Analysis

Special Report: Uganda Witnesses Wave of Cyber Scams, Fraud Risk Amid Pandemic

Uganda is grappling with a surge of illicit financial activities including online scams and identity theft due to the outbreak of COVID-19, and the financial crimes body itself says it faces increased risk of cyber attacks during the pandemic.

In an interview with ChimpReports, Executive Director Financial Intelligence Authority (FIA) Sydney Asubo said the imposition of a lockdown and reliance on remote work meant the institution could face greater risk of getting hacked and having sensitive information taken.

“As FIA our staff is still working even from home, but we are trying to come up with a solution that will avoid hackers from accessing our system. Thieves are also using COVID-19 as a chance to create fake accounts soliciting for funds,” said Asubo.

The FIA, set up under 2013 legislation to combat money laundering, warned in early April, of online and low-tech fraud focused on cashing in on public anxieties and drawing funds away from the pandemic relief efforts.

In a statement issued by Financial Intelligence Authority on 8th April 2020, FIA advised Financial Institutions and other reporting entities under the Anti-Money Laundering Act to remain alert about malicious or fraudulent transactions similar to those that may occur in the wake of natural disasters.

Health Permanent Secretary Dr Diana Atwine told ChimpReports that attempts had been made online to use her name to send emails to several companies in Uganda urging to raise money for the COVID-19 relief efforts.

“I’ve not sent any email of this sort. This is an attempt to steal money from the public. An investigation is underway to get to the bottom of this matter,” she said.

Health Minister Dr Ruth Aceng, like Atwine, who is involved in mobilizing funds and relief equipment, recently said attempts had been made to establish a fake account in her name on Instagram.

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Asubo said the pandemic was inhibiting the exchange of information domestically and internationally to combat illicit finance, and diverting budget resources from the institutions involved in that effort.

“Certain duties have been suspended, while banks are continuing to file and analyze reports, direct inspection has been cut off, public awareness has also greatly been affected by the pandemic and there has been a slow down on international co-operations despite the electronic systems,” he said.

He emphasized that, with the use of electronic systems that now help in communication and the fact that banks are still operating, they have still managed to continue with a certain part of their work.

Asubo added that there was a budget cut and money has been diverted to fighting COVID-19. As regulators; they are eagerly waiting to know how the virus will impact Uganda’s economy.

Electronic fraud

National Information and Technology Authority (NITA-U), which runs a department for countering cyber-crimes, says it has noticed a rise in phishing emails, fake news, electronic fraud, and online scams.

The body issued Online Safety Advice for the public as effects of Coronavirus continued to bite.

“The COVID-19 public health crisis has created a great deal of anxiety amongst the public and cybercriminals are profiteering as a result,” said NITA-U spokesperson Steven Kirenga.

He said the body’s advisory was a response to common scams the public should look out for as they embrace social distancing and working from home during the nation-wide lock down.

“Some pretend as if they are promising government offers or donations only for unsuspecting people to fall victim,” says Emmanuel Mugabi, a research analyst at NITA-U.

He said could-be thieves impersonating employees of telecoms companies were targeting mobile money users to defraud them, by claiming their SIM cards could be de-registered if details of the account were not confirmed.

“The fraudsters will then ask you some questions as if trying to prove that the sim-card really belongs to you. For example they will you to tell them your account balance. The moment you reveal this information, they will initiate a payment transaction and ask you to use a pin number sent to you,” he said.

“If you don’t pay attention and insert the pin number, money will be immediately deducted from your mobile money account,” Mugabi cautioned.

He also said crooks on the internet were using Zoom, a videoconferencing application, to hack into people’s private information, particularly when users employed the same password across applications.

 The story was produced by www.chimpreports.com. It was written as a part of Wealth of Nations a media skills development programme run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in partnership with the African Centre for Media Excellence. More information at www.wealth-of-nations.org. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.

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