than 10 years for promoters of such schemes.
Already, Nigeria’s law makes it illegal for any company to operate in the country without registration as it would be found to be evading tax.
“You cannot pay tax if you are not registered as a company,” Umar Yakubu, a financial security expert and the executive director of the Centre for Fiscal Transparency and Integrity Watch said.
Investigations by Daily Trust Saturday used advanced company search tools, including the Corporate Affairs Commission’s (CAC) registry, to verify if the company is registered, but Qi Group did not appear on the CAC registry.
Although the name, QNET appeared with locations in Benin, Port Harcourt and two newly opened offices in Lagos, none stated that it was a multinational direct-selling company. Also, the training base in Mowo, Badagry, where both Essien and Suleiman were camped, did not appear.
Biram Fall, however, told Daily Trust Saturday that QNET only launched its operations in Nigeria in April 2022 via a partnership with a local company called Transblue Nigeria Limited.
Transblue Nigeria Limited handles customer support, logistics, product distributio, and support for QNET with offices in Abuja, Lagos, and Port Harcourt. The company registered with the CAC in November 2021 and is owned by Abiodun Akeem Ajisafe.
But before the partnership, Daily Trust Saturday investigations revealed that about 100 people, including foreigners claiming to be representatives of QNET were arrested in Gombe State in January 2022. The company’s Regional General Manager for Sub-Saharan Africa, Biram Fall, was quoted in media reports expressing solidarity for its independent representatives, but stressed that QNET respects the rule of law in Nigeria and other countries in which it operates. He encouraged security operatives to undertake a fair and just investigation into any wrongdoing.
Asked how QNET representatives operated in Nigeria when the company was not registered, Fall, in an interview with Daily Trust Saturday, denounced the media reports, saying, “I have never made any statement condoning any wrongdoing or activitie by individuals who have chosen to take a different path from what a normal and law-abiding distributor is.”
Minimal regulations exposing Nigeria to fraudulent companies – Expert
One of the tactics fraudulent companies employ, according to financial security experts, is some sort of psychological analysis by leveraging on lack of jobs in both government and public sectors.
“They look at countries with minimal regulations and low entry barriers where people can come in, do business and leave. And of course, they will target low and middle income countries where there are no jobs and people are looking for jobs to do,” said Umar Yakubu, the executive director of Centre for Fiscal Transparency and Integrity Watch.
While condemning the presence of such companies in Nigeria, Yakubu said the CAC should publicise such companies found to have committed crimes in their countries of origin before coming to Nigeria. “If by any means they operate, law enforcement agencies should push them out of the economy,” he said.
Reacting, the spokesperson of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Wilson Uwujaren, said they were investigating Ponzi schemes on a case-by-case basis because of their high number.
He said the anti-graft agency was employing the twin strategy of prevention and enforcement by “educating the public on the perils of such get-rich schemes, and at the same time, bringing culprits to justice.”