Prisoners in Ghana normally lose certain rights to their personal freedom upon incarceration, including the right to have mobile phones.
However, an inmate at the Ankaful Maximum Security Prison in the Central Region has managed to, not only possess a contraband mobile phone in prison but also successfully mastermind a mobile money fraud scheme probably defrauding countless victims on the outside.
He seems to have built a network of accomplices who assist him in defrauding unsuspecting Ghanaians at home and abroad from his small cell at Ankaful Prison. Among his victims are a lawyer, a tiler, and a welder, who worked together to blow his cover.
The tiler, John Atsu, received GH₵3,000 from his employer, Canada-based Ghanaian lawyer, Francis Ontoyin, through mobile money. He was to send the money to a welder, who was working on the lawyer’s house.
John also received the welder’s phone number and promptly reached out to him. They both agreed to use a mobile money merchant for a secure transaction the following day. This arrangement was meant to help them avoid the telecom operator mobile money charges and the 1% e-levy on the GH₵3,000.
Early the following day, however, John received a call from an unknown number. The caller addressed him by his last name and asked if he had sent the money.
John, who by now thought he was talking to the welder, responded that he was waiting for the welder’s call before doing the transfer. The caller, however, changed the agreed mode of the transaction. He wanted the money sent to a mobile money wallet instead. Since the money was meant for the welder anyway, John said he didn’t challenge the new directive.
He transferred the money, only to realise that the earlier phone call was a scam when the real welder’s call came later. The GH₵3,000 landed in the wrong wallet.
John reached out to the call centre of his mobile operator, MTN, to report the transaction and seek a reversal. MTN informed him that the money had been withdrawn and nothing could be done about it.
The lawyer’s investigation
John’s Canada-based employer Francis Ontoyin, who is a lawyer, started his probe by unmasking the name behind the mobile number that stole from him. The mobile money wallet which received the GH₵3,000 was registered in the name of Samuel Adom. Having the phone number and a name connected to the scam, Ontoyin said, was a good start.
About a week after the incident, Ontoyin called the fraudster’s number with a Canadian phone number. Under the guise of acquiring land in Ghana, the lawyer asked Samuel for his help to buy land in Accra because someone had recommended Samuel to him as a real estate broker. Samuel, however, told the lawyer that he didn’t have land to sell but he had a friend who could help him acquire land. He identified this property seller as Nana Agyei.
Ontoyin contacted Nana Agyei, and he readily offered to sell him a parcel of land. The lawyer told Nana Agyei that he was a resident of Canada but would be coming to Ghana soon. The two began to exchange Whatsapp messages.
To see the face behind the WhatsApp texts and phone calls, the lawyer talked Nana Agyei into making video calls. It was also a strategy to win the purported land dealer’s trust.
Looking for love and business partnership
As the days turned into weeks, and the two discussed the land deal, Nana Agyei wanted more than a land transaction. He also spoke about entering into a business partnership with the lawyer. He expressed interest in importing cars from Canada. Ontoyin fed his newfound “business partner’s” hope by taking time to visit garages to show Nana Agyei cars on display for sale so he would make his choice.
Beyond business, Nana Agyei also wanted love and wanted the lawyer to play a matchmaker. In one of the recorded video calls made available to The Fourth Estate, Nana Agyei asked Ontoyin to match him with a white woman because life in Ghana was difficult. A match with a foreign white partner would mean a green card to a soft life outside Ghana, he envisaged.
As their virtual friendship bloomed, Francis also wanted to know if, indeed, the land existed. He made arrangements with his friend in Ghana to go and check it out. Nana Agyei and Samuel asked for money for transportation to Pokuase, where he claimed his land was located.
With the hope of unveiling more faces behind the alleged scam, Ontoyin didn’t mind losing some more money to them. He transferred GH₵200 to Nana Agyei for transportation.
Nana Agyei failed to uphold his end of the bargain despite receiving the money for transportation. After a few failed attempts, another appointment was made. This time around, he gave the lawyer’s friend the exact location, which turned out to be a parcel of overgrown land.
To ensure his trusted friend’s safety, Francis Ontoyin advised him not to go there with them. At this point, the lawyer was upset about Nana Agyei’s evasiveness, so he cut off communications with him for a while.
Airport pick-up and arrest
Before departing Canada, however, Ontoyin reconnected with Nana Agyei. He told him he was returning to Ghana and was still keen on buying the land when he arrived in a few months. Nana Agyei offered to pick him up at the airport.
While on the flight, the lawyer received a WhatsApp message from an unknown person who claimed he had been instructed to pick him up when he arrived at the airport. The person claimed Nana Agyei had sent him. Nana Agyei confirmed to Ontoyin that he had, indeed, sent someone named Shadrack to pick him up.
To identify Shadrack, Ontoyin requested photos of the driver and a paging board with ‘Francis Ontoyin’ on it for easy identification at the arrival lounge of the airport. They also spoke via Whatsapp video call when Ontoyin landed at the Kotoka International Airport.
The lawyer gave his friend in Ghana all the photos of Shadrack. This friend liaised with the police at the Airport Police Station to monitor Shadrack’s movements before Ontoyin could reach the departure hall. The police then arrested Shadrack.
Shadrack told the police that he had been sent by his brother who was away on a trip. He later changed his story and revealed that his “brother” was a prisoner named Nana Agyei.
The Fourth Estate can confirm from Shadrack’s cousin, who asked not to be named, that Nana Agyei is in the Ankaful Maximum Security Prison.
The source further revealed that the said Nana Agyei is actually known as Kofi Debrah. He also revealed that Shadrack and Kofi Debrah are half-brothers from the same mother. Kofi Debrah’s phone is registered in the name of Monica Donkoh and he appears to be using multiple phones.
The Fourth Estate has confirmed from sources in the Ankaful Maximum Security Prisons that Kofi Debrah is indeed a prisoner at the Ankaful Security Prison. However, we have not been able to confirm the crime for which he is in prison and the number of years he is serving.
When The Fourth Estate contacted MTN to speak to the issue, it said its subsidiary, Mobile Money Limited (MML), “has not worked on any case involving fraudulent transactions from prison inmates,” an email response signed by the company’s Head of Corporate and Legal Affairs, Paapa Osei stated.
“Reported cases of fraud are investigated using internal processes and when required, we collaborate with our regulators and state agencies, including the police, EOCO [Economic and Organised Crime Office], Cyber Security Authority, and the relevant agencies,” it added.
The Fourth Estate found that the phone numbers involved in the fraud have been reported to MTN for fraud.
However, the company said since MML was subject to the Data Protection Law, it could not respond to whether the numbers had been reported to it for fraud.
“Details on the accounts listed can only be obtained after a court order has been presented to Mobile Money Limited. All cases reported for fraud through our official channels are dealt with in line with our internal procedures and as required by law,” it said.
Asked about the protocol for dealing with mobile money fraudsters, the company said, “Any mobile money account used for illegal purposes or involved in any suspicious activity on our platform is blocked pending investigations. The affected customers (complainant/victim) are required by law to initiate the complaint and file a report with the police to begin criminal investigations.”
The company said the procedure was in line with the Payment Systems and Services Act and the Anti Money Laundering Act. It declined to state the number of mobile money fraud cases it recorded in the last five years.
However, Bank of Ghana data suggests that mobile money fraud is a growing concern. According to the data, in 2021, fraudsters succeeded in stealing GH¢12.8 million, which represents a 90.14% success rate of attempted fraud using mobile money platforms.
How prisoners smuggle contraband phones
Although Ghana’s prisons do not allow prisoners to have access to mobile phones, the Ghana Prison Service told The Fourth Estate that some prisoners find cunning ways of smuggling phones into their cells.
“People put the phone or SIM cards inside bread, soap, balls of banku, onion and so on just to outwit prison officers. It is part of the reason we are praying for detectors because currently, we do everything manually,” the Chief Public Relations Officer of the Prisons Service, Chief Superintendent Vitalis Aiyeh, said. “In some cases, the phones are dismantled and the parts smuggled into the prison in bits and assembled.”
He said in the past, the service had attempted to deploy signal jam equipment but had to suspend its usage because residents of communities in the immediate environs of the prisons were complaining about interference with their mobile network signal.
“We were threatened with court action, I think,” he said. “What we need is something that can centre in only the prisons. It is difficult blocking mobile phones from entering the prisons. They come in several forms. For officers, when you’re caught, you’re dismissed.
SIM Card registration vs. fighting MoMo fraud
One of the strongest cases the Ministry of Communication and the National Communication Authority (NCA) made for the re-registration of SIM cards was the fight against fraud.
However, the Chief Executive of the Ghana Chamber of Telecommunications, Dr Kenneth Ashigbey, indicated that many people in Ghana had not registered their SIM cards because they did not have the Ghana Card and had been granted a lifeline until May 31, 2023.
He observed that there was a possibility that some of the fraudsters may be among those yet to be disconnected.
“What surprises me is how they are able to get access to mobile phones when they are in prison,” he told The Fourth Estate.