'Digital lender formed a WhatsApp group of my family over Sh25,000 debt'

Mobile loan app

 A man holds his smartphone with the display of different types of mobile loan lending services displayed on his screen, in this illustration photo taken in Nairobi, December 9, 2021. 

Photo credit: Simon Maina | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Messages from agents pretending to be Michael claimed he intended to take his life for failing to repay loan.

When Michael (not his real name) took a loan from an online digital lending app to pay his sibling’s school fees and send his parents some upkeep money, he underestimated the lengths to which the loan sharks would go to in a bid to recover the money.

It all began on March 16, 2023, when Michael applied for a loan of Sh25,000 from Whitepath Ltd, an online app. He was in need of a quick fix to assist his family.

It was not the first time he was borrowing using the app and he had never defaulted on his previous loans, which, he says, boosted his credit. Michael was meant to repay the loan on March 27.

However, on March 25, he started receiving calls from employees of Whitepath from as early as 7:30am. The calls went on until 8:30pm.

“At first they were calling, asking when I would repay the loan. I told them I had never defaulted and I planned to pay off the loan soon, but I just needed some time. Then they texted me incessantly, saying they will start sending messages to my family and friends,” Michael says.

On March 27, when the loan was due, the messages became more sinister.

“I received a phone call from a friend of mine asking me why I want to kill myself. I was confused, so I asked her why she was asking that. She sent me a screenshot of somebody purporting to be me saying that I wanted to kill myself if I did not receive help to offset my loan because I was a serial defaulter. They listed my full name, ID number and they attached my photographs, which they pulled from my WhatsApp profile. They then added my family members, my colleagues and I to a group and forwarded the same messages there. I pleaded with them to stop but they formed more groups,” says Michael.

The messages then took a dark turn; the agents told Michael they would put him in hospital if he did not pay and that something would happen to him.

The messages from the agents pretending to be Michael saying he intended to take his life, particularly affected his father.

“How do you explain to your father that you do not want to kill yourself? It broke my psyche to the extent that I could not go to work that day. Everyone looked at me differently — as a loan defaulter who was planning to kill himself. Even those to whom I tried to explain the situation did not believe me. It drove me into depression,” Michael adds.

A number of Michael’s contacts were angry about the fact that the company was now relentlessly calling them, saying that Michael had listed them as a referee. They lashed out at him, believing that he had shared their private information and dragged them into his mess.

“That wasn’t true. I had only listed two people as my referees — my friend and my sister. But when I downloaded the app, I granted permission for them to access my contacts. I believe they used that to disturb my contacts. I wrote an email to Whitepath Ltd complaining about the harassment from their employees. They said they would look into it, but on following up, they never got back to me,” he says.

We reached out to Whitepath to hear their side of the story and to confirm if they were aware of Michael’s case. Their customer care line operator said she would refer us to the manager and promised to send his contact, but she did not. On calling the different numbers used to call Michael incessantly, the man on the other end seemed aloof.

“Yes, I work at Whitepath, but I call so many defaulters, so I cannot remember him. My job is to call people,” said the man who refused to give his name. He later said he no longer works at Whitepath.

According to Section 72 of the Data Protection Act of 2019, a data controller who, without lawful excuse, discloses personal data in any manner that is incompatible with the purpose for which such data has been collected commits an offence. Additionally, a data processor who, without lawful excuse, discloses personal data processed by the data processor without the prior authority of the data controller commits an offence.

In 2021, the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner began investigations into a number of digital lenders for sharing borrowers’ confidential data in pursuit of loan defaulters.

Further, in March 2022, the Central Bank of Kenya banned digital credit providers, its officers, or agents in the course of debt collection, from using obscene or profane language with the customer or the customers’ contacts for purposes of shaming them.

“I plan on lodging a complaint at the police station, as well as complaining to the Central Bank of Kenya, the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner, and any other relevant institution. I want to make sure that in any small way I can, no one else goes through what I have gone through. Despite my attempts to offset the loan, including sending smaller amounts such as Sh3,000 to the company, they still harassed me,” Michael says.

Michael is still trying to offset the hefty fines attached to his loan, which have seen it shoot up to Sh45,000, attracting fines of almost Sh4,000 daily.

“I did not want to take a loan, nobody does, but I did it to help my family. Yet that same loan is what ended up tormenting them and me,” says Michael.

During our report, we encountered numerous complaints from a number of consumers from Whitepath, including a petition generated by Ms Caroline Kahiu seeking to ban the app over what she termed severe harassment and debt shaming by its employees.