What you need to know:
- The triumvirate of hamlets is fast becoming a haven for young lords of the criminal underworld.
- The fraudsters target users of Safaricom’s M-Pesa and other mobile money platforms.
To a visitor, they are just three dusty towns with a common name straddling Narok and Bomet counties.
Yet Mulot Central, Mulot Olomirani and Mulot Sunset on the Narok-Bomet-Kaplong highway are gaining notoriety as the unlikely headquarters of mobile money crimes in Kenya and probably the East African region.
Mulot Central and Mulot Olomirani in Narok County are separated from Mulot Sunset on the Bomet side by Amalo river.
Data indicates many of the mobile cash fraudsters arrested by detectives from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) across the country are from this triumvirate of hamlets that is fast becoming a haven for young lords of the criminal underworld.
And this criminal underworld tag now threatens to dent the otherwise good name of this seemingly sleepy trading complex that forms the gateway to the scenic Mara Game Reserve, Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and the larger Western tourism circuit.
While Mulot Sunset has lately registered fast growth in the real estate sector, the other two centres have stagnated due to security issues that have confounded everyone, including security agencies.
The fraudsters who target users of Safaricom’s M-Pesa and other mobile money platforms are young, move around in groups and are known to be heavy spenders at social joints.
These mobile cash fraudsters, referred to as ‘swappers’, hit the entertainment circuit without a care in the world, wining and dining with gay abandon.
For some reason, they do not drive or own sleek vehicles, preferring instead to move around on boda-bodas, presumably to cover their tracks by hiding their real worth.
A few have bought Toyota Probox station wagons – a status symbol in this provincial area – and constructed fairly nice houses both in the local towns and in the rural parts of Bomet and Narok counties using the proceeds of their criminal acts, as their victims count millions in losses.
One would expect these youngsters to flaunt wads of their easily obtained cash but, again to avoid courting unnecessary attention, they prefer footing their entertainment and other bills through online platforms – preferably M-Pesa.
And while many victims of mobile money fraud assume they lost their money to the notorious criminals at Kamiti Maximum Prison on the outskirts of Nairobi city, many kilometres away, chances are high that the majority were cleaned out of their cash by the “Mulot Team”, nicknamed so perhaps for their penchant for prowling around in groups.
Unlike the case with cybercrime, whose perpetrators are young, tech-savvy graduates with sound grounding in Information Technology, the “Mulot Team” comprises mainly high school dropouts.
From 2016, there has been a marked increase in the number of young men and women from the region arrested by DCI officers in various parts of the country in relation to mobile banking fraud.
On March 8 this year, more than 2,000 sim cards, 15 mobile phones and a register with names of victims were impounded upon the arrest of five suspected swappers – 22-year-old Joan Cherono, Robert Kipngetich (23), Josphat Cheruiyot (27), Ronald Kipngetich (20) and Cynthia Chepkirui (21) at Lumumba Drive in Kasarani, Nairobi County.
Interestingly, all the suspects turned out to be from Mulot and one from Embu County, according to Kasarani sub-county police commander Muthuri Mwongera.
Another group of seven was arrested in Kabete, Kiambu County, on October 9, 2019 with more than 200 sim cards and several phones. Again, Victor Rono (23), Mercy Chepkirui (21), Nicholas Kipkurui (25), Wesley Kiprono (28), Robert Kibet (23), Faith Chepkorir (23) and Felix Tanui (24) are all from Mulot.
Between July 20 and 24, 2018, five suspects were arrested and 2,160 unused sim cards, 44 used cards, five agency till numbers and three M-Pesa record books recovered from them during an operation by DCI officers in Mulot Central.
The “swappers” operate from secluded rental housing units, homes and at times in the expansive thickets of Narok West constituency to avoid detection and arrest.
They call targeted victims on mobile phones pretending to be officers from Safaricom seeking to upgrade their clients’ security systems. They then go ahead to ask for the client’s registration details, which they use to swindle the unwitting customer’s mobile cash.
The most common details they seek from Safaricom customers include national identity card name and number, the last time the client made an M-Pesa transaction and the amount, the last airtime top-up and amount and the Personal Identification Number (PIN) of their sim cards.
Another ruse they use is posing as customer care officers from banking institutions. They then go ahead to ask for a bank customer’s account number and PIN, as well as details of the last transaction on the targeted account.
They then use the customers’ details to do a sim-swap, which basically clones their victims’ accounts and then steal the cash therein. They are so brazen that they even borrow cash from online lending platforms using their victims’ details.
Again using bank customers’ details, they transfer money to certain mobile phone numbers, which they eventually withdraw.
“Unsuspecting clients are asked to switch their phones off and then on, but within the brief moment the phone is off they lose thousands and at times millions of shillings to the fraudsters,” said Ms Mercy Cherotich, a teacher at a school in Narok South constituency.
It is believed the thugs work in cahoots with employees of telecommunication companies and banks to get details of unsuspecting clients targeted for fraud.
Though the National Police Service has been employing tech-savvy officers and upgrading its Information Communication Technology (ICT) department, the law enforcers especially in remote parts of the country have largely little or no capacity to fight this kind of crime.
The fraudsters are thus exploiting these capacity loopholes to rip off Kenyans and institutions of their hard-earned money.
Police have in some instances also been accused of colluding with the criminals to defraud innocent people of their money.
“The major problem police officers face in their efforts to eliminate the vice is that few and sometimes none of the victims come forward to record statements to enable us to prosecute the fraudsters,” Ms Naomi Ichami, the Bomet County police commander said in a recent interview.
Three years ago, when DCI detectives arrested a number of suspects, the ‘swappers’ shifted their base to Eldoret, Nakuru, Kajiado, Kiambu and Nairobi.
“While Mulot Central and Mulot Olomirani form the criminals’ operations base, Molut Sunset is their merry-making zone. It is here that they spend the proceeds of their crime,” said a senior administrator who did not want to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.
When they hit a goldmine, the culprits travel to Narok, Kisumu, Nakuru, Kericho, Bomet, Eldoret and Naivasha where they party, mainly passing themselves off as successful businesspeople.
Commercial sex workers
“The suspects are known to the locals, but there is nothing we can do as they share their loot and binge-drink with security officers from this area. Only police officers from other parts of the country have been able to effect arrests,” said a resident of the area.
On Saturdays, a market day, traders from other parts of the region flock to Mulot Sunset to buy or sell second-hand clothes, cereals, vegetables, potatoes, tomatoes and onions, among others.
Mulot Olomirani is also flush with cash on Saturdays, as that is when it hosts a weekly cattle auction that attracts traders from as far as Nairobi, Nakuru and Kisumu.
During maize and wheat harvesting seasons, Mulot Central attracts traders from across the country – mainly transporters and combine harvester owners – with huge sums of money exchanging hands.
The boom is replicated during the ploughing season, when hundreds of tractor owners come seeking business in the area.
“During these seasons, guest houses do roaring business as bars increase the prices of beer and wines and spirits as hotel and butchery owners too post huge profits,”
Local commercial sex workers and others from as far as Nairobi pitch tent in the area targeting the ‘wheat millionaires’, traders purchasing the produce, drivers and mechanics.
Siphoning of fuel from in-transit trucks is another illicit trade thriving in the area, besides smuggling of timber and game trophies from nearby forests.
The much-sought-after rhino horns, elephant tusks and leopard skins from the Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya and in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania are hidden in these three trading centres as poachers scout for buyers in a multimillion-shilling racket that threatens to kill Kenya's tourism sector.