Why Machakos family held fundraiser after losing cash to M-Pesa fraudsters

Safaricom M-Pesa

One of the main reasons M-Pesa is vulnerable to hacking is due to the lack of secure authentication methods. Most users only rely on a simple, four-digit PIN to access their accounts, which is easily breakable.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

When Pauline Mwalimu landed a Sh6,000 job as a M-Pesa shop attendant in Ikombe township, Machakos County, she was overjoyed as it signalled an easy path to motherhood.

Little did she know that what appeared as a blessing she would torment and condemn her family to poverty.

"The job was exactly what I was looking for; one that would have enabled me to take care of my young child," she said.

 The 23-year-old mother of one is at the centre of a long-running dispute pitting her family against her former employer and a section of the Ikombe business community after she lost Sh105,000 to M-Pesa fraudsters.

Ms Mwalimu was barely four months in the mobile money business when she fell victim to the tight-knit syndicate targeting M-Pesa shops.

 Trouble started when Ms Mwalimu used her M-Pesa account to transfer Sh50 airtime to a customer who identified himself as Ben and claimed to be a Kitui County government official.

"The next day, a strange woman entered the shop carrying a shopping bag. She said she had been directed to the shop by Ben and asked me to hold the bag for her while she ran some errands. I readily obliged.

 Strangely, Mwalimu did not think anything of it when another strange woman appeared shortly after the first one had left the shop. She identified herself only as Faith and asked for the bag the first woman had left behind.

Before Mwalimu handed over the bag, the stranger went into overdrive, trying to woo her into a business of trading yarns for making fishing nets. The bag contained four such yarns, she revealed.

"Around that time, the first woman returned. They took turns convincing me to take up the business opportunity, which they said was lucrative. One yarn, they said, would fetch Sh3,000 in profit," she recalled.

Nine months later, Mwalimu can't remember what really happened. The 23-year-old mother of one believes she was hypnotised.

"The only thing I remember clearly is that I sent the fraudsters all the money I had on the phone. I went into overdrive, borrowing more money from friends and random traders in the market, which I happily gave to the fraudsters in cash and through M-Pesa. I gave away Sh105,000. The amount could have been more if all the people I hurriedly approached had come through," she told the Nation.

The incident initially soured Mwalimu's relationship with her relatives and friends. At first, they suspected her of being part of the syndicate that attacked M-Pesa shops.

They have since changed their minds and sympathised with the teenager after realising she was penniless. She is completely dependent on her parents for her and her child's upkeep.

Mwalimu's father, Joseph Mwalimu, reported the matter to Matuu Police Station under OB 17/8/1/2023. "We have made several inquiries on the matter but the police keep telling us that they are still pursuing the fraudsters," he said.

To this end, Mzee Mwalimu organised a harambee at Ikombe market on Saturday. But it was a poor show. Yatta MP Robert Basil and Ikombe MCA Fredrick Kitetu, who were listed as chief guests, failed to turn up.

Only a handful of relatives and passers-by attended. The event was supposed to start at noon but the organisers postponed it to 4pm in the hope of attracting more people.

"We raised Sh31,000, which is far below our target. I am appealing to well-wishers to relieve me of this burden and shame," the farmer told the Nation in an interview after the fundraiser, striking a dejected pose as he reflected on the uncertainty facing his family.

Although security agencies in Machakos County have been grappling with a wave of brazen M-Pesa fraudsters targeting unsuspecting attendants in recent months, Ikombe Deputy County Commissioner Robert Muriithi described the January incident involving Mwalimu as an isolated case.

"To avoid becoming easy prey for fraudsters, M-Pesa attendants should resist all temptations to get rich quick.

"They should avoid using their premises for any business other than money transactions. They should ensure that they record the identity details of their customers during transitions.

"M-Pesa operators should ensure that their shops have basic security features such as grills and CCTV cameras," Mr Muriithi told the Nation in a telephone interview.