They are smart and aggressive. They sometimes sound professional and calculative but at times they employ scare tactics to extort money from innocent, gullible or terrified citizens.
That sums up the hardcore criminals at Kenya’s Kamiti Maximum Prison who use mobile phones to commit crimes.
A phone user scrolling though the M-Pesa menu
Joseck Ombasa, a resident of Maili nane in Kitale remember vividly how he lost sh9,000 from his Mpesa account in December last year.
“I received a message that seemed to originate for Safaricom indicating I had received sh10,500 from a sender, ” narrates Mr Ombasa, dejected and bitter.
“After reading the message I received a call from someone who sounded tearful that he had wrongfully sent me the cash, meant for a patient who needed it for an emergency surgery at a Nakuru hospital…the caller requested me to return sh9,000 to him and remain with sh1,500 for my kindness,” he said.
According to Mr. Ombasa, the caller sounded very genuine and desperate. He had to act fast and return the money. After all he was about to make sh1,500 from the deal.
So without even checking his Mpesa balance he took a piece of paper , noted down the strange caller’s number and proceeded to the Mpesa menu to send the cash.
That was a mistake. He had been coned. His Mpesa balance read sh250, out of the sh9,421 he had in his account before the strange message popped up in his inbox.
“I did not believe my eyes. I tried checking my account hoping it was a mistake on Safaricom’s side but it was true. The money had gone. The message that I had received cash was a ploy. I had been coned, ” Mr Ombasa said.
Attempts to call Safaricom for a reversal of the transaction did not bear fruits. The con had already withdrawn the cash via an ATM Machine in Nairobi and the Simcard he was using was no longer in service.
Mr. Ombasa is among thousands of Kenyans swindled of cash every year via similar criminal operatives.
It seems the criminals have discovered the weak point among Mpesa users. In the recent days the crooks have been forwarding confirmation messages from mobile money transfer services, only to later call claiming to have sent the money to the wrong recipient.
On Thursday, Kamiti Maximum Security prison recovered 80 mobile phones, 2,144 simcards which the criminals have been using to coordinate criminal activities including extortion, Mpesa fraud and kidnappings.
This followed another incident last Saturday in the same prison where 400 mobile phones were recovered from death row and life-serving convicts.
The art of criminals engaging mobile technology to commit felonies has been a thorn in the flesh for over four years now.
The tricksters have been targeting mobile money transfer service users for extortion through schemes that keep mutating by the day.
Some pretend to be relatives in financial distress needing assistance while others claim to be promoters of non-existent consumer promotions.
In 2011, leading mobile telephony operator Safaricom and the Kenya Prisons Service disclosed that more than 70 per cent of mobile phone related crimes originated from prisons.
Criminals behind bars and those at large collaborate to send scaring messages to tycoons and citizens of means, threatening them of death or dire consequences if they do not part with huge sums of money.
Most criminal cartels snoop on their victims, abduct members close to them, then use mobile phones to demand hefty ransoms.
More scaring is that sometimes prison warders collude with the criminals to smuggle phones and simcards into the corrective facilities. The same warders then collaborate with the goons to extort or swindle money from unsuspecting Kenyans.
The government collaborated with Safaricom to erect masts at various prisons to jam communication from the contraband phones but seemingly that effort is failing.
It therefore remains that the criminals will continue manipulating the technology that is meant to make life easier for citizens into a platform of extortion and other dirty jobs.
The 2011 report by Kenya Prisons Service indicated that criminals has swindled sh10 million out of Kenyans in a span of four months alone.
Most SimCards involved in kidnappings are often tracked to prisons meaning the criminals always find ways to smuggle items into the facilities, despite the presence of tight security.
The data showed that majority of the phone-related fraud cases originated from prisons with 1,500 fraudulent SMS and calls being made from the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison in July 2011.
Fraudsters are known to use tactics that take advantage of customers; they require you to provide information or do something yourself. To avoid being party to any frauds or scams on M-PESA, Safaricom warns its customers to be take precaution in all M-Pesa transactions.
It its official website, Safaricom advices: ” If you receive an SMS or a call from someone claiming they have sent you money by mistake, please do not send it back before you check your current M-PESA balance.”
There are laws in the pipeline that require telcos and their agents to register all simcards sold to make it easy for authorities to chase criminals who use phones for fraud.
Mobile firms found to have breached the new rules under the Kenya Information and Communication Regulations 2014 shall be liable to fine not exceeding Sh5 million while agents found guilty shall pay a fine not more than Sh500,000 or face a jail term not exceeding one year or both.
Any person who knowingly provides false information during SIM card registration shall be liable to a fine not exceeding Sh100,000 or a jail term not more than six months or both.
The new rules also bar mobile telecom firms from selling pre-activated SIM cards.
The challenge however is if a duly registered Simcard falls into the hands of a criminal after a robbery, theft or carjacking.