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How thugs are milking their victims dry through mobile banking

By Joseph Ndunda November 4th, 2020 5 min read

On May 2, 2017, businessman Joseph Mburu was accosted by two men on his way home along Ndwaru Road in Kawangware, Nairobi, at around 3am.

He was robbed of cash and mobile phone before he was forced to disclose his M-Pesa PIN to the two muggers.

The two, Sammy Anyango and Ibrahim Esengwa, then wrestled Mr Mburu to the ground, pelted him with stones and left him for the dead. He died at the scene moments after they had left.

Esengwa recorded Mr Mburu’s M-Pesa PIN and Anyango remained with the mobile phone, national ID and the wallet as they parted ways briefly to reunite later and withdraw cash after shops opened. None could transact without the presence of the other.

Hours later that morning, Anyango’s wife informed him that an unknown man had been found dead in the area and police had arrived to collect his body.

She had no idea that her husband was behind the death.

With Mr Mburu’s phone, National ID and wallet still in his pockets, Anyango returned to the scene as a witness while officers from Kabete police station were collecting the body.

Inserted Sim

After the police left with Mr Mburu’s body, Anyango inserted his Sim card into the dead businessman’s phone and called his partner in crime Esengwa, with whom they withdrew all the money in Mr Mburu’s M-Pesa account.

They then borrowed Sh3,800 from M-Shwari, which they withdrew using his phone and ID. To cover their tracks, they sold his phone.

The Directorate of Criminal Investigations Cybercrime Unit established that a different Sim card had been inserted into Mr Mburu’s phone shortly after his body was collected. They identified the Sim card as that of Anyango’s.

Inspector Maxwell Otieno of the DCI’s Homicides Division traced him to Shika Village in Butere, Kakamega County, where he had retreated to after selling Mr Mburu’s phone.

He confessed to detectives after his arrest. He was instructed to call Esengwa who was also arrested and they were jointly charged with robbery with violence at Milimani law courts on September 6, 2018, where they denied the charges before Chief Magistrate Francis Andayi.

They were released on a Sh500,000 bond with one surety of like amount or an alternative cash bail of Sh500,000.

Carjacked employee

In a similar case, criminals carjacked a telecommunications firm’s employee in Kayole on October 12 last year and robbed her of Sh6,500 and her mobile phone.

They forced her to disclose M-Pesa and bank security codes, then bundled her into her car’s boot.

They drove to Family Bank’s Utawala branch where they hoodwinked a security guard to withdraw the cash for them. They transferred Sh22,000 to the security guard’s M-Pesa.

Unaware that the woman in the car was a captive in her car, the guard offered to help and transferred the cash to his bank, then withdrew the cash for the suspects at the ATM he was guarding.

The suspects then drove off with the woman still in her car’s boot and proceeded to a bush in Mihang’o area where the last man in the car raped her at gunpoint before she was abandoned at around 1am.

She later drove herself to a city hospital before she reported the matter to police.

Corporal George Wamai of Kayole DCI offices, after investigations, arrested serial robbery suspect Albert Karuri who was captured by the CCTV at the bank’s ATM booth speaking to the guard who withdrew the woman’s money for him.

Similar cases

During investigations, Cpl Wamai established that the suspect had three similar cases pending before the Kibera law courts.

Karuri was charged at Makadara law courts on February 10, where he was denied bail and bond after denying the charges.

The DCI says these are among many similar cases where robbers are not interested in what they find their victims with at the place and time of the robberies.

People who have enrolled in mobile banking are particularly at risk once waylaid by criminals who milk their accounts dry.

The robbers are forcing victims to disclose their M-Pesa and bank account PINs before they withdraw the money and transfer the cash to themselves and their accomplices through M-Pesa.

That is not all. The robbers then download digital lending apps and go on a borrowing spree.

The spike in these robberies is worrying the police and the DCI has tasked the Special Service Unit (SSU) with giving a helping hand in taming the menace.

Nairobi regional SSU commandant Pius Gitari says the cases have been reported in different places in the country and his team has been helping trace the perpetrators and handing them over to DCI offices within the jurisdictions where the crimes were committed.

Family robbed

In one of the cases reported at Samburu police station on August 18 vide (Occurrence Book) OB number 2/18/8/2020 and later referred to SSU, the victim and family members were robbed of mobile phones and laptops.

The robbers transferred their money to themselves through M-Pesa, then obtained Fuliza loans and transferred the cash to the numbers suspected to be theirs or those of their accomplices.

They also forcibly obtained ATM cards and PINs and emptied the victims’ accounts.

SSU has been following the money trail through M-Pesa to get the identity of the owners of the phone numbers that received the cash.

In another similarly chilling robbery incident reported at Mweiga police station in Nyeri County on July 8, vide OB number 9/8/7/2020, the same thing happened to the victims.

Detective Corporal Stephen Ndirangu attached to SSU traced and arrested the perpetrators who had transferred the cash from their victims’ M-Pesa to themselves and withdrew cash from their bank accounts after forcing them to disclose PINs.

They have already been charged with robbery with violence.

The SSU has been tracing and arresting the suspects involved in such robberies and is currently following criminals who have been involved in five similar robberies countrywide.

A detective at SSU said the five are not the only such robberies that have been reported but stand out because regional DCI offices have had difficulties tracing the perpetrators before escalating them to the elite unit.

“There are many such cases across the country where criminals have robbed people through the transfer of cash from their banks and our colleagues in the region have succeeded in arresting suspects. We (SSU) are following only a few cases where they have sought our help to trace the suspects,” a detective at SSU said.

“We are following specific cases that are purely robbery and firearms have been used. Each case is unique but there is a common modus operandi in all of them — where victims are forced to withdraw the cash or share the PINs after being robbed of ATM cards before their money is withdrawn at ATMs or transferred through mobile money.”

Loved ones

A detective said the criminals have devised ways of maximising what they rob their victims either by forcing them to call their loved ones, colleagues and friends to send more cash disguising it for emergencies without disclosing that they have been abducted.

The crafty criminals are also holding their victims until the next day after withdrawing the maximum amount withdrawable at the ATM in a day, to allow them to withdraw more.

Digital lenders association of Kenya CEO Kevin Mutiso said it is tricky for them to help their customers because the incidents are robbery in nature and the lenders can do little to help.

Mr Mutiso said the incidents are similar to muggings where one is accosted and robbed after withdrawing money from banks and banks cannot help because they can’t stop clients from withdrawing money.

“We will form a committee to figure out how we can help find a solution,” Mr Mutiso said.