Companies use kidnap insurance to guard against ransomware attacks

FILE PHOTO: A screenshot shows a WannaCry ransomware demand, provided by cyber security firm Symantec, in Mountain View, California, U.S. May 15, 2017. Courtesy of Symantec/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

By Suzanne Barlyn and Carolyn Cohn

NEW YORK/LONDON (Reuters) – Companies without cyber insurance are dusting off policies covering kidnap, ransom and extortion in the world’s political hotspots to recoup losses caused by ransomware viruses such as “WannaCry”, insurers say.

Cyber insurance can be expensive to buy and is not widely used outside the United States, with one insurer previously describing the cost as $100,000 for $10 million in data breach insurance.

Some companies do not even consider it because they do not think they are targets.

The kidnap policies, known as K&R coverage, are typically used by multinational companies looking to protect their staff in areas where violence related to oil and mining operations is common, such as parts of Africa and Latin America. Companies could also tap them to cover losses following the WannaCry attack, which used malicious software, known as ransomware, to lock up more than 200,000 computers in more than 150 countries, and demand payments to free them up. Pay-outs on K&R for ransomware attacks may be lower and the policies less suitable than those offered by traditional cyber insurance, insurers say.

“There will be some creative forensic lawyers who will be looking at policies,” said Patrick Gage, chief underwriting officer at CNA Hardy, a specialist commercial insurer, in London.

He added, however, that given that K&R policies are geared towards a threat to lives, “our absolute preference is that people buy specific cover, rather than relying on insurance coverage that is not specific”.

American International Group Inc, Hiscox Ltd and the Travelers Companies Inc have been receiving ransomware claims from some customers with K&R policies as ransomware attacks become more common, the companies said.

The insurers declined to comment on total claims, citing confidentiality and client security concerns.

“We are seeing claims (over the past 18 months) but not a huge uptick,” a Hiscox spokeswoman said. “These are within expectations and entirely manageable.”

She declined to say whether the firm had seen any such claims from the WannaCry attacks though Tom Harvey, an expert in cyber risk management at catastrophe modeling firm RMS, said “insurers with kidnap and ransom books will want to look closely at their policy wordings to see whether they are exposed.”

A sharp rise in ransomware attacks in the past 18 months has driven companies to use K&R policies to cover some of their damages if they do not have direct cyber coverage or cannot meet initial cyber policy deductible costs, insurers said.

Symantec Corp,, a cyber security firm based in Mountain View in California, observed over 460,000 ransomware attempts in 2016, up 36 percent from 2015, the company said. The average payment demand ballooned from $294 to $1,077, a 266 percent increase. But as the threat mounts, K&R insurers are at risk from steeper claims than they had anticipated. They are responding by making changes to their policies, which were not designed around ransomware, insurance brokers said. MORE DAMAGING THEN KIDNAPPING Most of the computers affected by WannaCry were outside the United States, where companies have been slow to buy cyber insurance. Nearly 90 percent of the world’s annual cyber insurance premium of $2.5-3 billion comes from the U.S. market, according to insurance broker Aon Plc.

Global companies typically buy K&R policies without ransomware in mind. But instances of high-tech hacks and online ransom demands can hit a company’s business more than an executive being held hostage.

“If your CFO (chief financial officer) gets kidnapped, the company is going to continue to function,” said Bob Parisi, cyber product leader for insurance broker Marsh & McLennan Companies Inc.

“If you get a get a piece of malware in the system, you might have two factories that stop working. The actual damage is probably greater.”

The K&R policies, which typically do not have deductibles, cover the ransom payments as well as crisis response services, including getting in touch with criminal and regulatory authorities, said Kevin Kalinich, global head of Aon’s cyber risk practice.

Still, K&R policies may provide only a quick fix since they were not designed for ransomware. Companies can add coverage for business interruption, but the upper limits for pay-outs are usually lower than for a cyber policy, insurers say.

K&R insurers have been adapting to ransomware-related claims – some are modernizing coverage by setting up Bitcoin accounts for clients to speed up ransom payments, brokers said.

But insurers are mindful of their own risks.

Some have added deductibles, said Anthony Dagostino, head of global cyber risk at Willis Towers Watson PLC advisory and brokerage.

AIG has reduced business interruption coverage available for K&R policies to a $1 million maximum, from much higher and more flexible limits, said Tracie Grella, global head of cyber risk insurance at AIG.

“Insurers didn’t anticipate there would be this much ransomware activity,” Grella said.

(Reporting by Suzanne Barlyn and Carolyn Cohn; Editing by Carmel Crimmins adn Timothy Heritage)

Chibok girl escapes Boko Haram, says Nigeria’s presidency

A group of 82 Chibok girls, who were held captive for three years by Islamist militants, wait to be released in exchange for several militant commanders, near Kumshe, Nigeria May 6, 2017. REUTERS/Zanah Mustapha

ABUJA (Reuters) – Another Nigerian schoolgirl from the kidnapped group known as the “Chibok girls” has escaped from her captivity by Islamist insurgency Boko Haram, a presidential spokesman said on Wednesday.

The escape makes her the latest to return of the roughly 270 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in April 2014 from the northeastern town of Chibok. Earlier this month, the militants swapped 82 of the girls in exchange for prisoners.

Vice President Yemi Osinbajo at a cabinet meeting in the capital Abuja on Wednesday “announced that another Chibok schoolgirl had been found after she escaped from her captors,” said the spokesman.

“I learned she is already being brought to Abuja,” he said, giving no further details.

Of the 270 girls originally kidnapped, around 60 have escaped and more than 100 have been released. About 100 more are still believed to be in captivity.

Boko Haram’s insurgency has killed more than 20,000 people and displaced more than two million since 2009 in an attempt to create an Islamic caliphate in northeastern Nigeria.

Three years ago, the abduction of the girls from their secondary school by Boko Haram sparked global outrage and a celebrity-backed campaign #bringbackourgirls.

For more than two years there was no sign of the girls. But the discovery of one of them with a baby last May raised hopes for their safety, with a further two girls found in later months and a group of 21 released by the Islamist militants in October.

Although the Chibok girls are the most high-profile case, Boko Haram has kidnapped thousands of adults and children, many of whose cases are neglected, say aid organization’s.

The group often uses those captives, especially young girls and women, as suicide bombers.

(Reporting by Felix Onuah; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

Nigeria in talks to release remaining captive Chibok girls

Campaigners from the #BringBackOurGirls group protest in Nigeria's capital Abuja to mark 1,000 days since over 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped from their secondary school in Chibok by Islamist sect Boko Haram, Nigeria January 8, 2017. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

ABUJA (Reuters) – Nigeria is in talks to release the remaining captive Chibok girls, its president said on Thursday, a day before the third anniversary of the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls by Islamist insurgents Boko Haram.

The kidnapping is one of the most infamous of Boko Haram’s insurgency, now in its eighth year and with little sign of an end. More than 20 girls were released in October in a deal brokered by the International Red Cross. Others have escaped or been rescued but 195 are believed to be still in captivity.

“(The government) is in constant touch through negotiations, through local intelligence to secure the release of the remaining girls and other abducted persons unharmed,” President Muhammadu Buhari said in a statement.

“We have reached out to their captors, through local and international intermediaries, and we are ever ready to do everything within our means to ensure the safe release of all the girls,” he said.

Buhari’s government has repeatedly promised to secure the release of the Chibok girls, and in October the president said efforts would be “redoubled”.

At the time, the presidency also said Boko Haram was willing to negotiate the release of 83 more girls, though none have been let go so far, spurring criticism from campaign groups over the government’s handling of the talks.

Although the Chibok girls are the most high-profile case — triggering a worldwide social media campaign — Boko Haram has kidnapped thousands of adults and children, many of whose cases are neglected, say aid organisations.

The use of kidnapped children as suicide bombers by the insurgents of Boko Haram has surged this year, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Wednesday.

The militants have killed more than 20,000 people and displaced more than two million during their insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic caliphate in northeast Nigeria.

Despite the army saying the insurgency is on the run, large parts of northeast Nigeria, particularly in Borno state, remain under threat from Boko Haram. Suicide bombings and gun attacks have increased in the region since the end of the rainy season late last year.

(Reporting by Felix Onuah; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

Afghanistan gunmen kidnap 52 farmers, regional officials say

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Gunmen in Afghanistan kidnapped 52 farmers on Wednesday, most of them members of the minority Uzbek community in the remote northern province of Jowzjan, regional officials said, but the motive for the abductions was not immediately clear.

Afghanistan’s once-stable north has become a hotbed of kidnappings and shootings in recent years, as the militant Taliban gains ground, along with small groups loyal to Islamic State, mostly defectors from the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.

The men seized in Wednesday’s incident were kidnapped from three villages in the district of Darz Ab in Jowzjan, while they were at work on their land.

Provincial police blamed Taliban fighters that control most of the district.

“The Taliban is responsible for this act, as they are leading those areas,” said Mohammad Riza Ghori, a spokesman for the police chief of Jowzjan.

“A number of elders from Darz Ab, including the police chief, are trying to talk to the Taliban to release these people, and if this does not work, we will launch an operation.”

He did not give further details of plans for such a rescue operation, however.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said he was aware of the report, but could not confirm it as he was gathering information.

Jowzjan is the same province where gunmen last week killed six employees of the International Committee of the Red Cross as they helped deliver emergency relief after heavy snow storms.

Two workers were also kidnapped in that attack, which prompted the ICRC to suspend operations in Afghanistan.

Regional officials blamed last week’s attack on Islamic State fighters and the Taliban denied involvement.

However, police spokesman Ghori said there was no Islamic State presence in the area where the farmers were kidnapped, only Taliban.

(Reporting by Abdul Matin Sahak in Mazar-I-Sharif. Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Afghan Taliban releases video of U.S., Australian hostages

KABUL (Reuters) – The Afghan Taliban released a video on Wednesday showing an Australian and an American hostage pleading with the U.S. government to negotiate with their captors and saying that unless a prisoner exchange was agreed they would be killed.

Timothy Weeks, an Australian teacher at the American University in Kabul and his American colleague Kevin King were seized near the campus in August.

The video, which Weeks said was made on Jan. 1, showed the two men, both bearded, asking their families to put pressure on the U.S. government to help secure their release.

Addressing President-elect Donald Trump, who is due to take office on Jan. 20, Weeks said the Taliban had asked for prisoners held at Bagram air field and at Pul-e-Charkhi prison on the outskirts of Kabul to be exchanged for them.

“They are being held there illegally and the Taliban has asked for them to be released in our exchange. If they are not exchanged for us then we will be killed,” he said.

“Donald Trump sir, please, I ask you, please, this is in your hands, I ask you please to negotiate with the Taliban. If you do not negotiate with them, we will be killed.”

In September, the Pentagon said U.S. forces mounted a raid to try to rescue two civilian hostages but the men were not at the location targeted.

Kidnapping has been a major problem in Afghanistan for many years. Most victims are Afghans and many kidnappers are criminal gangs seeking ransom money but a number of foreigners have also been abducted for political ends.

Last year, the Taliban released a video showing a U.S. hostage and her Canadian husband abducted in 2012 asking their governments to pressure the Kabul government not to execute Taliban prisoners.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Louise Ireland)

Nigeria faces mounting pressure to rescue girls abducted by Boko Haram 1,000 days ago

police disrupt Bring Back Our Girls rally in Nigeria

By Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani and Kieran Guilbert

CHIBOK, Nigeria/DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Nigeria is facing mounting pressure to find some 200 schoolgirls abducted 1,000 days ago in Boko Haram’s most infamous attack after the rescue of 24 girls raised hopes that they are alive.

For more than two years there was no sign of the girls who were kidnapped by the Islamist fighters from a school in Chibok in northeast Nigeria one night in April 2014, sparking global outrage and a celebrity-backed campaign #bringbackourgirls.

But the discovery of one of the girls with a baby last May fueled hopes for their safety, with a further two girls found in later months and a group of 21 released in October in a deal brokered by Switzerland and the International Red Cross..

For parents like Rebecca Joseph the return home of the group of 21 girls at Christmas was a bitter-sweet celebration.

Her daughter, Elizabeth, is one of an estimated 195 girls still held captive by the jihadist group, which has tried to force some of them to convert to Islam and to marry their captors.

“I am happy that some of the girls are returning home even though my own daughter is not among them,” Joseph told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the town of Chibok in Borno state.

“My prayer is that my daughter and the rest of the girls will be rescued and returned to their families safe.”

With last weekend marking 1,000 days since the girls were abducted, President Muhammadu Buhari said he remained committed to ensuring the abducted schoolgirls are reunited with their families “as soon as practicable”.

“We are hopeful that many more will still return,” said Buhari, who came to power in 2015 and replaced a government criticized for not doing enough to find the missing girls.

“The tears never dry, the ache is in our hearts,” he said in a statement.

STRUGGLE FOR FREEDOM

The Nigerian government said last month that it was involved in negotiations aimed at securing the release of some of the girls as the army captured a key Boko Haram camp, the militant group’s last enclave in the vast Sambisa forest.

The exact number of Chibok girls still in captivity is believed to be 195 but it has been hard to pin down an exact number since the girls went missing.

Academics and security experts say it may be a huge challenge to obtain the girls’ freedom given the significance of the abduction for Boko Haram, which has killed about 15,000 people in its seven-year insurgency to set up an Islamic state.

“Outside Nigeria, the Chibok girls have come to symbolize the Boko Haram conflict,” said Sola Tayo, an associate fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

“The global outrage generated by their captivity has added to their value to the insurgents,” she added, adding that they were also significant to Buhari because he made their release a key campaign pledge before his 2015 election.

The government said in October that it had not swapped Boko Haram fighters or paid a ransom for the release of the 21 girls but several security analysts said it was implausible that the Islamist group would have let the girls go for nothing.

“To secure the release of the remaining girls would require concessions by the Nigerian government, which could reverse significant gains it has made against Boko Haram,” said Ryan Cummings, director of risk management consultancy Signal Risk.

“In addition to detainees, Boko Haram may also demand supplies, weapons, vehicles and even money which they could use to recalibrate and invigorate their armed campaign against the Nigerian state.”

DEEP DIVISIONS

One of the major obstacles to securing the release of all of the Chibok girls who remain in captivity is the deep divisions emerging within Boko Haram, said Freedom Onuoha, a security analyst and lecturer at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka.

The militants split last year with one faction moving away from the group’s established figurehead Abubakar Shekau over his failure to adhere to guidance from Islamic State to which Boko Haram pledged allegiance in 2015.

It is unclear how many Chibok girls are held by the main faction led by Shekau, thought to be based in the Sambisa, and by the Islamic State-allied splinter group – headed by Abu Musab al-Barnawi and believed to operate in the Lake Chad area.

“It will be difficult to release most of the remaining girls as each faction will maintain a strong hold on them and would negotiate with state officials on their own terms,” said Onuoha.

While the deal to free the 21 girls was seen as a huge boost for the government’s assertions that it would soon bring home the others, a lack of progress since then has seen public hopes dwindle and frustrations arise, academics said.

Although Nigeria has driven Boko Haram out of most of the territory it held, its battle against the militants will not be considered over until the fate of all of the Chibok girls is made clear, said Nnamdi Obasi of the International Crisis Group.

“From various indications, it is most unlikely that all the remaining girls will come home alive, but the government owes their parents and the public the fundamental responsibility of accounting for every one of them,” the Nigeria analyst said.

“In the long run, that’s the only way to bring closure to this sad episode.”

(Reporting by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani and Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

Four charged with hate crimes over Chicago beating shown on Facebook

By Timothy Mclaughlin

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Four African-Americans accused of attacking an 18-year-old man with special needs while making anti-white racial taunts and broadcasting the assault on Facebook were charged with hate crimes in Illinois on Thursday.

Jordan Hill, Tesfaye Cooper, and sisters Brittany and Tanishia Covington were each charged with aggravated kidnapping, hate crime, aggravated unlawful restraint, and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. Tanisha Covington was the eldest at 24, while her sister and the two men were 18 years old.

“This should never happen,” David Boyd, the victim’s brother-in-law, said at a news conference Thursday. He said the family was overwhelmed by support expressed on social media.

The incident, part of which was streamed on the service Facebook Live on Tuesday, drew the attention of U.S. President Barack Obama, who called it “terrible” in an interview with Chicago’s ABC-TV affiliate.

“Part of what technology allows us to see now is the terrible toll that racism and discrimination and hate takes on families and communities,” Obama said Thursday.

The victim, who is white, has “mental health challenges,” Chicago police said. He was not identified.

Police said the victim knew at least one of his alleged torturers, meeting Hill at a McDonald’s restaurant in a northwestern suburb of Chicago late last week.

When he did not return home the next day, the victim’s parents reported him missing. He was found by Chicago police days later, on Tuesday.

Police said Hill picked the victim up at the McDonald’s in a stolen van. While the victim’s parents reported him missing, their son and Hill spent the next two days together, visiting friends and sleeping in the van.

On Tuesday, a “play fight” between the two in the Covington sisters’ apartment escalated, Chicago Police Commander Kevin Duffin said at the news conference.

The victim was tied up for four or five hours, gagged and beaten. His scalp was cut and he was forced to drink toilet water, Duffin said.

In the video, the attackers could be heard making comments about “white people” as the victim cowered in a corner, his mouth taped shut.

At least one of the attackers could also be heard saying obscenities about President-elect Donald Trump. Police said they did not know whether the victim was a Trump supporter.

Police officers located the victim on Tuesday after neighbors complained about noise coming from the apartment. He was outside in freezing weather wearing only a tank top, shorts and sandals, police said.

He was taken to a hospital and later released. Members of the public alerted investigators to the Facebook Live video.

The four suspects are due to appear in a Chicago court on Friday.

(Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Calif.; Editing by Alan Crosby and Matthew Lewis & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Nigerian soldiers find Chibok girl kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014

Bring Back Our Girls campaigners

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Nigerian soldiers have found a schoolgirl who was one of more than 200 pupils kidnapped by Islamist militant group Boko Haram from their school in the northeastern town of Chibok in April 2014, an army spokesman said on Thursday.

The troops had found Rakiya Abubkar wandering around near Algarno, a former Boko Haram stronghold, the spokesman said. She had a six-month-old baby with her.

A total of 276 schoolgirls were abducted by Boko Haram from Chibok in 2014 in one of the most infamous actions of their insurgency. More than 20 were released in October in a deal brokered by the International Red Cross. Others have escaped or been rescued but about 200 are believed to be still in captivity.

Boko Haram has killed 15,000 people and displaced more than two million during a seven-year-old insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic caliphate in northeast Nigeria.

The group controlled an area about the size of Belgium in early 2015 but has been pushed out of most of that territory over the last year by Nigeria’s army and troops from neighbouring countries.

Last month, the army said it had seized a key Boko Haram camp in its last enclave in Nigeria in the vast Sambisa forest. The jihadists still stage suicide bombings in northeastern areas and in neighbouring Niger and Cameroon.

(Reporting by Lanre Ola, Alexis Akwagyiram and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Dominic Evans)

Trauma of Islamic State rule follows Iraqi women out of Mosul

displaced woman rescued from ISIS

By Stephen Kalin

KHAZIR, Iraq (Reuters) – One wrong word to an Islamic State fighter in Mosul last year was all it took to set in motion a harrowing chain of events for an Iraqi woman who became so traumatized that she trembled in fear even after escaping the group’s control.

The widowed mother was being vetted to receive a pension from the ultra-hardline Islamists a few months after they seized the northern city in 2014 and turned it into the Iraqi capital of their self-styled caliphate.

“I made the mistake of telling them my husband had been a victim of terrorism,” she said in an interview on Tuesday at a government-run camp in Khazir, east of Mosul. “One of them hit me and broke my teeth. Then they took me to a house and held me for three days.”

The jihadists locked her up in a filthy room with rats and bugs. She was blindfolded and her arms and legs were bound by chains as one of the men – or perhaps several, she couldn’t tell – raped her over and over again, she said.

Islamic State, which is putting up fierce resistance to a U.S.-backed offensive to retake Mosul, the group’s last major stronghold in Iraq, has been accused of massacre, enslavement and rape since it swept across large swathes of the country’s north and west in 2014.

There was no way of verifying her story, but it reflected others’ experiences coming to light as civilians from the most populous city ever controlled by the jihadists emerge from their grip and grapple with 2-1/2 years of suffering.

A 13-year-old girl who also spoke to Reuters on the condition of anonymity said her father had married her to a neighbor four years her senior who turned out to be with Islamic State.

The slender adolescent now clutching a pink sequined purse said he had threatened to kill her and permitted his brothers to sexually assault her.

After escaping Mosul a few weeks ago, she learned he had made it to a nearby camp and informed the authorities. They detained him, but the pair remain married.

The 37-year-old widow fled last month to Khazir camp, where she receives counseling from UNFPA, a United Nations agency focused on gender-based violence. She asked that her name be withheld for fear of retribution and donned a face veil that revealed only her eyes.

When Islamic State released her after the assault, the diminutive, round-faced woman returned home thinking her nightmare was over.

She sent her two younger children – now 9 and 11 – to stay with relatives in the nearby Kurdish city of Erbil and planned to join them as soon as she could save enough money to smuggle herself and her eldest son.

But a few weeks later she discovered she was pregnant with the child of one of her Islamic State tormentors. In addition to the trauma of being raped, she feared the stigma in Iraq’s conservative society of an unmarried woman giving birth. Within two months she had rushed into marriage with a man who had agreed to adopt the child as his own.

“DIE OF HUNGER OR GET MARRIED”

“They were forcing widows to get married. This was one of their rules: either die of hunger or get married,” said the woman, who occasionally wept and fidgeted with her hands underneath a loose-fitting garment.

Her new husband, though, also had a troubled past. An engineering student in his last year of university, he had been sentenced to death in connection with a crime of honor before Islamic State seized Mosul. In jail, he befriended jihadists who helped him escape when the group routed government forces in 2014.

Soon after the pair married, Islamic State gave the man an ultimatum: fight with us or we kill you. He yielded, and his new wife found herself back in the militants’ clutches.

When her family living outside Mosul learned that she was now married to an Islamic State member, they severed all connections with her. Her late husband’s brother took custody of her two young children and moved them to Baghdad, vowing never to let her see them again.

When Iraqi forces reached her neighborhood last month, she said, they detained her new husband to investigate his jihadist ties.

She took her eldest son with her to the camp but left the baby, now just over a year old, with her new husband’s second wife who remains in Mosul. His fate and that of hundreds or perhaps thousands of other children born to the jihadists remains unclear as the group loses much of its territory and its bid for statehood.

“They think this is the son of their father, they don’t know the truth,” the mother said of the second wife’s family. “The boy doesn’t look like me.”

She has resolved never to return to Mosul, even if Islamic State is eliminated. “I want to go somewhere far away where nobody knows me.”

Baby traffickers thriving in Nigeria as recession bites

baby grasps hand

By Anamesere Igboeroteonwu and Tom Esslemont

ENUGU, Nigeria/LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As 16-year-old Maria strained under the anguish of labor in southeastern Nigeria, a midwife repeatedly slapped her across the face – but the real ordeal began minutes after birth.

“The nurse took my child away to be washed. She never brought her back,” the teenager said, gazing down at her feet.

Maria said she learned her newborn daughter had been given up for adoption for which she received 20,000 naira ($65.79) – the same price as a 50 kilogram bag of rice.

And Maria is far from alone.

A Thomson Reuters Foundation investigative team spoke to more than 10 Nigerian women duped into giving up their newborns to strangers in houses known as “baby factories” in the past two years or offered babies whose origins were unknown.

Five women did not want to be interviewed, despite the guarantee of anonymity, fearing for their own safety with criminal gangs involved in the baby trade, while two men spoke of being paid to act as “studs” to get women pregnant.

Although statistics are hard to come by, campaigners say the sale of newborns is widespread – and they fear the illegal trade is becoming more prevalent with Nigeria heading into recession this year amid ongoing political turbulence.

“The government is too overstretched by other issues to focus on baby trafficking,” said Arinze Orakwue, head of public enlightenment at the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP).

Record numbers of baby factories were raided or closed down in the southeastern states of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo this year, NAPTIP said.

A total of 14 were discovered in the first nine months of 2016, up from six in 2015 and 10 in 2014, the data showed.

But despite the growing number of raids, the scam exploiting couples desperate for a baby and young, pregnant, single women continues with newborns sold for up to $5,000 in Africa’s most populous nation where most people live on less than $2 a day.

Cultural barriers are also a factor in the West African nation, with teenage girls fearing they will be publicly shamed by strict fathers or partners over unwanted pregnancies if they do not give up their children, experts say.

“In southeastern Nigeria a woman is deemed a failure if she fails to conceive. But it is also taboo for a teenager to fall pregnant out of wedlock,” said Orakwue.

Maria said in the home in Imo state where she gave birth pregnant teenagers were welcomed by a maternal nurse who liked to be called “mama” but went on to sell the babies they delivered.

“(After I gave birth) somebody told me that mama collected big money from people before giving them other people’s babies,” Maria told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the grounds of a school compound in her village.

“I do not know where my baby is now,” said Maria, using a false name for her own protection.

A lot of the trade is carried out in Nigeria but authorities suspect babies are also sold to people from Europe and the United States because many foreigners continue to seek infants there despite the controversy around Nigerian adoptions.

HIDDEN PROBLEM

The U.S. Department of State alerted prospective adoptive parents to the issue of child buying from Nigeria in June 2014 after Nigerian media warned that people were posing as owners of orphanages or homes for unwed mothers to make money.

“The State Department is aware of a growing number of adoption scams,” an alert on its website read.

Over 1,600 children have been adopted from Nigeria by U.S. citizens since 1999, according to the State Department website, about a third of them aged between one and two years old.

A U.S. official said the State Department facilitates contact between foreign officials and U.S. authorities when foreign governments raise any concerns regarding the welfare of an adopted child.

“To date, we are not aware of any concerns regarding the welfare of a child adopted from Nigeria,” a State Department official told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a statement.

In Britain a couple was found by the High Court to have “fallen under the spell” of an elaborate fraud after paying 4,500 pounds ($5,600) for herbal treatment in Nigeria that caused the woman’s stomach to swell, media reported in 2014.

The couple only realized they had been duped nine months later when presented with a baby in Nigeria that actually was not theirs, the Daily Mail newspaper reported.

Babies, whose biological parents or backgrounds are unknown, are offered to women who have not been able to conceive naturally, according to NAPTIP and interviews with three women.

The British government said it was committed to stamping out what it calls the “miracle babies” phenomenon.

“Specially-trained teams are working at the UK border to identify and safeguard babies and children who may be at risk of trafficking,” said a spokesman for the Home Office (UK interior ministry) in a statement.

Denmark suspended adoptions from Nigeria in 2014 citing concerns over forgery, corruption and lack of control by the authorities.

Apart from the illicit trade in babies, Nigeria also faces the problem of domestic and international trafficking in women and children.

Human trafficking, including selling children, is illegal in Nigeria, but almost 10 years ago a UNESCO report identified the industry as the country’s third most common crime after financial fraud and drug trafficking – and the situation appears to be getting worse, according to campaigners.

The Nigerian government has not ratified an internationally recognized set of rules known as the Hague Adoption Convention which meant the laws governing adoptions remain murky and complicated, campaigners said.

“There is corruption in the adoption process and that is the individual (Nigerian) states’ responsibility,” said NAPTIP’s Orakwue in a phone interview

“But central government should step up its funding to NAPTIP so we can increase support to victims,” Orakwue said.

HERBAL TREATMENT

Sophie, who was not able to conceive, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation she started to develop the symptoms of pregnancy after visiting a herbalist in Enugu state in 2014.

However the traditional doctor told Sophie her swollen stomach contained gas resulting from the herbal treatment rather than a fetus – but she could arrange to buy a baby.

“(The herbalist) said that she would bring me a newborn baby, girl or boy, depending on which one I wanted,” she said in the grimy sitting room of her apartment in southeastern Nigeria.

The woman said a girl would cost 380,000 naira ($1,250) while a boy would cost 500,000 naira ($1,645), said Sophie who opted for a girl.

But a sense of obligation to the woman who brought her a child prevented her from reporting the crime, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“I considered everything and thought to myself ‘why should I report (the herbalist) to the police?’ She had helped me,” she said.

NAPTIP does not have data on the number of domestic adoptions that have taken place, a figure it says is not held by central government.

“In the southeastern states, the sale of babies is unarguably very prevalent as recorded by the agency,” said Cordelia Ebiringa, NAPTIP’s commander in Enugu state.

DEADLY GAME

Men are also involved in the process of illicit baby trafficking, with sperm donors impregnating surrogate mothers who then sell their babies, according to two Nigerian men.

Surrogacy is illegal in Nigeria.

Jonathan, 33, said he was paid 25,000 naira ($82) by his boss or “madam” every time he helped a client to become pregnant.

“I don’t see it as somebody exploiting me. The madams pay me for my work,” said Jonathan, who withheld his full name.

Jonathan said he did not know whether the women gave their babies away or went on to sell them although he was concerned what he was doing could be illegal.

“I often think ‘what if the police catch me?'”

Nigeria’s anti-human trafficking agency said it did not have data or information on the role of sperm donors, but many women they spoke to did not want to reveal how they fell pregnant.

“NAPTIP has no records of studs that impregnate the women at the baby factories as most of the pregnant women rescued and interviewed in such cases claimed unplanned pregnancies,” said Ebiringa.

Little information was made available by the Nigerian police or authorities in southeastern states about the number or identity of the people who run the “baby factories”.

No data was provided on the number of arrests by police in southern states of Enugu and Abia on baby trafficking offences despite repeated requests by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But the dangers involved, both from the law and from trafficking gangs, are palpable, according to Jonathan, who estimates he has fathered about 15 children as a “stud”.

“These (baby traffickers) can be dangerous,” said Jonathan, who was once threatened by a group of thugs who found out what he was doing. “They are ready to kill anybody if you stand in their way.”

($1 = 304.00 naira)($1 = 0.8042 pounds)

(Reporting By Tom Esslemont and Anamesere Igboeroteonwu, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)