In 2020, Titiola, a former bank teller in Lagos, wanted to start her own business as an agent banker but couldn’t afford the point-of-sale (POS) device needed to get started. With her family unable to help, she took out a loan from FairMoney, a licensed loan app, which required a full repayment, plus 30% interest paid within one month.
But when the time came to repay the loan, Titiola, who asked to use a pseudonym out of privacy concerns, didn’t have the money. So, she took out another loan, this time with Ocash, an unlicensed app she had seen advertised on Facebook. The Ocash loan had repayment terms of just two weeks, with an almost 50% interest rate.
Titiola found herself in a vicious circle of Nigeria’s mostly unlicensed and predatory soft-loan app industry. Soft loans are relatively low-value loans borrowed over a short time frame. They can range from as little as 1,500 naira ($3) to up to 500,000 naira ($1,144), and generally have a repayment period ranging from a week to two months, often with high interest rates.
To repay Ocash, Titiola borrowed from another app, Easemoni, and to repay Easemoni, she borrowed from a further two apps. By the end of 2021, she owed multiple apps, and many of them threatened to send messages to her contacts labeling her a fraud — a common tactic used by such loan apps to shame or embarrass defaulters into paying up.
Feeling desperate, Titiola turned back to Facebook, where she found groups with names such as “Say no to loan apps” and “Say no to illegal loan apps,” which were launched around June 2021 and February 2022, respectively. After making a post about her dilemma, someone suggested she reach out to Chukwuemeka Ogbu, nicknamed “The General.”
Ogbu offers services promising to help people caught in the soft-loan app industry’s spider web. With services costing from 1,500 naira ($3) to 4,500 naira ($10), he helps customers mitigate the reputational damage caused by the loan apps’ shaming messages. That can include showing customers how to backup their contacts so they can then delete them from their phone, keeping them out of the reach of the loan apps. He also sends bulk messages to people’s contacts in an attempt to offset the loan apps’ messages, sometimes by assuming the identity of the loan app and disclaiming earlier messages. He even claims to be able to get users’ records removed from the databases of many loan apps.
In addition, Ogbu runs a WhatsApp group that serves as a virtual community and a communication channel for his clients. He also encourages members to participate in weekly “thrift” contributions — a shared saving scheme in which money is held by a different contributor each round.
Ogbu told Rest of World that he started offering his services after his own experience with a loan app called LCredit, which was recently removed from the Google Play store for violating Google’s policies. Ogbu said that, in 2019, he frequently borrowed from LCredit and repaid his debt promptly, triggering more generous credit limits. The last time he borrowed from LCredit, he took out a loan of 500,000 naira ($1,144), which had a 50% interest rate and was due in two weeks. “It was something I could not afford,” he admitted.
When he didn’t pay on time, LCredit messaged his contacts and even proclaimed he was dead. This is one tactic loan apps are known to sometimes use in an effort to tarnish the reputation and self-esteem of a defaulter.
To try to repair his reputation, Ogbu sent bulk SMS messages to his contacts. He told Rest of World that he was also able to wipe his name from LCredit’s database, although he would not elaborate on how he managed to do this, or provide any proof of his ability to do so. He then decided that he could do the same for other loan app users.
As the gray market these predatory loan apps have inspired is something of a Wild West, it is difficult to verify information about those involved or how they work, and the area is ripe for scammers.
But Titiola told Rest of World she was happy with Ogbu’s service. “I have not been defamed by any app, which is my greatest fear. The WhatsApp messages and calls have been reduced,” she said. “Since I joined Ogbu’s [WhatsApp] group, I have been eating and sleeping well.”
The economic condition in Nigeria has caused an increase in the demand for soft loans, which come with high interest rates and short repayment periods, often only a week or two. As collateral, the apps ask for financial details, and access to read private data such as users’ location, media files and photographs, and contacts.
When people fail to repay at the given time, the apps respond by sending messages threatening litigation, defamation, and even voodoo attacks.
One Enugu-based bar and restaurant owner, who wanted to stay anonymous due to fear of being identified by the loan apps, told Rest of World he took out loans from five different apps in early 2022 when his business began floundering. At first, he borrowed money to repay his loans. Then, he borrowed from the apps again — but that only increased how much he spent servicing debt. By April, he could no longer keep up.
Subsequently, he began receiving threats. “A particular app, Cashbus, was already flashing my contacts to me and the defamatory messages they will send out,” he told Rest of World. “I was so scared. I started looking for [a] solution.”
He saw Ogbu’s post and paid him 4,000 naira ($9) to clear his name from the loan apps.
Weeks after, the restaurant manager said that many of the apps he owed had stopped messaging him. When he checked the dashboards of some of those apps, he says his records appeared to have been replaced with strange names and details.
Another loan app user, Nessa, who asked to use only her first name due to privacy concerns, turned to Ogbu in June after one app, XCredit, sent messages to her contacts, accusing her of being a criminal. To pay off her loan from XCredit, Nessa had taken out a series of loans from other apps. “I don’t know how he’s doing it but they’ve not been able to reach my contacts,” Nessa told Rest of World.
Ogbu is not the only one who offers these services. Another man, who identifies on Facebook as Onye Ocha — meaning “white man” in Igbo — claims to be an app developer, and says he’s able to breach and manipulate the loan apps’ database.
Onye Ocha told Rest of World he only charges his clients for the cost of the internet data he uses while working on their cases. According to Ogbu and Onye Ocha, prices for services like theirs can go upwards of 10,000 naira ($23). The market still has a limited number of players, and many refused to speak with Rest of World, citing fears that the information they disclose could disrupt their processes or be used to track them.
People offering these services operate in a gray area. “There’s no specific law governing reputation-laundering activities. However, their activities may touch on a range of legal issues, including fraudulent misrepresentation and breach of data protection obligations,” Theophilus Oladipo, a lawyer who works at the intersection of fintech and financial crimes compliance, told Rest of World.
For now, the best way to repair your reputation is by taking the entities to court, Oladipo said: “Nigerian courts have the power to order these companies to provide public apology for the injuries caused, aside from other remedies they can get such as monetary compensations.” However, many of these apps belong to unregistered and unlicensed entities, making it difficult for regulators to trace them and for customers to sue them, he added.
Ogbu said that he’s aware some of his activities might be against the law, but that he needs to do them to protect people against the loan sharks. Onye Ocha shares a similar outlook. “There was a government body that said they banned [the apps],” he said, referring to the numerous attempts by the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC) to crack down on the illegal apps. “Have they stopped operating?”
In March, Nigerian authorities raided the offices of seven different loan apps, citing complaints of bullying, harassment, and privacy violation. After the raid, the FCCPC reportedly froze over 30 accounts belonging to illegal loan apps. In August, the commission requested Google to remove four apps from its Play store. The apps were removed, however, many still advertise themselves on social media and can still be downloaded.
The nascent mitigation market that has arisen in response can also be dangerous, however. Ogbu pointed out that fraudsters and loan agents could pretend to be mitigation service providers.
Ogbu frames his services as providing hope to people. “If you are to save a life, that is worth more than any other thing,” he said. “So, that is my main target.”