Criminals are targeting mobile money services to con people out of cash but both the police and mobile service companies are offering no protection to customers against scammers.

The scammers have developed many tricks, including sending messages or calls to victims to reverse money they claim was accidentally sent.

In this type of scam, victims are tricked into transferring money to a fraudster in the belief they are sending back money to the person who sent it to them.

In Zambia, mobile money is big business. The volume of mobile money transactions grew by over a 70 percent last year alone, according to data provided by the Bank of Zambia.

The value of those transactions grew by more than half last year, to over 16.583 billion kwacha (US$ 890 million) in December, from about 10.688 billion kwacha (US$560 million) in January.

But with that growth has come more opportunities for crime. Across the board, police, mobile money users and financial-services experts say the number of scams targeting people who use their phones to give and receive money is way up. Though there isn’t any hard data on the extent of those scams, police say they are on the increase.  

Police spokesperson, Rae Hamoonga said some of the cases are due to greed by some of the victims who think they can win money when they have not played a lottery.

"How can you win money if you have never played a lottery?" Mr Hamoonga asked. "Perhaps that's why people should be cautious."

But the victims blame it on the police for failing to deal with their complaints.

One of the victims, a Chelstone resident in Lusaka who was robbed of K3,600 said she was not helped despite reporting to both police and the mobile money service provider.

"Even when MTN provided the call chat, the police officer assigned to my case would only ask for money to buy food and talk time, and I never received any assistance, as a result, I gave up," she explains.

She said it started with a call from someone who introduced herself as an MTN call centre employee who was asking about her experience with the mobile money service. The scammer then asked the victim to assist her with the Personal Identification Number (PIN) so that she can help secure her money.  

"All I wanted was to secure my money, so I followed her instructions, but when she asked for my mobile money PIN, I refused, but she persuaded me that she wanted to help secure my money, and at that moment I agreed to share. That is how my K3, 600 was withdrawn and her phone went off," she explained.

But she is not the only one to have been tricked by scammers.

Florence Banda said she was in Kafue town when she received a call from a man claiming to be an Airtel employee who offered her a promotion that would multiply her savings.

She said K12,000 that was in her Airtel money account was withdrawn by the scammer who had promised to add K2,000 to her account.

Airtel advised her to report the case to the police, but one of the officers who was assigned to handle it was asking for money for fuel and talk time.

"I feel so betrayed because I put my trust in Airtel," said Mrs Banda.

Mr Hamoonga said police officers are not allowed to ask for money from the public.

"As far as I'm concerned, the government provides fuel to our police stations in order for them to carry out patrols in our communities, and in cases where fuel is to be purchased by members of the public, we advise that fuel is physically purchased in the police vehicles rather than handing money directly to the officer," he said.

Airtel and MTN - the two mobile money service providers believe sensitisation campaigns can help address the problem.

On 14th February this year, Airtel Zambia launched a ‘Be Fraud Alert’ awareness campaign.

Managing Director, Apoorva Mehrotra, said fraud awareness and prevention is a critical part of Airtel’s service provision for its customers.

“Our fraud awareness campaign seeks to arm our customers with knowledge and tools, so that they can avoid scams,” said Mr Mehrotra in a statement. “With this in mind, we will continue to invest a tremendous amount of time and resources in developing and continuously improving our consumer protection programs.”

MTN Zambia Mobile Money Managing Director, Komba Malukutila said his company is collaborating with the Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority (ZICTA), Bank of Zambia and other institutions to combat fraud.

Mr Malukutila said MTN always conducts thorough investigations to ensure that none of its employees are involved in fraudulent activities.

But governance activist, Rueben Lifuka said “it is not enough for Airtel to simply launch the 'be aware of fraud campaign”.

“They should examine their system to ensure that it is not porous enough and that their staff are ethical enough to prevent anything of this nature from occurring,” he said.

Mr Lifuka, who is also former Transparency International president urged mobile service companies to examine their systems so that customers’ personal data date is protected.

“It appears that people have access to subscriber personal data, one wonders where they get the numbers and how they can make calls or send messages,” he said.

He added: “ZICTA must also invest in its own capacity to monitor and provide tangible evidence to law enforcement agencies as to who the scammers are."

ZICTA Corporate Communications Manager, Hanford Chaaba confirmed that no monitoring takes place as doing so is against the law.

He said the immediate measures taken by the regulator is deregistration of mobile phone numbers that do not comply with the sim card registration process or guidelines in order to combat fraud.

"We've noticed that the majority of the sim cards used to steal money from people are these anomalous sim cards," he said. "It's either someone is using a sim card that doesn't belong to them, or they commit a crime and buy another one.”

When it comes to introduction of systems to prevent fraud, Florence Banda and others, may have to wait a long time.