Kenyan Con Men Take to the Air Waves!

Some guy called me last week and told me that he had accidentally sent me money on M-PESA, and could I please send it back. I told him that no, I hadn’t noticed any text messages, but that I would look. “Tafadhali, ndugu yangu, niangalilie” (please, my brother, look for me). As I had just been on the phone before he called, I hadn’t seen that there was, in fact, an SMS confirmation of an M-PESA transaction. I gave him a call back and told him that I’d return the money to him right away.

BC8JT386 Confirmed you have received Ksh 1,230 from JAMES KORIR on6/4/11 at 5:40 pm your new M-PESA balance is Ksh2,150

―The M-PESA transaction confirmation SMS from “James Korir”

M-PESA is Safaricom’s mobile banking platform. It’s kinda like a bank account that runs on your phone… as long as you have your phone and your PIN you can send or receive money extremely flexibly. The M-PESA application is embedded into your GSM SIM card using what’s called the “SIM Toolkit.” That means the M-PESA functionality can move from phone to phone, without having to be “installed.”

Android Confusion

CyanogenMod 7 logo
CyanogenMod 7 logo

That model works well for most people, but because I always like to live on the edge my Android-powered Samsung Galaxy S doesn’t support the SIM Toolkit. The stock firmware does, but I’ve replaced Samsung’s boring software with CyanogenMod, a fork of the Android Open Source Project’s public Android 2.3 “Gingerbread” source code. Since it’s a known issue I always have to pop my SIM card into a crappy $20 Nokia phone whenever I want to use M-PESA.

Right as I was about to press the “Ok” confirmation to send the money back, the guy CALLS ME. Because this phone doesn’t have any sophisticated multitasking I freak out and cancel the call, only to find that my M-PESA dialog has disappeared. I navigated to the M-PESA application again but it refused to launch. Assuming that the transaction hasn’t gone through, I reboot my phone and try again. Surprise: “not enough funds to complete transaction!”

Now I’m really freaking out. “Stupid Android,” I think to myself―1,230 shillings ($15) has just disappeared from my account and I still have to send this guy’s money back. Money I apparently DON’T have! In a moment of what appears to have been brilliance, I call Safaricom’s free customer service line to explain this bizarre scenario. I don’t bother explaining that I’m running some crazy operating system on my phone, and just stick to the facts.

Safaricom lady: Sir, who sent the message? Did it say “M-PESA” at the top?

Me: No.

And that’s when the light bulb turned on, this guy is a con man. Crap. How embarrassing. If I hadn’t have been so broke I would have gladly sent this guy “his” money and never thought twice about it!

Moral of the Story

Stay sharp, people! M-PESA SMSes will always be from “M-PESA”! Con men rely on confusion and take advantage of nice guys like you and me.

In retrospect, the confirmation SMS was close to the “real thing” but far from perfect. It’s crystal clear now, but in the heat of the moment I admit I didn’t even notice the flaws in grammar and punctuation! For the record, I also blame the preoccupation with SIM swapping and crappy Nokia phones! I’m not always so daft…

19 Comments to “Kenyan Con Men Take to the Air Waves!”

  1. Nanci

    So did he get money from you or not? It’s like the emails one gets that say you won something elsewhere and to send you acct. number so they can deposit it.

  2. Dude I am kinda surprised this happened to you. This scam has been running for some time now and so many guys have fallen for it, especially those jamaaz who use MPESA as a bank.

    phew! glad it didnt go through.

  3. Linus

    I just stumbled upon your blog a few days ago and I have really enjoying the short stories. Much better than those blogs with longer ones. Kudos.
    Should you want to meet with some open source geeks, you should visit I-Hub. Check out there site.

  4. mwanafunzi

    Close call. I was with a friend a while ago who received one of these fake M-PESA texts. I hate to say it, but we were way ahead of you and immediately recognised it was a scam attempt. We sat around for hours drinking Tusker and planning how we would play him along when he called. He never did. So he wasted the cost of an SMS?? I guess they send out 100s at a time and then go round harvesting them. Did Safcon ask you for the number from which the SMS was sent ?

    1. Alan Author

      Yes, it’s embarrassing to admit but that sucker almost got me. I still blame Gingerbread :). Safaricom told me to send the scam text as well as the guy’s number to Safaricom’s fraud reporting line, 333.

  5. Just received the message right now.

    M-PESA BK12LY038 confirmed
    you have received Ksh2,350 from
    PETER SANG 254703275802
    on 28/5/11 at 03:22 PM
    Sender M-PESA

    Forwarded it to 333

    1. Alan Author

      After it happened to me a handful of my friends said it had happened to them too… I bet these guys make a lot of cash, man. They only need one sucker per day to make some decent money!

  6. Winnie

    In my own case it was abit different.2months agoi tried to withdraw cash at an mpesa agent.The system was down and she never told me that.So after sendind the withdrawal sms,there was no reply so she told me to keep on trying which i did coz i didnt have any other money and i needed my bus fare back home.Finaly i gave up and left coz there were no sms coming forth but without her promising ,me that she’d reverse the money back to me incase it went through.On reaching home,i got a confirming that my transaction was successful and i had withdrawn sh.1000 not once but three times as i had more money in my phone and kept trying as she told me.Meaning i had withdrawn sh.3000.So i waited for her to reverse the money for almost two days coz i was staying far away from that town.The safaricom agreed to reversed the money after a week and a million calls to customer care.So while waiting for the 72hrs someone claiming to work for safaricom called and told me that i had to upgrade my mpesa menu so that the money could be sent in my phone.He told me to go to my mpesa menu,dial 555555 at the ATM trasactions and then enter my pin which i did.After finnishing i got asms saying i had authorised an ATM withdrawal of sh.18,000 and my balance in my phone was only sh.45.I called safaricom immediatly but they said it was conning and there was nothing they could do to help me.So after waiting for 8days,they reversed my sh.3000 which the agent refused to reverse and i lost my sh.18,000 in the process.

  7. Taylor

    These cons are bad.

    A few months ago, I got one of the fake sms’s in the morning. The jama called and I abused him before he could even get into his sad sob story.

    Later that afternoon, I got another one and before I could check the message, some guy calls me from Mombasa and apologizes for sending 3K to a wrong number. I skillfully abused him (didn’t know I had it in me) and hung up. When I went to delete the message, lo and behold, the sender was shown as MPESA. I immediately called the guy up, informed him I would do a balance check at his cost (1 bob) and, if true, I would refund him less the 30 bob sending charges.

    Well, the balance was showing 3k more than I knew I had so I refunded him the money along with apologies for the abuse. The guy understood and we had a good laugh about it when I told him what had happened earlier that morning.

    1. Alan Author

      Taylor! Hah! That’s hilarious… wee ni mjanja kweli! You’re honest, though, which I’m sure the guy appreciated.

  8. Thieves

    Kenya conmen are hitting the bar. This is one message:

    MPESA BU24FQ834
    confirmed. You have received Ksh 4,450 from CHARLES NYONGESA 254706174720 ON 11/11/2011.

    these are thieves from kenya

  9. Zoro

    Same thing happened to me too. Good thing is I had not even registered on MPESA yet (I am a consultant from Zimbabwe and had only recently arrived for a project) so was really confused when I got the message and subsequent call. I just told the caller to go to an agent and reverse the transaction as I had not accessed the “money”……..

  10. Emie

    These con stories are quite rampant. The con men are also very clever because they know one will not check their MPESA balance so u just proceed to ‘resend’ them money which is in ur account.

    Some also text claiming you have won in a promotion and request u send them money so they forward ur prize… If u have not participated in any promotion or competition simply ignore.

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