Alarm as cyber gangs target Kenyans, steal billions at will

On a Tuesday afternoon in October 2019, Florence stood at a pavement on a busy street in Nairobi waiting for a man she did not know to show up.

Just hours before, the 25-year-old had before sent Sh22,000 to a man she had never met for a phone she had only admired on the internet. The money was an 80 per cent deposit for the purchase of a Samsung Galaxy A50 she had stumbled upon when she was scrolling through her Instagram feed.

Now she stood waiting for a man who said he was coming from Lavington to deliver the mobile phone to her.

He had said he’d deliver the phone but to do that, he needed a deposit so the shop could process her receipt and clear the phone. The explanation sounded reasonable. She sent the money.

Yet the promised 30-minute wait turned to an hour then two and her excitement at finally owning a new phone was replaced with anger and eventually disappointment at herself for being so gullible.

“When I called his number, it kept saying it was busy. I had been blocked. But when I called with a different number, he picked up, realised it was me and then promptly disconnected the call,” she said.

Somewhere else, another man stood with his face screwed, his phone to his ear. The person on the other end, who identified himself as a customer service agent, was telling him that if he did not act fast and give them his personal information and mobile money PIN, his account would be cleaned out by hackers.

Alarmed, he gives the details to the scammers posing as customer representatives and moments later, when he loses access to his SIM card, realises he had been scammed.  

Lonely heart 

It could be a simple romance scam. A seemingly innocent message from a lonely heart casting his net wide to find a partner via an inbox on social media, or even a text message to your phone. 

A 2018 analysis focusing on the geographic origins of romance scams in Africa revealed that their origins are mostly Western Africa, including Ghana, Togo, Senegal, and Côte d’Ivoire, with Nigeria as the largest single contributor.

South Africa was found to be an important origin of this crime, followed by Kenya, to a lesser extent.

Now a new Interpol report released on August 14 on online organised crime in Africa is showing how digitisation is making it easier for criminals.

In Africa, Interpol ranks Kenya among the countries where transnational criminal organisations operate.

The report estimates that Kenyans lost Sh21 billion to cyber and cyber-enabled crimes in 2017. The economic loss in Africa due to cyber attacks reached Sh350 billion. In Nigeria, the number reached Sh65 billion and Sh16 billion in South Africa.

Kenya is in the spotlight of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation as a source of scams and destination of funds obtained from cyber financial fraud.

Kenyans were among 281 fraud suspects who were arrested by the FBI in an operation carried out over a four-month period last year which resulted in the recovery of nearly $3.7 million from scammers.

In the scheme, scammers targeted employees with access to company finances and businesses that regularly perform wire transfer payments and hijacked the transfers and diverted the payments.

With criminals hacking into email systems to gain information about corporate payment systems, then deceiving company employees into transferring money into their bank account, financial scams are a reality in Kenya.

In Eastern Africa, the report states that cyber crime losses in Kenya reportedly amounted to an estimated $295 million in 2018, “with BEC being one of the main ways used to defraud local businesses.”

The Communication Authority, which publishes quarterly data on cyber threats, reports that from January to March this year, it detected 34.6 million cyber threat events.

That figure was a 6.7 per cent decrease from the 37.1 million cyber threats detected between October and December 2019. 

Courtesy of the internet, criminals in Kenya are sophisticating beyond deceiving online users with fake advertising to steal their money.

“We observed an increase in the use of phishing emails, fake websites, fake news and email scams. These were linked to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, with cybercriminals using a variety of tricks such as phishing emails, fake news and fake websites to carry out these attacks for purposes of stealing personal information and defrauding unsuspecting Kenyans,” the CA said.

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