LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — It wasn’t a moment after Brandina Mulenga ended a phone call with her son that she received an anonymous text message.
“I’m requesting you to send that money in this number,” the message read, then provided a phone number.
Mulenga had just told her son that she would send him money. She assumed the anonymous message was from him, so she sent 2,000 Zambian kwacha (about $168) to the number.
Her son never received the money. Mulenga reported the incident to the police, but the mobile number to which she sent the money was no longer in use. The scammer couldn’t be traced.
Mobile money is big business across Africa. There were 338 million registered mobile money accounts across sub-Saharan Africa in 2017, up from 286 million accounts the previous year, according to a 2017 report published by GSMA, which tracks mobile phone use across the globe. (The report was sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among other organizations.) Mobile money transactions in sub-Saharan Africa amounted to a little less than $20 billion.
In Zambia, the volume of mobile money transactions grew by 67.5 percent in 2017 alone, according to data provided by the Bank of Zambia.
The value of those transactions more than doubled that year, to 7.3 billion kwacha (about $612 million).
But with all that growth comes more opportunity 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. There isn’t any hard data on the breadth of those scams, says Esther Katongo, a spokesperson for the Zambia Police Service.
“We are working to ensure that such crimes do not escalate,” she says.
Ngabo Nankonde, corporate communications manager at the Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority, says they send messages warning people against posting their contact information on social media networks and to keep their PIN numbers secret.
Plus, she says, some alleged scammers are under investigation.
“We are investigating these cases,” Nankonde says. “We can’t divulge information to the public before making conclusive investigations.”
Richard Sakala says he lost 200 kwacha (about $16.75) in a mobile money scam.
“I concluded that the thieves are just using psychology, because they know that at one point or another someone might be sending money,” he says.
But it’s difficult to change habits when mobile money is so convenient.
“I still use it despite losing such a large amount,” says Mulenga, the woman who meant to send money to her son. “I am just more careful now.”
Prudence Phiri, GPJ, translated some interviews from Bemba.