by Bedah Mengo
NAIROBI, Aug. 8 (Xinhua) -- Mobile phone subscribers in Kenya are losing lots of cash to fraudsters who are increasingly targeting them with con schemes.
The fraudsters are making millions of dollars from mobile phone subscribers and money transfer service users, who according to Communication Commission of Kenya stood at 29.21 million and 19 million respectively in March.
The commission in its latest quarterly report indicated that mobile money subscribers handled over 2.2 billion U.S. dollars in the January-March period.
The increased use of mobile phone and rising demand for mobile money transfer service in the East African nation has thus become a fertile ground for fraudsters to reap from subscribers.
The tricksters are devising new fraud schemes that lure subscribers into their folds. Initially, the fraudsters would trick subscribers that their phone numbers have won cash in a promotion and ask them to send some processing fees.
Others would send a text message to a mobile money user informing them that they had wrongly send them cash, which they wanted it reverted.
Subscribers are aware of these tricks, thus fraudsters have upped their game. The latest fraud schemes to hit the East African nation involves spam text messages (SMS) sent from short code service operators.
Spam SMSes are unsolicited text messages sent to subscribers mainly promoting a service, a product or giving some directions. The messages resemble those send randomly to email users.
While spam messages sent to email users are free, in the East African nation, the fraudsters are sending the messages to mobile phone subscribers and charging them up to 0.59 dollars per message for the unsolicited service.
About a month ago, Nairobi resident Joash Chanjira received a message on his mobile phone one early morning asking him to unsubscribe from a short code service operator.
"Thank you for using this service. To unsubscribe, send STOP to 5543. You will receive a message confirming you have successfully unsubscribed."
Chanjira recounted that he decided to 'unsubscribe' from the service as directed since days back, he could not account for his airtime. "I sent the text message thinking that this would cure the disappearance of my airtime," he said on Tuesday.
However, unknown to him, he had subscribed to the service. "The fraudsters did not send me a message confirming that I had unsubscribed from the service as they had promised. But when I checked my airtime, they had deducted 0.11 dollars," he said.
The weeks that followed saw Chanjira be bombarded with spam messages.
"I was receiving at least four messages a day each costing 0.11 dollars. Some of the messages would have content that I could not understand. I sent 'STOP' texts but the messages continued to come, " he said.
Interestingly, when Chanjira did not have airtime in his phone, the messages would not come.
"They would wait until I top up my phone number then they start to pour in one by one. I stopped loading airtime for sometime but this did not help," said Chanjira who said he tried to reach his mobile service provider customer care for help in vain.
A friend advised him to reach the company through their Twitter handle. "I complained to them through Twitter and after a day, they disconnected me from the service," he narrated.
The accountant estimated that he lost about 17 dollars to the fraudsters. Loice Njuguna shares Chanjira's predicament. In her case, the fraudsters did not ask her to unsubscribe but just started to send her spam messages that cost 0.29 dollars each.
"It was frustrating. I do not know how they got my phone number. My phone would beep making me believe I had received an important message only to find that it was a love message," she said.
Njuguna, who was also able to unsubscribe from the service said she lost more than 14 dollars in the two weeks she received the messages.
Safaricom, leading mobile phone company in Kenya, which has about 20 million subscribers, notes that one is supposed to receive messages from 4-digit codes, popularly known as PRS providers, only when they have subscribed.
"You only receive such messages if you have subscribed to the services, upon which a certain fee is billed from your account. If you do not wish to continue receiving such SMSes, you are advised to send the word 'STOP' to the short code that sends you the messages or call the customer service numbers provided in the messages," said the company.
However, considering the tricks fraudsters use, they are ahead of the company. As at February, data from Safaricom indicates that fraudsters had raked over 120,481 dollars in the previous five months mainly from M-pesa users.
This figure is likely to have doubled with the rise in short code service fraud, which mainly targets mobile phone users' airtime, and not every victim reports incidents of fraud.
In attempts to curb the short message con schemes, Safaricom, whose subscribers are the main targets, recently terminated a contract with one service provider. Investigations had indicated the company was running a scheme aimed at defrauding voters.
"We will exercise zero tolerance for any of our partners found guilty of such abuse of our short code services," said Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore.
Analysts blame rise in mobile phone scams in the East African nation to weak laws that categorize the con schemes as any other form of fraud.