AN intricate online scamming syndicate is targeting African non-profit-making organisations, including those operating in Zimbabwe, by purporting to advance grants to the unsuspecting institutions before defrauding them of hundreds of dollars if they take the bait, it has emerged.
Cumulatively, the syndicate can make a killing after robbing several unsuspecting organisations.
Investigations unearthed that the syndicate, based in Kenya, purports to be running a donor organisation domiciled in the United Kingdom (UK), with a digital trail traced to December last year.
The involved outfits that morph from one name to another as it suits them, currently call themselves Legitimacy Centre Africa (LECAFRICA) with their most recent address in Eldoret, Kenya and the African Social Transformation Fund (ASTRAFU), which runs a website addressed at 7 Redman Pl in London.
The investigation gathered that in terms of their modus operandi, ASTRAFU, takes a lead role where it writes to selected NGOs and invites them to submit concept notes for funding.
According to ASTRAFU’s website, which went down on 2 November 2023 — a day after a phone inquiry of this investigation — it provides grants of a minimum of US$5 000 to a maximum of US$54 500 to “successful” applicants.
ASTRAFU will then refer its “successful” applicants to LECAFRICA — which it describes as its consultant — to verify the legitimacy of an NGO, community-based organisation (CBO) or company before a grant is supposedly released.
“Up to this stage, you won’t suspect much because the communication is done so professionally. They then ask you to write to Legitimacy Centre Africa (red flag) asking to be reviewed by it so that, if you succeed, you are given a certificate of legitimacy and credibility that will then be used as the basis to obtain funding,” stated a Zimbabwean non-profit organisation that was fished by the scammers on 7 September 2023.
Normally, one would expect the donor to introduce the consultant to the applicant. Most interestingly, documents obtained during investigations indicate that the “verified” applicants then have to pay a fee to be given a Legitimacy Certificate, which is key to accessing the funding.
It was gathered that the online scammers are targeting specific African countries such as Zimbabwe, Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan and Kenya.
Organisations from these countries are charged varying amounts. According to an invoice sent by LECAFRICA to a local NGO, Zimbabwe is charged the highest fee of US$155, followed by Rwanda at US$150.
Uganda is charged US$135 followed by Kenya and South Sudan, which both have the same pegged fee of US$130 while charities or companies in Tanzania are charged the least (US$125).
The applicants are directed to transfer the funds via Mobile Money Payment Method Safaricom to mobile number +254741276555.
Rwanda and Tanzanian charities were to use an undisclosed bank account, only provided upon request. Information gathered revealed that the line is registered to Obudho Maxwel Ojijo of Kandiege, Kenya.
It was observed that the aim is to lure many unsuspecting charities to settle the relatively small fee in the hope of receiving the grant, which will never materialise.
Apparently, the larger scheme is that once an NGO sahres its banking details, which it requests as a payment condition for the release of the purported certificate of legitimacy and credibility, the scammer will then use the information to defraud the unsuspecting applicant.
It was not immediately evident, though, if any of the targeted organisations had fallen for the trap. Investigations supported by the Information for Development Trust — a non-profit outfit exposing corruption, mal-administration and illicit financial flows — traced back the digital footprint of the online scam to December last year.
“You write to Legitimacy Centre, which then asks you for an array of documents that include your banking details (red flag). The centre also asks you to pay a fee to be reviewed by it (red flag) and gives you a tight deadline (red flag). When you ask them for references of which organisations they have reviewed, they refer you back to ASTRAFU,” added the targeted local NGO.
Documents, which highlight correspondents between the local NGO and the scamming syndicate through ASTRAFU informed the former that their “project proposal successfully qualified for donation worth US$40 500.”
The scammers dangle huge grants, hoping to lure purported recipients to settle verification fees. They then cut all communications with a victim, request for more money or morph into another entity to prey on new victims.
Fake address, images and ghost staffers
The UK postcode — E25 3JP — ASTRAFU was making use of on its website “does not qualify” as a British one, according to a UK website Check My Postcode.
Moreover, a quick verification on Google Maps of the given address — 7 Redman Place (Pl) London — drew blanks though the road exists.
Therefore, the office site could not be positively identified. Further searches on UK government harmonised website — GOV.UK revealed that ASTRAFU is not registered under the Charity Commissioforn England and Wales.
While it claims to boast of 100 employees led by an eight-member management committee presided by one John Patrick, Google Image Search of all the managers could not come up with a digital footprint for any of the managers.
Images featured on the website to give it an appeal that it was heavily involved in the African set up, were merely derived from FreePik – an online portal that provides free picture downloads.
Also, another UK online portal that verifies and rate website, Even Sight, stated that ASTRAFU’s domain name was registered on 10 August 2023 — the United States of America.
Even Sight further rated ASTRAFU as a suspicious website , had very few visitors, less than a year after registration and did not have any8 social media network links let alone reviews from users.
“Social networks are an excellent way to connect with your customers, which is why all big web stores have links to their social profiles. That is why web stores without social media profiles are suspicious,” stated Web Paranoid – another online portal that verifies the legitimacy of websites.
Link between ASTRAFU and ACOFU
Further digital footprint gathered linked ASTRAFU to another fake website under the name African Community Fund (ACOFU).
The website was registered in Kenya on 14 December 2022, according to Web Paranoid. The site went on to vanish six months after registration before it reincarnated as ASTRAFU in August.
It was observed that while ASTRAFU operated together with the Kenyan-based Legitimacy Centre Africa, ACOFU also operated in unison with Verify Africa based in the same country.
The two verification centres were conducting the same services and acted as consultants for their sister “donor” entities.
Mobile money transfer details provided by the two verification consultants also lead to the two individuals, namely Obudho Maxwel Ojijo and Rev. Augustine Ojijo.
The striking similarities of the surnames of the two Kenyans is too much of a coincidence. Cross examination of ACOFU and ASTRAFU website contents indicated that they used the same key mission statement, which reads; “A new era of humanitarian action; solving African challenges with lasting impact.”
Several Kenyan nationals have publicly called out the syndicate. A Kenyan national Rogers Omollo – a social impact leader and change catalyst, warned about the syndicate which he labelled as scammers in a LinkedIn post he shared in April. “. . . There are individuals and groups who are impersonating donors and verification partners of projects supported by foreign funders around the world. These fraudsters and criminals are scamming NGOs and CBOs by requesting concept notes and full proposals, and then directing organisations to a supposed verification partner who requests payment for services,” Omollo warned as he singled out ACOFU and Verify Africa.
“Right now they (ACOFU) are using the organisation name ASTRAFU,” said Ernest Magina, another Kenyan within the NGO sector sector lamented that he nearly fell victim to the scammers. Magina was targeted a month ago.
“They took me through the process provided then led me to the verification. What made it look fishy was the sending money via MPESA,” added Magina.
M-PESA (M for mobile, PESA is Swahili for money) is a mobile phone-based money transfer service, payments and micro-financing service, launched in 2007 by Vodafone and Safaricom, the largest mobile network operator in Kenya. It is the equivalent of Ecocash in Zimbabwe.
While it is a widely used mobile money transfer platform, it must be pointed out that grant based organisations prefer the usage of the banking sector as a more reliable and safe platform.
He added that the faces behind the syndicate once threatened to sue for defamation but never followed through.
ASTRAFU’s UK number, and the two Kenyan numbers used by the Ojijo’s including the LECAFRICA’s official number are all out of service as the scammers strive to cover their tracks.
While some NGOs and CBOs that were approached by the syndicate were identified during the course of the investigation, they all said they were wise enough to detect the deception.
However, others like Omollo lamented that though no funds were taken, he feels that he was robbed off his intellectual property as submitted a concept note. Funds For NGOs stated that donor scams are currently the top most used scams.
“NGOs unexpectedly receive an email or a social media post or a WhatsApp or text message which says that a certain Foundation has selected your organization to offer grant funding and you just need to respond to this email. When gullible NGOs respond back and start a chain of email communication with the fraudster, they end up paying some money with the hope of getting this ‘large’ grant,” reads an article on how to distinguish genuine grants and scams.