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Curbing phone fraud, cornering criminals

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By Alick Ponje:

MWAFULIRWA —Cyber criminals use unregistered cards

One chilly Sunday morning early this month, Charity Maziya, left her home, a scattered set of small buildings with corroding roofs and rain-beaten brick walls, at the foot of a bare hill along the M1 Road, near Madziabango Trading Centre in Blantyre rural, heading off to church.

She was carrying a bible, suitably wrapped in a stiff plastic paper to secure it from the soft morning drizzle, and a mobile phone which she seldom took with her to church, planted a few yards from the trading centre.

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Maziya, 32, had left behind three daughters with enough food for breakfast and lunch and planned to visit a mobile money stall to withdraw cash with which to buy what to prepare for supper.

She was in her Sunday best, not worried much about her poverty.

Her mobile phone, a small old device stuck to its roots of making calls and texts and some few traditional acts, was still a sanctuary of power and money that easily satisfied her—with it, she securely stored her money and only got it at the call of a pressing need.

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“But that Sunday morning, I learnt a bitter lesson. It happened within five minutes and all the money was gone,” Maziya recalls.

A series of closely occurring events dazed her judgement: a phone call from a stranger who claimed she had erroneously deposited K20,000 into Maziya’s mobile money account; her daughter, who was a baby minder that morning, reminding her about school opening the next day and a church elder asking if she had brought the hymn books she had kept at her place.

And then the church bell tolling to tell her she was strapped for time.

“In the scheme of things, with the stranger persistently asking me to send her back only K15,000, I lost it. I later learnt I had been duped,” Maziya dredges up, a sheepish smile flitting across her face.

She trusted that the caller, a woman with a placid voice and sounding above suspicion, would not steal from her. But, pitifully, she had been led up the garden path.

That has been the experience of most unsuspecting individuals who have lost money in transactions crafted by callous criminals taking advantage of gaps in mobile phone numbers ownership.

Maziya admits that she did not bother to confirm if she had received the said money in her account after a message from the caller appeared to be clear enough: no cropped words or superfluous terms which could easily raise suspicion.

It was a familiar one. She had received it countless times, only seeing changes in the alleged deposited amounts.

“I later learnt that the message was fraudulent. It was not from my mobile phone operator. The money I sent to the criminal was my money. I lost it,” she narrates, accepting that she acted a bit offhandedly.

From the misfortune, she learnt some lesson, and she is not alone.

National police spokesperson, James Kadadzera, relates that they have handled several cases involving using mobile phones to defraud unsuspecting people.

Tracing the criminals is not a stroll in the park as they mostly abandon the Subscriber Identity Module (Sim) number cards after using them in their illicit schemes.

The criminals could use unregistered numbers, making it difficult to trace them,” Kadadzera says.

He is optimistic that the Sim card registration exercise underway will ease the burden shoved onto the police who have to track down other criminal activities taking place on a daily basis.

“We expect that once everyone has registered their Sim cards, criminal acts involving the cards will be a thing of the past. As the police, we are very happy that there is now a way of cornering those who steal using mobile phones,” Kadadzera says.

And while she still laments her loss, Maziya is convinced that her money is now safe because of the Sim card registration exercise.

For some days, she abandoned her account and forced herself to curse her mobile phone service provider off the top of her head before calling to mind again that she could have avoided the loss.

Within the Southern African Development Community region, many countries including South Africa, Tanzania and Mozambique started the Sim card registration exercise way back having evaluated the downsides of leaving people to use the cards of their own volition.

Elsewhere, including Kenya, it is said terrorists could even use unregistered Sim cards to interconnect about their evil plans which could later result into deadly bombings.

Kadadzera, thus, views the registration directive as a convenient redeemer at a time some devious individuals are taking advantage of advancements in technology to trifle with others’ cash.

Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra), which is mandated by the Communications Act to champion the process, says it has the responsibility of protecting users of information and communication technology services in the country.

Macra Communications Manager, Clara Mwafulirwa, states that without registering the Sim cards, criminals are free to bully others, issue death threats and destroy the cards afterwards.

“[The registration] mitigates against phone-perpetrated crimes where cyber criminals use unregistered cards to trick and swindle others of their hard-earned money,” Mwafulirwa says.

Jingles and fliers from Airtel Malawi and Telekom Networks Malawi are stretching the point that those who do not register by September 30 will have their Sim cards blocked.

And Kadadzera does not see why any well-meaning person will not heed the call or provide wrong information.

“In fact, those who want to provide wrong information will not succeed because you have to be properly identified to register,” he warns.

The exercise, which once saw lawmakers up in arms for all the wrong reasons, has further gained the support of all those seeing that Malawi is lagging behind in fighting cybercrimes from all fronts.

Chairperson of the Media Committee of Parliament, Sam Kawale, buttresses what has been said several times that registering Sim cards is a legal requirement under the Communications Act of 2016.

“We are aware that some people have not registered despite awareness by Macra as well as the operators themselves… We, as Members of Parliament, found it necessary to pass the law considering the criminal activities that were on the rise on the market,” Kawale reveals.

Maziya, too, wants all Sim cards in the country to be properly catalogued and have their users identified so that criminals do not win.

She lost K15,000, an amount that could draw her family closer to a good life those early weeks of this month, and does not want another poor woman struggling to feed her children, to fall prey to criminal acts capitalising on little, but dangerous, gaps in mobile technology.

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