A persistent problem for the nation's telecom customers has been the appearance of phone scammers in recent years. Using unregistered SIM cards, scammers call random people and ask them to send mobile airtime in order to process fake prizes.


On a weekday in April last year, Tadesse Kebede, a security guard at Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE), received what at first seemed like a normal phone call but turned out to be anything but normal.

The phone call was from a number he had never seen before, but he answered it anyway.

The callers told him that they were calling from a radio show that airs on a local station. They said that the show had a question-and-answer session that is sponsored by a prominent local company.

The callers consisted of three males and one female. One said he was the representative of the sponsoring company. The two other males said they were hosts and that the woman was a technician at the radio station.

The callers briefed him that they would ask questions, each with a prize value of 50,000 Br. If he got the answers right, he would get the prize.

In the first question, which was very easy, Tadesse was lucky enough in getting it correct, and the callers told him he won a 50,000Br prize. He was thrilled.

But their conversation did not end there. The caller then told him that he had to pay 500 Br that would be used to process the prize and make the transaction. The option the callers gave to Tadesse was to pay the money in the form of a mobile airtime card.

Tadesse, who earns a monthly salary of 3,300 Br and is a father of three, bought the mobile cards worth 500 Br and sent it to the callers.


A while later he received another call from the station, and he was asked another straightforward question. He also answered that one correctly and was told he had won another 50,000 Br prize.

To process the prize and the transaction, the callers asked him to send 1,000 Br worth of mobile airtime. Since he did not have the cash on hand, he borrowed from a neighbour and fulfilled the order.

He also received a third call for another question, which the callers called a bonus, and he correctly answered that. Finally, the callers asked him to send them his account number in order to deposit the prize money into his account the next day.

Tadesse's wife, Menbere Kidane, was thrilled with the prize, but she was a little confused. Their neighbours went to their house to congratulate them.

"I was a bit suspicious because of the repeated phone calls from the station," Menbere said.

The next day no phone call was made from the radio station, and the number used by the callers was no longer working. After a while, the family knew that they had been scammed.


"I was ashamed when people made us a laughing stock for being fooled," his wife said.

This is not only the story of Tadesse, but also of many others, who have become victims of scammers in recent years.




The scammers use multiple mechanisms to defraud people beside the tactics Tadesse encountered.

Making missed calls using foreign numbers through operators outside of the country who are part of the scam is also another tactic that is widely practised.

Telecom customers who respond to the missed calls will not only be charged for the phone call but will fall for the different tactics the scammers use to extract money out of them by promising them to work in partnership or giving them a job offer.

They will then ask for money to be transferred to their account, so they can facilitate the partnership or the job hiring process.

If the transfer from the scammed people is made in mobile airtime, the scammers sell the airtime to users at a discounted price.

Ethio telecom, the state telecom operator, is well aware of such kinds of scams, since it receives plenty of reports from victims.

The crimes are committed by using unregistered SIM cards, which are stolen by Ethio telecom's own employees or provided by SIM card distributors to scammers without being registered, according to Cherer Aklilu, executive director for Ethio telecom, which boasted 41.9 million mobile voice subscribers and 22.3 million data and internet users at the end of the last fiscal year.

"Not responding to unknown numbers is the first precaution that people can take," said Cherer, "and once they are scammed, they need to report it to us."


When Ethio telecom receives reports from customers, it blocks phone numbers and works with police to provide information on phone numbers used for scamming customers, according to her.

Even though scams through phone calls are becoming common these days, it has been there for many years through email, according to Yihenew Wondie (PhD), a lecturer at the School of Electrical & Computer Engineering at Addis Abeba University's Institute of Technology.

Scammers use e-mails by stating that they have money that they want to bring into the country using the recipient's bank account, according to him, and then they ask for the recipient's financial details and money to facilitate the transaction.

These days, the scam through emails are not widely practised, since many people have become aware of the fraud and have started to take care in not responding to such emails.

Yihenew says that Ethio telecom and the police should play a significant role in protecting the public from such scams by creating awareness.

"Ethio telecom also has a big responsibility in keeping the identity and privacy of its customers secure," says the expert.

The law that regulates operations on electronic systems has not been implemented in Ethiopia. While such crimes are on the rise, actions against the offenders are not being taken. The country should consider implementing the law immediately, according to Yihenew.

Currently,  a working group composed of 13 members under the Justice & Legal Advisory Council, is amending the computer crime law proclamation, which deals with a broad range of criminal offences committed using a computer or similar electronic devices.

After sending away almost half of his monthly salary within hours, Tadesse learned his lesson and decided to be careful who he trusts over the phone from now on.



PUBLISHED ON Oct 05,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1014]



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