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We are in the golden age of online fraud and internet scams

BY: Elijah Adiasany
We are in the golden age of online fraud and internet scams
We are in the golden age of online fraud and internet scams

Ghana is undergoing a digital revolution. An increase in the availability of the internet has brought Ghanaians much closer to each other than ever before and made it easier for them to interact and conduct business. It is estimated that around 15.70 million Ghanaians (About half the population) now have internet access and about 26.1% of the population are on social media.

Accompanying this is an increase in the use of electronic money, which is fast replacing cash transactions. Online wallets, mobile money wallets, bank apps and debit/credit cards, have boomed the country’s economy, facilitating entrepreneurship and aiding its growth into a cashless society.  Mobile money transactions alone average about GHC 80 billion every month.

However, whenever a good thing comes along, there are always those who want to mess it up for everyone.

The recent rise in online entrepreneurship and e-commerce has brought with it an unprecedented increase in online fraud and scams. These scammers rake in possibly millions of cedis every month and the failure of authorities to bring them to book costs Ghanaians a lot of money. Before you brush these fraudsters off, just know that they make more money in a good month than the average Ghanaian makes in a year.

There are now so many scams and schemes these days that it’s very difficult to keep track. Whenever the public catches up to any of these scams and how they operate, the scammers just upgrade the scam or find another way to swindle people off their hard-earned money. I will cover just a few of them.

Mobile Money scams

Mobile money scams are pretty basic and quite possibly the most common types of fraud in the country at the moment. The operation is simple; some guy sends a fake mobile money text message to you informing you that you have received X amount of money from another mobile money number.

A few minutes later, the sender of the message calls to inform you that they mistakenly sent money to your mobile money number and ask that you send it back.

You send them back their money only to realize that the text message you received wasn’t real and the money you just sent back to them was your own money.

The Advanced Mobile Money scam

As the mobile money scam became more widespread and more people caught on to it, the scammers added an extra layer of sophistication to it. After sending the fake text message to you and repeatedly calling you to send the money back to them, you would receive a call from someone purporting to be working at the MTN/Vodafone/AirtelTigo office. They have noticed from their system that someone is trying to scam you and they need you to follow a few steps to help them identify and block the scammers.

Alas, the person who just called you is part of the scam and the “steps” they want you to follow are going to drain money out of your account.

The Facebook Mallams

If you use Facebook frequently, then you have no doubt received friend requests from these men claiming to have spiritual powers that will solve all your problems. They all have profile pictures of spiritual leaders and chiefs and their profile is loaded with images of huge stacks of money.

They claim they can solve everything from relationship problems, money issues, evil spirits, infertility, and they can help you get a visa abroad. They just need you to buy a few eggs and fowls to be sacrificed; but since they don’t live near you, they would prefer you send them mobile money so they can purchase the items themselves.

If you think you are hearing from them again after sending that money, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Money-doubling scams

One other common strategy for scammers to use is to create social media pages pretending to be investment analysts or traders. These scammers promise extraordinary returns; claiming that if you send them 500 cedis, in just 30 minutes, you will receive 5,000 cedis back. The more money you send, the more you receive. This seems like such an obvious scam, but you’d be surprised how many people fall for it.

These scammers often use words like “World Remit”, “Forex Trading”, “Bitcoin” or “Crypto-Currency investment” to justify how they can make these unrealistic returns and uninformed individuals, who have heard these words used all over the news recently but know next to nothing about what they mean, fall prey.

Identity fraud and impersonation

As the business of online influencing continues to gain more steam, scammers have been able to tap into this market as well. They would create social media pages and flood it with stolen pictures of celebrities and influencers. Unsuspecting fans of these popular individuals, unable to differentiate between their idol’s real social media pages and the fake ones, are the primary target of this scam.

A lot of romance and dating scams are also executed this way, as scammers (mostly men) pretend to be female models online and then scam romantic pursuers out of their cash. It has become extremely profitable to pretend to be famous people online.

For instance, popular Tiktok and Instagram influencer, Tracey Mensah, is currently engaged in an online feud with an imposter using her name, whose has amassed a large following pretending to be her. Tracey Regularly informs her followers that the other page is fake and no one should conduct business with them; unfortunately for her, the fake page also takes the same stance and tells followers that she, the real page, is fake.

With a following of over 75,000 at the time of writing, the fake page conducts all sorts of businesses, like selling products, taking money from businesses to promote their products for them and promoting fraudulent investment schemes. As you can guess, buying into any one of these is a certain way to lose your money.

Fake online shops

As if pretending to be people online wasn’t enough, scammers stepped it up a notch and are pretending to be businesses.

In 2022, most Ghanaians would rather order something online than have to walk to shops or visit the market to buy them. Online shopping is convenient, saves time and makes everyone’s life easier.

….Enter the scammers.

A lot of fraudulent social media pages now exist, claiming to sell everything; from furniture to clothes and accessories, phones, cakes, cars and houses. They post very nice images of products you would want to buy and price their items below what you would normally get elsewhere on the market to entice you.

There is just one catch; They all say they are an online-only shop with no showroom or office location and you have to send them the money first before they deliver the items to you. Needless to say, once you send them the money, you’re never hearing from them again.

Last year, a new cement-producing company gained a lot of attention online after it was revealed that it was entirely Ghanaian owned and the prices of its products would be lower than every other brand on the market. Since then, several fake Facebook pages of the same name have since appeared, scamming users under the guise of selling them cement. These pages promise to sell a bag of cement for as low as 30 cedis and offer free delivery nationwide.

Unlike the social media pages created to mimic businesses, some of these pages used to be legitimate businesses that scammers managed to gain access to and now operate from. These are the ones that really rake in the big bucks, because they abuse the trust and reputation the previous owners of the business built.

Customers who have previously patronized the business in the past are caught off guard and happily transact business with these pages without realizing that they are now under new management.

Hijacked social media accounts

Every single scam listed above is amplified whenever the scammers hack and in most cases, hijack social media pages of influencers and businesses.

They often do this by sending phishing links to the page and managing to get access to their login details. Every single page that these fraudsters are able to gain access to becomes an extra arsenal in their scamming project.

For instance, a hacked account would instantly start promoting one of these “investors” and post screenshots of all the profits they have supposedly made by sending them money. You might be tempted to give it a try if a social media page or influencer you know and trust suddenly starts making such posts.

Can they be caught?

Yes, they can be caught; and very easily actually. I have on several occasions helped defrauded individuals track down their scammers and retrieve their lost funds. The problem is that the two institutions (telecommunication networks and police service) with the power to deal with this problem have hitherto proved disappointing.

Who is letting them get away with it?

If you should call a Telcom network right after being scammed, they might be able to hold the funds and possibly reverse it back to you. Take too long to report the issue and the money may already have been withdrawn.

On one occasion, a customer service agent of a telecommunications company reportedly informed a defrauded person that the money they sent had already been withdrawn/transferred out by the fraudsters. More money has been sent into the account, but they cannot send this back to him since it is not his. The telecom networks also refuse to reveal private details of the scammers for privacy reason.

It is mindboggling how the telcos can so nonchalantly stand by and allow these scams to continue going on. Understandably, they need police reports and warrants from the police to reveal some of this information and take action.

However, the process of filing a police report and getting them to take your case seriously before working on it is so stressful that you might decide to just give up and let the scammers keep the money.

Catching them

It is reasonable to assume that none of these scammers are dumb enough to use their real names and identification cards to create their mobile money wallets. However, money always leaves a trace. The telcos can definitely track where monies from these accounts are coming from and are being sent to. If the money is sent to a bank account, the bank can then trace those accounts. Even if the funds are transferred a million times between accounts, they will have to be withdrawn at a certain point. That’s where you catch them.

The scammers behind these schemes aren’t sophisticated enough to not leave a trace. It is important to note that there aren’t high-tech, intelligent IT experts behind these schemes; most of them are uneducated people with very basic IT knowledge (as you’ll know if you’ve ever spoken to any of them on the phone). They are getting away with duping people because the people they are duping aren’t so sophisticated themselves and they know they will get away with it.

Blocking the wallets used to conduct these schemes alone is enough to slow them down and discourage them, as they would have to go through the painstaking process of getting new fake ID cards to create new mobile money wallets.

In cases where the authenticity of the accounts are in doubt or are disputed by the alleged scammers, the accounts can simply be placed on hold (no money allowed in or out) and both parties asked to report to the police station to prove their case.

What the future holds

Legitimate online businesses are the real losers in all of this, as customers are understandably becoming more and more sceptical of online businesses. Anyone who sells online now has to spend several minutes convincing buyers that they aren’t scammers. This can’t go on any longer. We desperately need more entrepreneurs and online businesses to create jobs and provide much-needed services. We cannot allow a few idiots to mess it up for the rest of us.

The Ghana Police Service and the telecommunication networks need to work together and act fast on bringing these people to book. The Telcos in particular are more culpable and cannot take an “I don’t care” approach to this, since the scams are taking place directly through their platforms.

Perhaps the fact that the scammers steal from their users and not they themselves is why they are so slow to act. Think about it: Telcos make money (through charge) when you send money to scammers and when the scammers send and withdraw the money. It doesn’t matter whether the transaction was fraudulent or not, the Telcos still make money. Maybe that’s why they are not so concerned. In reality, the scammers are clients of the Telcos and are bringing them more business.