Nigeria, Africa's largest telecom market, has arrested more than 500 people for alleged cybercrimes and jailed 288 convicted cybercriminals in the past 10 years, but more work is needed in the country and throughout Africa to efficiently combat computer-related crime, according to industry and government officials.

The country's Financial and Economic Crimes Commission (FECC) has reported that a total of 536 cybercriminals have been arrested since 2003 and 288 have so far been convicted and sent to jail for cybercrimes. However, the publicity surrounding Nigerian cybercrime is raising fears that the country may face a slowdown in international investment in the telecom sector as well as the financial sector.

A phenomenal penetration of broadband Internet in the country is said to be behind the upsurge in Internet crimes targeting the financial sector, as the cost of connectivity has become more affordable for everyone. The arrests were made by the FECC's Advanced Free Fraud Section.

"The section also extradited four fraud fugitives from the U.S. while 234 outstanding cases are still undergoing prosecution," said FECC Chairman Ibrahim Lamorde in a statement last week.

Fears are high, however, that the whole African region is set to face new and increased attacks due to the rise in Internet accessibility by the introduction of new cables, resulting in competition for customers and cheaper bandwidth.

The Southern and East African regions are already taking steps to respond to computer-related crime by developing and strengthening their legal framework to fight cybercrime.

A report by the Internet U.S. Crime Complaint Center named Nigeria two years ago as number three in the world and the top African nation in its cybercrime rankings. Nigeria is behind the U.S. and U.K., which have larger populations.

As more Africans use the Internet for their banking needs, the number of fraudsters eyeing bank accounts and online financial transactions has also multiplied. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes estimates that Nigeria alone has lost millions of dollars through cybercrime.

According to Lamorde, the Nigerian government has so far blocked scams that would have fleeced users out of more than US$2 billion. Lamorde's statement came during the opening of a Regional Engagement meeting on Transnational Fraud for West African Law Enforcement Agencies organized by FECC in collaboration with the Australian Federal Police in Abuja, Nigeria.

The country's minister of justice and attorney general, Mohammed Bello Adoke, said cybercrime activities had been largely responsible for the negative image Nigeria has attained in recent times. Nigeria is the best known African country for advanced-fee-fraud scams, in which people are persuaded to advance money in order to realize larger gains later. The scams are known as 419 scams, after section 419 of the Nigerian penal code, which prohibits the crime.

But Adoke said, "we vehemently reject the tendency on the part of some countries to label Nigeria as a 419 nation."

Currently, cybercrime mainly targets banks and other financial institutions, as very few banks that provide Internet services are able to also offer security software to curb cybersecurity attacks. Phishing attacks aimed at banks and other financial institutions feature unsolicited messages instructing users to follow a link to confirm their account information, as a way for criminals to obtain their passwords and user identities.

In addition to Nigeria, other countries in the Eastern and Southern African regions including Zambia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have launched vigorous campaigns to educate consumers about cybercrime.

The Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA), Zambia's telecom sector regulator, has established Computer Incidence Response Teams in various centers across the country in a bid to fight cybercrime. ZICTA has further partnered with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to establish a watch-and-warn center with a computer system, which will regulate mail activities on the Internet.

"ZICTA is investing 1.3 billion kwacha (about $582,000) to regulate activities on the Internet," said Choolwe Nalubamba, ZTCTA Numbering and Naming manager.

Kenya, Africa's third-largest telecom market, has also declared a similar move to bolster its fight against cybercrime. A survey conducted last year by Deloitte, a financial consulting firm, revealed that banks in Kenya, Zambia, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania lose about $245 million in Internet fraud per year.