A week ago in Kenya, Safaricom launched a series of promotions to mark its 20th anniversary, promising various gifts and rewards to its customers. Moments later, fraudsters swung into action by creating a website purported to be Safaricom’s and asking people to check if they have been shortlisted to win KES 4100 as part of Safaricom’s 20th-anniversary celebrations.

The fraudsters had a field day.

To market their con game, they would ask potential winners to share the promotion with their WhatsApp contacts. This act itself proved effective as thousands of people eager to win some money shared the messages with their WhatsApp contacts and groups. In almost every group I was in, the message was posted. The surprising thing is that even people who should have known better, such as a group of network engineers, went ahead to share the links, helping to sustain the virality of the scam.

Safaricom warned people that it was a scam, but that would not stop something that silently trending on WhatsApp groups.

Gullible masses giving out their data

Why did so many people fall for this scam?  

While it was perfectly planned to imitate a real promotion, one of the reasons why so many people were doing it because they did not see the risk involved in voluntarily giving out personal data.

For many people, they're nothing to lose by sharing personal information such as their phone number with a ‘machine’. They may not do it with strangers or other people, but they are very okay when a website asks for their name, email address, and phone number. It always seems so innocent and the assumption is that no one will make use of that data.

However, the dark secret lies in what people do not put into mind. The machine that you freely have given your personal information does not sleep or blink and can monitor you as long as you are alive. This is the power that drives today’s digital advertising industry, where computer algorithms can build an accurate profile of a person better than the way a human being would do it. This is how social media platforms can show you the posts that you are likely to like, and YouTube will recommend videos that you are likely to watch.

Accurate profiling

Once you visit a website, the website owner can collect so much data by using the right partners. They can link the data you have provided with your online behavior which has been tracked over time. They know which websites you visit, identify you on social media, and build your profile which can be used for marketing or other purposes.

Now, if this is data from one person, it may not be very helpful. But when you are dealing with thousands of people, data becomes more valuable.  If you are interested in people who have young babies, who like partying, or who support a certain political ideology, you will have accurate data for such. You can profile the users based on the data they provide and their online activities that have been observed over time.

As someone once gave an analogy, data is like raindrops. On its own, a drop of rain may not be very useful, but when you have many drops, they form torrents that can result in floods or can be harnessed to achieve many impossible fetes. As this happens, most people neither understand that their data is being harvested nor how it is being used.

This data could be used in good ways, but we have seen the negative effects when it is used for mass manipulation. Political institutions have in the past leveraged such data to identify people who are least likely to vote for them, then ran campaigns to dissuade them from voting.

Unsolicited subscriptions

The other risk associated with sharing the phone number even without the name is that one is helping out fraudsters who will attempt to subscribe you to various premium services. This is very common with Safaricom users, and I keep getting requests such as the own show below.

If data is the new oil, giving out your data indiscriminately is like allowing any person who comes your way to set up an oil rig in your private property. Kenyans need to be more vigilant.

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