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Saturday, November 8, 2003 


Guard against high-tech con

About the same time the Nigerian priest was getting busted at Nairobi's Jomo Kenya International Airport (JKIA) with a kilo of heroin last week, I made an online business inquiry with a supplier in Britain.

I got an immediate automated response. It identified my location as "Africa" and declined to process my request further.

But the site went on to advise its regular clients to be wary of trade inquiries from Africa. The reason given was that a good number of online transactions with the continent were fraudulent. That was offensive. 

Punishing an entire continent for the criminal adventures of a notorious few is rather harsh and imprudent. 

Law enforcement authorities have, for long, been alert for West African con artists masquerading as honest businessmen. Nigerians, in particular, excel in this field.

In the mid-nineties, the CID headquarters ran a couple of sting operations against West African fraudsters in Nairobi. These guys research on their targets and invest in the schemes. With concealed deceit, they dazzle their unsuspecting victims with overt exhibitions of affluence and easy money. 

They do not even pretend to be straight. Sparkling with larceny, they entice their prey with the promise of a one-off deal that would catapult him to untold riches. Sadly, it is the good, hardworking people who get cleaned out by such tricksters. Most are too humiliated and ashamed to report to the authorities.

With the arrival of e-commerce, our brothers from West Africa hopped onto the Internet bandwagon and gleefully started picking the pockets of gullible surfers. The 2002 FBI statistics for online crimes rate the "Nigerian Letter Con" as the third most prevalent fraud, after Internet auction fraud and electronic identity theft. 

The "Nigerian Letter Con" invites investors to enter into non-existent business ventures. The returns on investment on these deals appear irresistible and the risks nominal. Many unsuspecting people, especially in Europe and America, get ripped off in these scams.

Some amateur con artists are quite unsophisticated in their attempts. An incensed Kenyan in South Africa, Dr Ibrahim Farah Abdullahi, recently e-mailed me a badly written letter he had received from a Mark Ojo. 

In the letter, Ojo identifies himself as the personal assistant to Vice-President, Mr Michael Wamalwa and claims that, contrary to accepted belief, the VP was awash with cash. In fact, the VP allegedly gave Ojo $ 9 million in cash to deposit with a security firm in Ghana and Ojo urgently wants a partner to help him access the money.

The proposal sounds almost plausible until he goofs with the unprompted assertion that Mr Wamalwa was buried in his rural village in Nigeria. A guy in Kazakhstan hooked on the deal would most likely focus more on his cut of the $9 million than the burial details of the benefactor. 

With such swindles being perpetrated online from Africa, it is not difficult to understand the British supplier’s overarching policy of not conducting online business with the continent. 

It is bad enough that Africa remains the digital underclass. The extra burden of being a breeding ground for Internet con artists is too heavy for us to sustain. 

The Internet has now become an essential part of many business processes. Advances in computing and communication technologies have resulted in the emergence of a global digital economy.

Many progressive organisations will at some point have to do business over the Internet. Most of these transactions will either be on trust or payments will be made online. 

Kenya is particularly vulnerable as there is no legal framework to regulate and protect businesses engaged in e-commerce. We have no laws to punish cyber offenders.

While the Government continues to fumble with the problem, the private sector must take the initiative to uphold the integrity and security of e-commerce systems for business.

It is difficult to prescribe lasting solutions to electronic frauds due to the dynamism in the high-tech digital market where innovation, even for con men, is the essence of success. Users at all points of the system will need to be ultra-vigilant in handling their transactions, right from the basic credit card transactions to complex financial interactions online. 

Financial institutions are the main target for cyber-thefts because, as celebrated Australian bank robber Willie Scot once explained, "that is where the money is". Banks should, therefore, play the vanguard in developing and implementing IT security measures to counter threats to e-commerce.

Last month, one of the "Big Three" banks in Kenya allegedly lost millions of dollars in electronic transfers to con men in Uganda. It was reported that it is the small recipient bank in Uganda that raised security queries on the transfers. Yet the more tech savvy bank which was getting hit was oblivious of the theft. 

Whereas such incidents underscore the folly of over-dependence on IT processes for security, they also demonstrate that IT security in all organisations should go beyond mere protection of data, systems and processes. Firewalls, traffic analysers and intrusion detection systems will only protect the company against known viruses, network sabotage and hackers.

Effective IT security involves keeping abreast or, better still, staying ahead of the innovation curve. Organisations will need to dedicate more resources to long-term development of technical competence to keep impostors off their businesses and clients. 

Then there is always the errant employee who colludes with the bad guys for personal gain, either by providing confidential business intelligence or by facilitating outright online thefts.Organisations will need to constantly audit their in-house security processes and their systems' reliability to counter such thefts. 

Kenya must become an accepted and respected member of the online business community. We need to proactively secure our IT-enabled businesses and keep out the crooks. 

We do not relish the notion of having to explain to potential business partners that us, Kenyans, are honest and decent businessmen. It is demeaning!

Mr Murunga can be reached at E-mail:corporates@africaonline.co.ke 

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