Yemi Aremu, a Lagos-based journalist, was about going to bed when he got a sms message alert reminding him that his mobile phone internet subscription was due for renewal the next day. Since he was already in bed and tired, he decided to leave the renewal till the next morning before travelling out of town. The following morning, he reached for his smartphone, dialled the codes for the Guaranty Trust Bank’s (GTBank) mobile banking, punched the four digit numbers and paid for another 30 days internet subscription without hassle in less than five minutes and set out on a trip to Ogun State. About 30 minutes later, his sweet experience using his phone to carry out financial transaction turned bitter after his smartphone was stolen while he was in transit between Ota and Ifo areas of the state. The gravity of the phone loss dawned on Aremu when he checked his email on his second phone only to discover that the phone robber had transferred a sum of N29, 600 from his bank account, shortly after stealing the phone.
“The phone was stolen from me inside a bus at Ota, Ogun State. A few hours after I lost the phone, I received three email alerts indicating that the money in my bank account had been used to buy N100 and N600 worth of airtime, while a sum of N29,000 was also transferred by the robber from my bank account to his Skye Bank account. I almost stopped quick mobile banking because of the traumatic experience I had.”
Disturbed by the development, Aremu rushed to a nearby police station to report the incident at Ota, leading to the arrest of two suspects, Tunji Oluwatobi and Azeez Adedunola as well as the recovery of the phone and money.
It was the same experience for a Lagos-based surveyor, Mrs Halimot Awosika, when a sum of N558, 000 was taken from her bank account shortly after losing her phone to a robber on January 9, 2018. Awosika, who resides at Ketu-Ijanikin area of Lagos, had gone out to purchase some items for one of her daughters who was to resume in the Lagos State Model College, Kankon, Badagry, when she was dispossessed of her Techno android mobile phone by an unidentified robber inside a bus she boarded.
While she was still trying to come to terms with the reality of the robbery, a few hours later, she received an alert on a new phone she bought that her money had been withdrawn by the robber.
She said: “I was preparing to buy things for one of my daughters, who is returning to her school, Lagos State Model College at Kankon, Badagry, so I visited an ATM centre in Okokomaiko to cash a sum of N8,000 for the shopping.
“I never knew that I was being trailed by a robber who boarded the same bus with me, dispossessed me of my phone and hurriedly jumped out of the bus. Before I knew, it the robber had withdrawn all the money in my bank account with the United Bank for Africa (UBA), totalling a sum of N558,000 through online mobile transactions using different phone numbers.”
Awosika said she reported the matter to Okokomaiko Police Division on February 2 but nothing has come out of police investigation so far.
“I also reported the matter to my bank and even obtained my bank statement showing how the money was taken from my account using different phone numbers. The money belongs to some of my clients and they have been disturbing me to refund the money if I cannot carry out their jobs; I don’t know what to do.”
Like Aremu and Awosika, Etuky Abasiono discovered that his phone had been stolen from him after he alighted from a bus at Ojuelegba enroute Costain in September, 2017. By the time he visited a nearby ATM to check his account, all his money was gone.
In the evening of January 30, Mrs Oluwatoyin Ade, a caterer, lost her phone in a dramatic way in her shop in Idimu, a Lagos suburb. According to her, a customer had come to complain about her cake demanding that adjustments be made, leading to an argument. In the middle of the argument, a man who had earlier visited the shop and left because he could not get what he wanted to buy, came back, sneaked into the office and made away with Oluwatoyin’s Techo W3 smartphone. block her phone line and retrieve her Sim card, she decided to visit an Ikotun branch of GTBank only to discover that a sum of N14,000 out of N16,000 left in her account had been unlawfully electronically transferred by the said thief to an Eco Bank account. The matter has since been reported to the police, but nothing has come out of it.
The advent of mobile banking was welcome with infectious enthusiasm by Nigerians as part of the cashless policy of the Federal Government. In 2016 alone, the monthly value of mobile money, according to the Deputy Governor, Operations, Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Mr Suleiman Barau, was N40 billion.
Barau, who made the disclosure during the maiden edition of the Electronic Payment Financial Incentives Scheme (EFIS) Efficiency Award, said mobile money is the future of banking in Nigeria. He admonished banks in the country to initiate strategic steps that will further develop the e-payment channel.
As an ease of payment and fund transfer, mobile phone banking saves customers the hassle involved with going to bank to make lodgement either through cash or cheque with attendant delays on the queue associated with the country’s banking halls. Customers can also use their mobile phone numbers to open bank accounts, purchase airtime and make account balance enquiries with the aid of Personal Identification Number (PIN) for transaction authorisation and special dialup codes.
In line with global financial integration and best practices, those who own non-feature phones are not excluded from mobile banking as banks in the country have introduced USSD banking (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) to enable owners of simple handsets without smart multimedia applications enjoy the benefits of mobile banking.
The USSD is a Global System for Mobile (GSM) communication technology used to send texts between a mobile phone and an application programme in the owner network.
Different banks in the country have unique USSDs through which their customers can access mobile banking quickly. The USSD channel is, however, many of the ways exploited by phone robbers to fleece their victims of money in their bank accounts. This is done through electronic transfer of money from the victims’ bank accounts to bank accounts belonging to the robbers or members of their syndicate or purchase of items, including recharge cards, electronics and sundry items from online stores.
To be sure that a victim has money in his account, the robber would first remove the Sim card and insert it in another phone and make a purchase of a recharge card as low as N100. Once the balance on the bank account is received on the phone number indicating there is enough money in the account, the thieves would proceed to make further transfers or purchases and clean out the money left in their victims’ bank accounts.
For example, Awosika’s N558,000 was spent by the robber to purchase recharge cards through 30 different telephone numbers. In the case of Aremu, the robbers bougth N100 and N500 worth of recharge cards in quick succession and went on to transfer a sum of N29,000 to a Skye Bank account owned by a member of the syndicate.
“After I gained access to the phone, I bought recharge cards worth N600 and I was able to know the balance on the GTBank’s account number of the phone’s owner and I immediately transferred N29,000 to my account with Skye Bank.
“I do not need to know the victim’s password on the phone or Personal Identification Number for me to have access to victims’ accounts and transfer money to my account or buy recharge cards. Most victims password their phones not Sim cards. So, once I removed the Sim and put it in my own phone, I would have easy access to the Sim. I do not also need to know the PIN of my victim; all I need is the last digits of the victim’s Bank Verification Number (BVN), which I can easily obtain by dialling *556*0# and it would be revealed on the phone,” said one of the suspects involved in Aremu’s case, Oluwatobi, a graduate of Electrical/Electronics Engineering.
Also, syndicates who specialise in robbing people of their mobile phones and emptying their bank accounts also use computer applications to generate the BVN and bank details of their customerrs working in concert with fraudulent bankers.
This was evident in the case of a six- member gang paraded by the Lagos State Police Commissioner, Imohinmi Edgal, on February 20, 2018 during which the suspects who specialised in stealing phones/Sim cards and using them to hack the owners’ bank accounts disclosed their mode of operation.
The suspects, Nwanze Ifeanyi, 27, Martin Achi, 27, Solomon Dike, 31, Muritala Mohammed alias Swallow, Ali Hassan, 27, and Shamson Mustapha, 25, were paraded at the Lagos State Police Command Headquarters in Ikeja,.
They said they were responsible for stealing phones and Sim cards, which they handed over to their gang leader, Swallow. Mohammed said he normally sent short codes to the service providers through the stolen Sim cards to generate the Bank Verification Number (BVN) and the account numbers of the owners.
He said: “Once it is the number registered with the bank, the details will appear on the phone and we would use it to hack into the person’s account. We generate PIN (Personal Identification Number) and do instant transfers from been doing this for over eight months now and I have made money from it.
“I have made over N300,000. It’s not true that we have made over a million. It’s not up to that. I used to give the guys who steal the phones, Sim cards small change. I used to tell them the thing did not click. I paid the motorcyclist (Dike) N3,000 each time he took them out to steal phones.
“But I usually gave 30 percent of the amount transferred to those who provided their account numbers for that purpose. Everyone knew what was going on except Mustapha. He was not part of the deal. He’s just a friend of Hassan.”
Ifeanyi said poverty and joblessness pushed him to join the gang, claiming that most companies in his neighbourhood prefer to employ women.
He said: “I got tired and when Swallow (Mohammed) told us about it, I agreed to it. We don’t use to rob in our area. We live in Okokomaiko but we usually go to Egbeda and Igando axis to steal phones. We hand the Sim cards to Mohammed and he’s the one who brings out the bank details and withdraws the money.”
CP Edgal said the suspects were arrested following reports by one Kemi Benson, who lives in Egbeda, that her sister’s phone was stolen on January 20 at their home.
Edgal said: “The victim, in her account, said she went to her service provider for Sim card replacement and that immediately she inserted the new Sim into her new phone, she started receiving debit alerts. She said a total of N1,153,000 was withdrawn from her First City Monument Bank (FCMB) account. There were transfers of money from her account to Ikechukwu Anyaike 1888032010 (FCMB); Oyinuro Victor 00706675464 (Diamond Bank) and Joseph Blessing Benita 2096578968 (UBA).
“Other withdrawals were equally made by VTU. Investigation by Rapid Response Squad (RRS) undercover operatives revealed a syndicate of six young men divided into three groups.
“The first group specialised in robbing residents of their mobile phones and escaping on motorcycle. The second group work on the Sim cards using computer applications. They generate the names, account number and BVN of the Sim card owner. The retrieved details are used to determine the victim’s account’s balance and money in the account is transferred into different bank accounts of the third group.
“Two laptops, 10 Sim cards, Infinix Hot, a bag and two chargers were recovered from them. They have confessed to the crime and further investigation revealed that the gang transferred N120,000 from Diamond Bank account number 2000050986 belonging to Chima Mbakwe of Iba New Site, Lagos.
“The command uses this opportunity to call on Lagosians, particularly those whose phones were stolen in Okokomaiko, Alaba Rago, Ojo, Iba and Iyana-Iba axis and money illegitimately moved from their accounts to come forward. Information at our disposal revealed that a lot of people were robbed at the aforementioned areas.”
Getting justice is a difficult task for victims of phone theft whose bank accounts were emptied by phone robbers. Apart from Aremu, who was ‘lucky’ enough to have exploited his relationship with the police as a reporter to ensure the culprits were arrested four months after he lost his phone and money, and Awosika, whose money was refunded by UBA a few days after her story, “Drama as 51-yr-old woman loses phone, N558,000 to robber,” was published by The Nation on February 17, 2018, other victims have been licking their wounds in silence after making several fruitless visits to the police.
Oluwatoyin said: “I have been to the Police Area Command at Idimu and even submitted a petition there but nothing has been done to arrest the culprit because I could not provide a sum of N50,000 demanded by the officer in charge of the case. Although the Area Commander asked me to come so he could ask another officer to handle my case, but I do not have the time to go there again after several visits could not give me justice.”
For Awosika, her hope of getting immediate help from the police initailly became opaque after she claimed that money was demanded by the officer handling the matter. Exasperated by the tardiness of the minions of law to apprehend the culprit and recover her money, she brought her case to The Nation which published her plight leading to the refund of her money a few days after the story was published.
“I visited Okokomaiko Police Division but I was told to provide some money for logistics before they could start their investigation. I told them I had no money and left the station. I also visited several other police formations and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) but I was told the anti-graft agency can only handle fraud involving N1 million upward. It was when I got tired of the case that someone advised me to share my ordeal with the media. Surprisingly, after my story was published on February 17, the Divisional Police Officer (DPO) of the station invited me to the station and blamed his men for mishandling my case. He then ordered that my case file should be transferred to the state headquarters for further investigation. Surprisingly, my money was refunded by my bank a few hours later, before the file was taken to the state police command.”
Procuring a court order and an affidavit in order to compel the bank where money stolen from victims’ bank accounts via electronic transfer on the phone are wired to may become frustrating for lack of money usually requested by investigation police officers. This was the case with a media relations practitioner, Austin Ituah, whose attempt to seek police help to track the persons who stole his phone and spent the money in his account on purchasing items on online malls met a brickwall.
According to Austin, “My phone was stolen about seven months ago and a sum of N45,000 in my bank account transferred to an account with a new generation bank. I visited a police station on the Island to ask the police to get the account used for the fraudulent transfer blocked but the policemen there asked me to provide N10,000 for the procurement of a court order and swear to an affidavit in court for a fee, in order to enable them ask the bank to block the robber’s bank account. I was so disappointed that I had to leave the station. I have since left the matter to God; if I had provided the money, only God knows how much they would have subsequently demanded to carry out their usual ‘further’ investigations.”
The disposition of the police, according to an impeccable police source, however, is borne out of the paucity of funds and the bottlenecks within the judiciary system in the country. While the investigating police officer is armed with the banker’s order form, court officials tend to delay things with some allegedly demanding money to get the order form signed. Thus, the investigative officer is left with no choice other than to turn to the victim to provide the funding to procure the order from court and transportation to take the order to an affected bank’s head office. It is there that the order would be acknowledged with instruction to branch offices to block the account and arrest the suspect at the point of making cash withdrawal at the banking hall.
A senior police officer at the Lagos State Police Command, who asked not to be named because of the sensitive nature of the issue, said the public do not appreciate the enormous challenges facing the police force, which are hampering effective operations and investigations.
“The public are not aware of what we are going through to carry out investigation in the country. There is what is called banker’s order and this is what the investigative police officer would fill and sign in court. Usually, banks would not disclose the identity of their customers involved in fraudulent cases with people. The order is what banks recognise as a legal instruction to reveal the identity of such a customer and bar transactions on the account being investigated for fraudulent practices. However, the banker’s order is usually signed by magistrates but the only problem there is that magistrates may not want to expedite action in signing the order. Because of the urgency required to commence police investigation, court officials demand for money not less than N5,000 before they can influence express signing of the order by magistrate. In this case, no police officer would use his or her money to get such document, hence, the recourse to the victim to bankroll it.
“Failure to provide fund for signing the banker’s order may slow down investigation and this is why victims most times consider us (police) as being ineffectual and compromising. Also, there may be need to track suspects involved in fraudulent mobile money transfers from people’s stolen phones and this can only be done by paying companies that provide such service. Again, the victim would have to bear the cost; so, when the officer in charge of the case asks for money to carry out such a task, this is viewed by people as an extortion of a hapless victim. But the bottom line is that we (police) are also being frustrated by inadequate funding, which is affecting our law enforcement duties.”
A telecoms and digital security expert, Ephraim Mbonu, urged people to instantly inform their telecoms service provider whenever they lose their phones so as to block the phone number from working. He said the bank customer service centre should also be immediately notified so that transactions on the account could be disallowed, thus preventing hackers from gaining access to victims’ accounts.
“Phone robbers have no other intention but to steal your phone and even empty your bank account. The only way to prevent this is by informing your telephone service provider and your bank through the customer care centre to bar communication and transactions on your phone and bank account.”
In his opinion, a computer programmer and systems analyst, Mr Yomi Ilesanmi, urged people not to save their personal details on their phones, noting that robbers usually look for personal information such as bank account number and password stored on phones through which they can easily hack into their victims’ accounts and fleece them of their money.
“The best way to avoid losing money to phone robbers is to desist from storing personal information on your phone. People often unconsciously save their bank details, including Personal Identification Number (PIN), passwords and credit card details. And these personal details are used by robbers to access your bank account and carry out unlawful fund transfers.”