Job seekers in Africa are easy prey for online scammers

NAIROBI, 25 July – From careers in banking to roles in global agencies, social media in Africa is full of lucrative job opportunities.

But AFP Fact Check investigators have discovered that many of these adverts are fake – they are scams designed to extort money or steal personal data.

Fresh out of university in Kenya – a country with more than 1.6 million unemployed young people – Job Mwangi thought he had been shortlisted for the position of field assistant at the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), a position advertised on LinkedIn.

After passing two online tests, he was asked to pay 2,000 Kenyan shillings (about RM75) in ‘facilitation fees’ in order to get an interview.

“Everything about the job posting seemed legit,” Mwangi told AFP Fact Check in an interview.

“I was asked to pay 1,000 Kenyan shillings ($8.5) for medical and X-ray tests…but the tests did not take place as I was told they would be done at the offices of the UN on the day of the interview.” A shuttle that was supposed to carry Mwangi and more than 30 other job seekers to the UN office never showed up.

“We waited about an hour for the UN bus but it didn’t arrive, so we decided to take a bus on our own.

“On arriving at the gate, we mentioned that we had been invited for interviews with UNEP and the security guards manning the gate laughed at us, saying we had been ripped off.” Mwangi filed a police report but says he hasn’t heard anything since.

Easy money promise

This particular hoax is far from uncommon in Africa – indeed, UN agencies routinely warn jobseekers about false advertisements.

“The United Nations Environment Program does not charge any fees at any stage of its recruitment process (application, interview, processing, training) or any other fees, nor does it request bank account information from candidates” , says UNEP on its website.

Keyword searches on Facebook reveal dozens of pages containing fake job vacancies cleverly designed to attract applicants.

Many pitches have the same telltale signs: they have short deadlines, promise high salaries, and often include a hyperlink to an external online platform requesting personal information.

Scammers also use the logos of reputable organizations and companies to lend credibility to fraudulent emails.

Code for Africa, a data journalism and civic tech initiative, found that in 2020 – when job losses soared during the Covid-19 pandemic – some 30 Facebook accounts, groups and pages with more of 184,000 followers targeted unsuspecting job seekers in Kenya with bogus advertisements.

Analysts say those behind these scams rely on the desperation of job seekers, who often fail to check whether offers are genuine.

Many of these applicants send money without hesitation, hoping it will help them in the race to get the job.

“Most online employment scams aim to scam unsuspecting people into sending money and once that money is sent the scammer is gone,” the scammer told AFP. Kenyan cybersecurity expert Anthony Muiyuro.

LinkedIn said it was investing in ways to fix the issue.

“Our teams use automated and manual defenses to detect and address fake accounts or suspected scams. We also encourage members to report anything that doesn’t seem right so that we can investigate,” the company told AFP Fact Check.

Africa-wide problem

Other targeted countries in Africa include Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, where more than 23 million people are unemployed.

Among the victims is Ayobambo Taiwo, a 29-year-old woman from the southern state of Ondo who lost her job in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic.

She spotted a vacancy in the Nigerian Customs Service, advertised on Facebook, and jumped at the chance.

She said she paid 25,000 naira ($60) to an alleged customs officer to get a job.

“The man demanded an additional 92,000 naira ($222) for training kits, which I told him I couldn’t afford. When he asked me how much I had I smelled foul play and told him to pay me back but he has stopped answering my calls ever since. Employment disadvantages are a frequent risk in South Africa, which has the highest unemployment rate on the continent – ​​more than a third of its labor force is out of work.

Fake advertisements there usually claim to offer relatively good entry-level salaries of up to 10,000 rand (630 USD) and do not ask for qualifications.

Facebook posts, often poorly written, are continually recycled to promote thousands of so-called job opportunities, often with national retailers, the police or the military.

Money and data

The confinements imposed during the coronavirus pandemic, which threw many Africans into the labor market, have had particularly rich harvests.

AFP Fact Check has debunked dozens of bogus job applications in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa at the height of the crisis.

In the dark, anonymous world of the job scam, thieves stand a good chance of getting away with their crime.

But a notable success was a conviction in South Africa in 2020 – of a man who was jailed for eight years for defrauding job seekers of 95,000 rand ($6,000).

Last year, Kenyan police arrested four suspects for allegedly defrauding millions of shillings with bogus offers from the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) – a major human resources agency in the education sector.

The suspects, suspected of being part of a criminal network, had opened several fake Facebook accounts in the name of TSC chief executive Nancy Macharia and tricked people into paying fees in exchange for jobs that did not exist not.

Watchdogs say a common ploy is to trick the job seeker into filling out forms giving personal information – an obvious opportunity for blackmail or impersonation.

Muiyuro advises simple but thorough precautions: check the organization or company’s official website or LinkedIn page to verify the job posting, “or contact friends or acquaintances who work in the organization.” —AFP

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