When cyber criminals infiltrate prisons
The country’s six million mobile phone subscribers remain susceptible to fraudsters who are increasingly becoming sophisticated, using all sorts of tricks up their sleeves. All this despite that the revised Communication Act of 2016, which calls for mandatory registration of all sim cards, is in force. In this Friday Shaker, YOHANE SYMON uncovers the latest wave of crime involving inmates who connive with some prison warders to defraud people from the unsuspecting outside world.
Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra), on its website, says the Sim card registration exercise, which took place last year, is intended to help “identify mobile phone Sim card owners, track criminals who use phones for illegal activities, curb incidents such as loss of phone through theft, hate text messages, fraud, inciting violence and help service providers know their customers better.”
But some people still feel vulnerable to cyber criminals.
Rose is a 24-year-old from Machinga District who is expected to start her studies at Kamuzu College of Nursing (KCN) in Lilongwe later this month.
She grew up in Balaka District where she did her secondary school education.
She passed Malawi School Certificate of Education examinations on her third attempt in 2018.
While waiting to start tertiary education at KCN, Rose applied for a temporally job as an enumerator for a survey which Machinga District Council was expected to conduct between September and October 2019.
As expected, she was among many people, largely the youth, who were short-listed for interviews.
Their names were posted on the council’s notice board.
Before the day of the interviews, Rose got a phone call from 0880272706 offering what she thought was her best opportunity to get the job easily.
The ‘Samaritan’ on the other end of the phone, with a convincing voice, offered to help Rose get employed only if she paid K60,000.
“He introduced himself as a Mr. Banda, an employee of Machinga District Council responsible for recruiting enumerators. I was aware that I was shortlisted for the interviews. And this person offered to help me get employed. I was convinced because it was only the people from the council who were aware that I had been shortlisted,” she said.
Without wasting much time, Rose engaged her relatives who deposited K60,000 into the caller’s mobile phone account number to seal the deal.
After Rose, 20 other people deposited their money into the said phone account they believed belonged to the council’s official.
But in no time, it was discovered that the person behind the number does not work for the council. He was a fraudster.
However, it was too late because the people had, by that time, deposited K1,060,000.
To save its face, the council reported the incident to Machinga Police Station for investigations.
“It was a concern to us as a council because our name was being dragged into acts of fraud. We could not do otherwise but report the matter to police. At this stage, I cannot say much because the matter was left in the hands of the police to investigate. But there is nobody at our council who is linked to the fraud,” Machinga District Council Chairperson, Alexandra Shoti, said.
In his reaction, National Police spokesperson, James Kadadzera admitted that more Malawians are being defrauded through mobile phones.
But Kadzadzera said the Police have done enough to sensitise members of the public to avoid sending money to people they are not aware of.
“Because of the awareness which we have been conducting, the number of people who are reporting such cases has gone down because most people are ashamed to report such cases to police. But it is a concern to us that people continue to lose their money in such a manner,” he says.
Kadadzera said the police recently arrested a prison warder and an inmate at Zomba Maximum Prison for allegedly smuggling 60 Airtel Sim cards into prison cells.
Kadadzera identified the warder as 35-year-old Steven Chinganda of Jeze Village, Traditional Authority Mponda, Mangochi District, while the inmate was identified as Goodson Mandala.
“Our investigations have shown that all the 60 Sim cards were registered using one national identity card belonging to Jafali Khupula. We believe that the Sim cards were meant for similar theft,” he said.
After completing investigations, Kadadzera said the two will answer a charge of introducing prohibited articles into the prison and abuse of office.
In other incidents, some people who were looking for houses for rent were made to deposit money into mobile phone numbers 0996490798 and 0888206578 for houses which were advertised in newspapers to be located in Nkolokosa Township, Blantyre.
These are just isolated cases of how fraudsters have taken advantage of people’s desperation to get jobs, quick money, school opportunities and prizes in dubious ways.
In some cases, the fraudsters go an extra mile by creating false advertisements claiming to have houses for rent in townships such as Nkolokosa, Naperi (Blantyre), Area 18, Area 49 (Lilongwe) just to mention a few.
There are 10 frequently used numbers which, through our investigations, have shown that they belong to prisoners serving long sentences at Chichiri, Domasi, Maula and Zomba prisons.
How these people get information about the outside world only prison warders can explain.
For instances, our investigations have shown that the number which Rose used to deposit money belongs to a prisoner at Domasi Prison.
It is suspected that the inmates are working with some prison warders in getting information about what is going on in the outside world.
“So, in the case of the Machinga incident, we have established that there are some prison warders who went to Machinga District Council to get details of people who applied for the job. These people are well connected such that they get information very quickly,” a police source from Machinga said.
An inmate at Zomba Maximum Prison, who committed a white-collar crime four years ago, confided in us on how prison warders work with inmates to swindle money from people.
“I should start by saying that the warders deduct 20 percent from money which you receive from a relative. But in this case, we have some inmates who are working with warders to swindle people from outside using mobile phones. It is the warders who go and withdraw the money,” he said.
The inmate added: “Their targets are job-seekers; people looking for houses for rent because they know that these are desperate and can be tricked easily. In all these, the warders get information for the inmates. The warders do not call the people because they are afraid of denting their images,” he said.
Malawi Prison Services Public Relations Officer, Chimwemwe Shaba, confirmed that some unscrupulous prison warders partner with inmates to engage in crimes.
Shaba said prison authorities have, on several occasions, been alerted by the police to tackle incidents where inmates used mobile phones to engage in crimes.
“The laws do not allow inmates to possess mobile phones. But cell phones have found their way into prison cells through very few unscrupulous officers who side with the inmates. Some officers have been disciplined, others interdicted,” he said.
Shaba said prison authorities sought expert help to enlighten them on the best ways of detecting crimes perpetrated by prisoners.
Last year, Malawi implemented a mandatory Sim card registration exercise, which among other objectives, was to curb abuse of mobile phones by unscrupulous individuals.
The idea, however, seems not to be bearing fruits as people continue to be swindled of their money.
Macra pushed the blame to mobile phone operators such as Airtel and TNM.
Macra Communications Manager, Clara Ngwira, said their mandate was to handle complaints and direct them to operators as well as creating awareness on the best practices for mobile phone usage.
“What people need to know is that when they are found in this situation, they should quickly get search warrants from police to allow operators identify the numbers that were used in committing the crime. This would help in redeeming the money,” Ngwira said.
On its website, Macra says it is executing its statutory mandate under the Act to mitigate against phone perpetrated crimes.
“There is also the issue of Sim boxing where one gets an international call that reflects a local number. This practice deprives Malawi of the forex it should have earned had the call reflected its real originating country. It is the duty of every Malawian to discourage such malpractices from flourishing by registering their sim cards and generic numbers,” a note on Macra’s website reads.
In his reaction, TNM Public Relations and Sponsorship Manager, Limbani Nsapato, said they alert their customers and the public on fraud and measures for reporting such cases.
“Once reported, we hand the matters over to law enforcement agencies and we undertake necessary steps to track down the fraudsters for the law to take its course,” he said.
Nsapato was optimistic that people would become aware of how to detect the fraudulent practices.
“But where a case of fraud is reported, apart from engaging law enforcers, we go further to de-activate a number where there is proof that the number was used in fraudulent activities,” he said.
He further said of late, the number of fraudsters using TNM networks have declined after the completion of the Sim card registration exercise.
Airtel Malawi spokesperson, Norah Chavula, was yet to respond to our questionnaire on the issue of mobile phone fraud.
In 2016, Fiscal and Fraud Department of Malawi Police Service, through Yacks Bonongwe, admitted that there were increasing cases of mobile phone fraud.
Malawi News Agency (Mana) quoted Bonongwe on January 23 2017 that Sim card swapping, also known as network tapping or Sim card replacement, was another new trend of fraud that the department came across in 2016.
Bonongwe pointed out that Sim card swapping is a situation where fraudsters would have full bank details of an account holder like signature specimen, contact number, account number and account balance.
The fraudsters then make a Sim card replacement so that when the bank tries to confirm a transaction it will be the fraudsters themselves making the confirmation. This can either be a transfer of funds to an account or withdraw of money from the account.
“Multiple sale of land or property is also another new trend of fraud that the department has also come across in 2016. We have seen land or property being fraudulently sold to two or more people without the knowledge of the buyers. Later, the seller disappears and all the documents that he was using may seem to be valid and original,” Bonongwe was quoted as saying by Mana.
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