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Are digital era celebrities and influencers covertly aiding criminal enterprises?

The past few years have witnessed a significant rise in scams in Nigeria’s digital space, which has resulted in billions of nairas being lost to scammers. These scams range from pyramid schemes to investment scams to fake crypto trading and more. Nigerians have lost nearly a trillion naira to Ponzi schemes over the past 23 years, according to a recent report by The Guardian. Some of the more notorious scams in recent Nigerian history include MMM, EatRich, TonsoElite, 360Hub, Cryptosilv, Racsterli, Chinmak and so on. These sophisticated schemes have robbed millions of Nigerians of their hard-earned cash.

The success of some of these scams can be attributed in part to influencers and celebrities lending them legitimacy early in their operations. It’s now almost standard practice for businesses to hire influencers to promote their products and services and attract customers. But what happens when things go wrong and the deal turns out to be illegitimate? In many cases, the influencers/celebrities whose popularity gave these companies credibility simply separate their brand from the scams, move on, and abandon their followers to their fate.

This begs the question: how liable are influencers and celebrities for losses their followers incur as a result of the brands they endorse?

The case of Zzapo Mobile illustrates this situation. In 2019, an unknown brand, Zzapo Mobile, invaded the smartphone industry and caused a stir with ridiculously low prices and endorsements from select influencers and celebrities. Despite a promising start, Zzapo Mobile defrauded thousands of Nigerians out of millions of naira in a case that never really got noticed.

The launch of Zzapo seemed to come at just the right time as the prices of Android phones with sophisticated features have increased. As a result, people were looking for cheaper alternatives. Enter Zzapo with an affordable and feature-rich smartphone.

ZZapo cell phone scam

The specs of the Zzapo phone looked incredible and for this year it seemed worth it despite not being a well known brand like Tecno, Itel or Infinix. It promised 4GB RAM, 64GB ROM and many more great features. The best part was the phone’s incredible starting price: 7,999 naira (about $16).

Marked as an introductory offer, the price of ₦7,999 was only available for pre-orders and buyers had to wait 21 days to receive their orders after payment was received.

The introductory price was to last through December 6, 2019, then return to a “sale price” of ₦45,000 through December 31, 2019, and then return to its “original price” of ₦108,000 in January. Perhaps this unpredictable pricing model was the first sign that all was not as it seemed at Zzapo Mobile.

Zzapo Mobile has also enlisted popular sketch creator Broda Shaggi and techie and current Azapay CEO Jackye Madu as backers for the phone. The former filmed a skit to confirm the phone’s authenticity, while the latter was physically present at an unveiling event.

Swill Shaggi Scam ZZapo Mobile Techcabal

ZZapo Mobile Techcabal Jackye honey

Journalists jostle for an interview with Jackye Madu

The Zzapo mobile team alongside Jakye Madu at the start

The company also hired Otumbadi Chikodi, a digital marketer known as @hrmqueenluciana on Instagram, to review the phone on her page.

Due to a surge in orders, believed to have been due to influencer recommendations, Zzapo extended the pre-order date to December 11, claiming this meant that those who had trouble placing their orders before the original deadline could also enjoy the pre-order price come. However, Zzapo Mobile only ended the sale on December 13th.

The price of the introductory offer will be discontinued on December 13, 2019

After the end of sale announcement, Zzapo’s social media pages went silent. They returned after five days, announcing an abrupt end to the £45,000 sale price which was originally intended to last until the following year.

From there it was all downhill. As the days went by, Zzapo’s social media pages were inundated with complaints about missing tracking numbers or order confirmations. The only proof of purchase buyers had was the automated email from Paystack, Zzapo’s payment gateway.

Visits to Zzapo’s physical store revealed a small, relatively empty space with no gadgets or phones for sale.

On December 23, the scheduled delivery date for the pre-ordered Zzapo phones, the brand announced it was still processing orders, asking for patience and advising those who couldn’t wait to request a refund.

That was the last time Nigerians saw and heard Zzapo Mobile.

Many Zzapo Mobile customers have found it difficult, and in some cases impossible, to obtain a refund. Those who called law enforcement got some of their money back, while reportedly forfeiting the rest to the police.

A victim lucky enough to get a piece of it

Money back with the help of the police

Others tried chargebacks to Paystack, and while some got their money back, most couldn’t because Paystack had already processed their payments to Zzapo.

One of the victims posts his response from Paystack

We spoke to one victim, “Ola”, who ordered two phones at an introductory price of ₦7,999. Describing his experience with Zzapo Mobile, Ola said, “I stumbled across the Zzapo phone on Broda Shaggi’s timeline on Instagram, and given its personality, I had no reason to doubt the legitimacy of the product and the company.” So I ordered for two. Just for everything to turn out to be wrong. What hurt me the most was that Broda Shaggi didn’t address the issue. In fact, I believe he blocked me and my boyfriend on Instagram along with other people urging him to speak out. That’s how I lost more than 15,000 at that time. It really hurt me because I really needed a phone at the time.”

Ola also shared the receipts of his purchase and his unsuccessful attempt to get a refund from Paystack. See pictures below:

Ola’s first receipt for one of his Zzapo cell phone orders

Ola’s second receipt for one of his Zzapo cell phone orders

Mobile sweeper

Ola’s request for a refund

Mobile sweeper

Paystack’s response to Ola’s refund request

Mobile sweeper

Unfortunately, the last email he sent to Paystack was unsuccessful

Another victim, Ms. Ojeranti, told TechCabal her story. She said: “I don’t like to remember that time. Back then I didn’t even have enough money. But I saw it as an opportunity and asked my friend to help me order. So they ran off with my hard-earned money.”

A closer look at the Zzapo Mobile scam revealed that there was no visible CEO, board members, or employees behind the social media pages. The only prominent names and faces associated with the brand were the influencers hired to promote the phones, who largely ignored requests from those affected on their social media pages and reportedly blocked those who reached out they turned.

To date, Zzapo’s social media accounts are dormant and none are responding to our requests for comments. TechCabal also reached out to Jackye Madu and Broda Shaggi to inquire about their Zzapo support and the outcome. In response, Jackye stated that 2019 was a long time ago and she couldn’t remember anything. Broda Shaggi, on the other hand, neither read nor replied to our messages.

Unfortunately, the Zzapo case is not an isolated case. There were many such scams that slowly disappeared without any solution being found. In some cases, celebrities are used either knowingly or unknowingly to legitimize the business to the unsuspecting public. Some examples of such companies are Racksterli, which is passively supported by Davido, and TonsoElite, which was indirectly given a platform by Channels TV via Ebuka, a popular media personality. The most recent of these is the failed endorsement of popular sketch creator and comedian Sabinus, who has been promoting an alleged crypto trading/investment company called AI Mining.

In almost all such cases, the influencers just move on, leaving thousands or even millions of people scammed and distraught while the scammers get away with it. In cases where they are caught, victims have little or no retrieval of what they lost.

These cases therefore raise an important question: What is the duty of care influencers and celebrities have towards their followers in verifying the authenticity of the brands they endorse? Given the conspicuous lack of a regulatory framework to ensure quality control in the endorsement/advertising space, should the need for accountability be left to the influencers and celebrities whose reputation and social currency are their livelihoods?

There are laws and regulations designed to curb cases like this – the Investments and Securities Act 2007, introduced by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Investment Securities Tribunal; the Advance Fee Fraud and Other Fraud Offenses Act. Similarly, Nigeria also has the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (Establishment) Act which establishes the EFCC tasked with prosecuting this type of crime. However, the victims seem to be more at the mercy of the perpetrators than the judiciary.

The proliferation of such scams, using the endorsement of popular influencers as a cloak, could be a throwback to the regulatory action ARCON took in 2022 to regulate the advertising social media influencers are allowed to run. One might wonder whether such a policy would be effective in curbing the rampant proliferation of fraudulent activity in the industry.

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