In Kenya, prisoners get rich through phone scams

In this country in the east of the African continent, many prisoners have specialized in social engineering from their cells. The scammers pretend to be wealthy expatriates to extract money from their victims.

The phone scam is perhaps the best retirement savings plan for a prisoner. In Kenya, prisoners have specialized in this technique to continue to enrich themselves behind bars, to the point of becoming an alarming phenomenon for the authorities. Like many other citizens, Patricia Musomba, a cyber expert, received text messages from illustrious strangers, actually sent from a cell.

She describes how these prisoners use social engineering to extort money from their victims. The technique is nothing new, but the profile is still new in the middle of scams. The criminals first start by obtaining feature phones, the classic models of telephones with keypads that are limited to SMS and phone calls. Pakistani brand Itel is said to be the best seller in prison. Prison guards are often on hand to provide the devices and receive a ticket in exchange.

Source: Patricia Musomba

Once the old model is in hand, the scammers go to the simplest thing: type in random phone numbers. Thus, they spend their day texting or calling until they find a viable person and make the first contact.

Why do victims still fall for the trap? “Prisoners pretend to be foreign people, most often of American origin, who have come to the country to telecommute. The meeting with a wealthy expatriate promises a bright future to many people, even more so when the scammer pretends that he is looking for a romantic relationship,” explains Patricia Musomba. “The targets are usually from rural areas, looking for opportunities to leave their region and travel.”

Thousands of text messages every day

Scammers can work on their targets for several weeks until they organize the first meeting. There, they often claim a car accident, or a lack of gas, explains that their bank card does not work in Kenya, and ask for immediate payment to get out of this misery, promising to reimburse the same day. The most talented manage to raise fifty euros a day, in a country where the minimum wage is 124 euros. A high-security prison in Nairobi – the capital – had become a veritable call center from which hundreds of prisoners sent thousands of daily text messages.

The authorities have tried to limit the use of phones, installing cameras in prisons to monitor activity in cells, but Patricia Musomba also suggests that prevention and education against cyber scams be put in place in Kenya.


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