CYBERCRIME

Five arrested as cops unearth Sh2.8m Sim-swap scam

Suspects include a former IT staff of a local bank who seems to be the leader of the gang

In Summary
  • Suspects include a former IT staff of a local bank who seems to be the leader of the gang
  • Detectives ask Kenyans who have fallen victim to the scam to report to the Operations Branch at the DCI headquarters.
DCI boss George Kinoti.
DCI boss George Kinoti.
Image: MERCY MUMO

Five suspects have been arrested over a syndicate in which scammers swap sim cards to steal money from bank accounts of dead people.

This follows an incident in which Rev Peter Kania Kariuki, the PCEA secretary-general who died of Covid-19 related complications on July 26 last year, and Nairobi businessman Amos Ngata Muiruri, who died after a botched surgery almost four months later on November 22, had their accounts defrauded of millions of shillings.

Both men died at a local hospital.

According to police investigations, hardly a week after Ngata was buried at his farm in Ndunyu Njeru, Nyandarua county, on December 2, 2020, one of his sons discovered that their late father’s telephone which he used for mobile bank transactions had suddenly gone dead.

The line had been activated on another unknown phone.

After the son reported the matter to Safaricom and the line was reverted to the family, they discovered that more than Sh2.8 million had been stolen through the mobile bank applications he had enrolled.

According to the police, the children visited the banks and confirmed the cash had been transferred to a different telephone number prompting them to report to the Directorate of Criminal Investigations for action.

The investigators said they became more puzzled when it emerged that the telephone number, which was used to clean up Ngata’s bank accounts, was the registered line of Rev Kania before he died.

Interestingly, the scammers had also stolen Sh500,000 from Rev Kania’s bank account without the knowledge of his widow and his children.

Unknown to Kania’s family, the telephone line he used before he died had been used to steal money from the late Ngata and many other Kenyans.

Subsequent joint investigations by the Operations Branch, Crime Research and Intelligence Bureau (CRIB) and Special Service Unit (SSU) have since opened a can of worms. DCI boss George Kinoti says the detectives uncovered graves that mark the dark world of the modern, lethal and high-tech phone scammers.

It’s through Ngata’s phone that detectives made a breakthrough in the major SIM-swap fraud through which the dead and the living have lost millions of shillings.

The syndicate mostly targets wealthy individuals—especially the deceased whose death announcements are put in newspapers.

In a successful SIM swap scam, the cyber criminals hijack the victim’s cell phone number and use it to gain access to his/her sensitive personal data

According to police, they also target telephone lines of the elderly and those who have traveled abroad.

Interrogations on the suspects have revealed the telephone lines of those that fall in that category have minimal chances of raising suspicion.

“They normally strike soon after the person dies and before the family establishes the exact wealth in the deceased’s bank accounts,” Kinoti said.

In a successful SIM swap scam, the cybercriminals hijack the victim’s cell phone number and use it to gain access to his/her sensitive personal data and bank accounts through the mobile banking apps available on Android and other smartphones.

Once they take control of the swapped SIM card, the crooks insert it in their phone, access the financial accounts and transfer all the funds to other scammed telephone numbers.

And when the cash is withdrawn, they switch off the stolen cards frustrating efforts by detectives to track them down.

Detectives have established that dozens of other Kenyans have been defrauded by the multi-faced gang and now want the victims to report to the Operations Branch at the DCI headquarters.

The five suspects included a former IT staff of a local bank who seems to be the leader of the gang. They are expected in court to face various charges even as police expanded the probe.

The detectives want to ensure they crack the gang’s operations to save Kenyans from losing money especially when they are bereaved.

The development comes in the wake of the revelation by police that obtaining money by false pretense, bank fraud and land fraud are the three leading economic crimes reported to the DCI in the last three years.

The actual extent of the fraud has however not been established due to under-reporting, and in some cases, failure to report such crimes to the police.

According to a report compiled by the DCI, such crimes were underreported and in some cases not reported in good time thus negatively affecting effective investigations.

Bank fraud cases decreased from 551 in 2019 to 326 last year; obtaining money by false pretence from 2,708 in 2019 to 1,550 last year; while land fraud cases decreased from 1,123 to 960 over the same period.

In 2018, 2,406 cases of obtaining money by false pretenses were reported to the DCI. A total of 1,451 cases were taken to court and out of that 139 cases were dismissed while another 73 were also dismissed due to lack of evidence.

The report added that some victims or the affected parties were reluctant to report due to business risks in their endeavour to save their brand names and business image.

It identifies the fear of adverse publicity, embarrassment and shying off in the court process as some of the challenges the DCI was facing in investigating such crimes.

The DCI says some of the emerging economic crimes, which are recognised in some jurisdictions were yet to be domesticated in Kenya, posing another challenge especially in a country where criminals are adept at exploiting loopholes in regulations.

Crypto-currency, bitcoins and cases with a cyber angle, according to the report, sometimes appear too technical for the court officials who may not adequately appreciate the matters raised.

“Players in the criminal justice system seem not to read from the same script in technical issues,” the report says.

Edited by Sarah Kanyara