Scammed – the perils of super-fast mobile money transfers by Africa Expat Wives Club

Posted on February 28th, 2018
Categories: News

Warning: You too could be conned…

So last week (during half term) I was scammed. Or more correctly, a member of our domestic staff was scammed…which then hit me in the pocket.

It happened just as I was piling granny, granddad and 2 slow moving teenagers into the car to get to a hair appointment. Jared crossed the garden, on the phone (a pretty snazzy Samsung smart phone I noticed) – looking very concerned. Frightened even. It turns out he was on the receiving end of a panicked phone call initiated by a man ringing on behalf of Jared’s son’s school. It went something like this

I’m calling for your son’s teacher (named X) as he doesn’t have credit. Your son (named Y) is in Kenyatta hospital, he’s had a very bad accident at school (school name Z), he’s broken his leg badly and also hurt his head. And there’s internal bleeding. He needs to go into surgery right now. We are at the hospital. You must send money immediately so that he can go into theatre.”

Jared looked like his whole world was collapsing and, I panicked too.

“What’s happened?” I asked and Jared started speaking fast.

“They said to send money, they said my son is in Kenyatta hospital. He’s had an accident at school.”

At this point I wanted to help and fast, so I transfered money from my bank account into my mobile phone/MPesa account, ready to send on to him.

Don’t worry Jared, I’m so sorry. I’m sending you the money for the operation, then you must go quickly to the hospital.

I was about to transfer a little more than the amount requested to Jared’s phone/account (to allow for additional hospital costs) – but then Jared said, “the man said to send the cash to this number.” I follow instructions and send cash immediately. The money left my phone and was received by an Edward Martin Mung’atia – which seemed like a valid/traceable account name. Jared nodded then prepared to leave the house fast.

It takes less than a minute to press send on a mobile money transfer. That’s the beauty of phone banking. Very quick, no hassle transactions from the phone in your hand.

Meanwhile the car is full of my own family members wondering what the heck is going on and we’re all now late for the appointment. I speed off with them all in the car feeling shaken and also processing over the information that I’ve just received. As I convey the story, it just doesn’t seem to add up. How could a boy of under 10 have such a serious accident inside school? The description sounded more like he’d been hit by a bus. And how come the school didn’t call the father before going to hospital and preparing the child for surgery? Surely they should have phoned sooner? Or gone to a nearer hospital? Meanwhile, Jared was repeatedly trying to call his wife but the call just wasn’t going through so he headed toward the boy’s school (closer than the hospital) to try and get more information.

I literally think that we’re going to have to pray for this boy,” I tell everyone in the car (my father-in-law is a religious man) “it sounds like he may even die.

When we reach the hairdresser and I’ve calmed down a bit, I call my husband and tell him the story.

Are you sure it isn’t a scam?” He says immediately. I was honestly blown away by the suggestion and thought, could it be? But at the exact same moment, Jared is calling me too.

Madam, quickly reverse the transaction, it was a conman, I’m so sorry, my son is fine.

Relieved that the boy is fine. Annoyed that I’d fallen for such a scam, I immediately called our house helper to try to reverse the MPesa transaction on my behalf (I’d left my Safaricom phone at home).  She reported back that my Safaricom line had been ringing off the hook since we left, with this guy screaming down the phone trying to get her to send more money. She had explained to him that it was not her phone so she couldn’t help – but by now her suspicions were definitely aroused. She said that the man on the other end of the line sounded hysterical and had wanted her to act fast – but alarm bells were ringing for her.

Of course the money I sent had been withdrawn immediately so the transaction couldn’t be reversed. I was only glad that I had left that phone at home, so hadn’t been compelled by the scammer to send more cash. The con is that they try to extract as much money as possible over a short amount of time, before disconnecting the line.

The conman had known Jared’s name, his son’s name, the name of his son’s school and his teacher’s name. In retrospect, it was the cruelest ruse. In the face of being told that your only child might die – do you quibble?

Oh, so my son is about to be rushed into surgery is he? So how do I know that you are telling the truth? Prove it?”

So after this bruising episode I reported the faker’s number to Safaricom (who said that the case is very common and that scammers are using dead people’s identities to set up fake phone accounts). Then Jared went off and reported the incident to the police (who said this kind of case is very common and nowadays con men hang around schools and estates collecting names and information off local residents and kids to use in scams later).

Story 2:

A few days afterwards, I heard of a similar case. A man gets a call from someone purporting to be from his mobile service provider saying ‘turn off your phone for 2 hours for a 3G update to take place’. The receiver of the call is rushing to a meeting so powers down his phone immediately, but then after 45 minutes and once he’s stopped rushing, he grows suspicious and switches his phone back on.  When it comes back to life, there are multiple messages and missed calls from family members asking if he’s okay as well as a few missed calls from the con artist who said  he was from his mobile provider.

The man in question called his parents, who were beside themselves with worry and immediately asked if he was okay. In fact his dad was already at the bank about to transfer money to an apparent kidnapper who said they’d abducted their son. The scammers had even gone as far as making it sound like a victim was crying out in the background and the parents had assumed it was their grown-up son. Once the man reassured his parents that he was perfectly safe and hung up, the scammer started repeatedly calling the business man back, presumably to ensure that his line was busy and ideally run down the battery on his phone – while trying to continue the scam with other relatives. Later, when the man reported this incident to the police, he was told that there are many scams like this one around.

***

I know about those annoying, scam text messages where you are asked to send money to a stranger –but  emotive phone calls making use of a lot personal information are something else. Especially sinister is the apparent ease at blocking phone numbers, making it impossible for victims of these scams to verify whether the story being spun is fake or not. I was gullible and should have waited before sending money – but when you are under time pressure and high emotions are involved, it’s hard to take a step outside the situation and look at it objectively. Plus, as a long term resident here, I’ve been asked to help in some pretty dreadful scenarios in the past – so in that way, the story didn’t seem completely implausible.  Anyhow, it’s worth knowing, the mobile phone scammers have taken it up to another level, so try not to be fooled.

Featured image: Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash