Friday, 16 November 2007

Western Union, The Judiciary And Poor Folks

By Fidel Odum

IT is common knowledge that the money transfer conglomerate, America's Western Union is an international household word because of the speed with which it remits money from one end of the world to another. For years it enjoyed a virtual monopoly in Nigeria before other competitors such as Moneygram arrived on the scene. But much as Western Union is a kind of electronic open sesame for fast cash, it is increasingly causing great apprehension in the minds and hearts of many across the world. Nigeria has become a high-risk nation where the chances are very good of losing money in the system. There is, therefore, an emergency need for the cash delivery giant to revisit and tighten its security system.

In at least two cases known to this writer, substantial sums of money (in US dollars) have been stolen in the Western Union system. In other words, the intended or authorized receivers did not get the money. In order to cash money at any of the authorized points of payment (usually banks and post offices but mostly the former), an intending receiver must fill a stipulated form and produce an identity card (ID), usually a driver's license or an international passport.

In the form, the receiver is expected to fill his/her name, address and the name and address of sender. There are also provisions for city and country of both the receiver and the sender, including telephone numbers. Most important of all, the receiver must provide answer to the amount expected, the test question, test answer (password) and money control number of the transaction as given by the sender and expected to be known only to the recipient.

Unfortunately, while all the above worked smoothly for years in most cases and, to some extent, continue to work substantially well for countries with low or negligible levels of crime, in Nigeria it has become different. It is no longer secure to rely only on the major requirements of test question, answer (codeword), money control number, amount expected and use of a valid ID. Fraudsters in this country have found ways to access such information. It appears that some of the world's best criminal minds are born in this country.

After many years of living, studying and working in America, I was amazed to learn a few months before my return in 1982 that some young Nigerian students who had only spent a few months in America had mastered the most sophisticated ways of frustrating the American credit card and telephone systems. An elder brother and I were shopping at a Virginian suburb one morning in 1981 when the shop manager approached us with a name of a Nigerian girl who had swindled the shop of thousands of dollars in credit, using different cards. He pleaded for our cooperation in tracing this girl.

On another occasion, I was standing outside a telephone booth waiting for a young man to finish a call. From his loud and boisterous language I had observed that he was a Nigerian. He had spent a long time in the booth but as I proceeded to replace him he apologized for staying too long and, noticing that I was a Nigerian, he offered to help me to make my calls to any distance without paying. I politely declined his offer even as he boasted that it was all simple.

Operators of the Western Union money transfer should no longer assume that their system is theft-proof. There are now too many thefts to render this theory obsolete. We have read in one widely published case last year of three Bank officials, namely, the Head of Banking Services, the Western Union manager for an Orile Iganmu (Lagos) branch and a cashier, all women, who were arrested after so many cases of loss of money involving hundreds of thousands of dollars. During the police raid, two sacks containing licenses and international passports were intercepted as desperate efforts were being made to hurl them outside. No doubt, these licenses and passports are forgeries. There are three principal ways Western Union transfers can be frustrated:

* If the test question, answer (password), money control number and the amount sent are leaked, either through carelessness or betrayal.

* Through hackers or so-called Yahoo boys (computer fraudsters). One way this is said to happen is when someone uses a public computer (in a cyber cafZ) and fails to properly shut down the system, rather than just logging out. Computer experts claim that an observant Yahoo fraudster can deftly reopen one's email address immediately the computer user leaves the cafe, only logging out but not shutting down the computer. All of one's information can thereby be retrieved.

* By deliberate action of dishonest bank officials. This usually happens in cases where the thief observes that the receiver is timid or not very smart. In this case, he or she is usually sent off to go and crosscheck the money control number or some other detail from the sender. Invariably, on return, the money will have been stolen by the dishonest bank officer who must have passed on relevant information to an accomplice in another part of town, another bank or another city.

Other times it could be a combination of some or all of the above. To reduce theft, Western Union, taking into account the advanced nature of criminals in this country, must revise its rules for Nigeria. Firstly, it must insist on only a clearly reproducible ID. For any bank official to cash money with a blurred ID calls into question the professionalism and integrity of the bank and the official. In one case, the sum of $7000 was cashed by a bank official at Allen Avenue, Ikeja, Lagos, with a totally blurred ID and no picture was taken of the recipient as most bank do. In this particular case, the proper (intended) receiver, a Catholic priest, resides in Enugu. Yet, the bank used a Lagos address to cash the money, ignoring the one in Enugu, a church, written by the sender. Western Union insists that the address is a negligible item on the form, not minding the contradiction. This matter is awaiting hearing in court.

The Western Union, therefore, as a second step, must insist that for Nigeria or Africa, money cannot be paid in another city without first referring back to the sender for further clearance or authorization.

Thirdly, the Western Union must instruct its agents that once a transaction has been started in one bank, that bank must be held ultimately responsible for any subsequent loss. If an intending receiver is asked to go and crosscheck any item on the form, a higher official of the agent must give a written undertaking to release the cash once that condition is fulfilled. Meanwhile, the transfer must be treated as concluded by that bank while the receiver goes to contact the sender.

Finally, Western Union must insist that once any information, no matter how negligible, given by the intending receiver contradicts the one given by the sender, the transaction (though deferred for payment) cannot be concluded, while the sender's further instruction is awaited. In the case of the $7000 meant for an Enugu-based priest, the Ikeja bank paid this large sum of money even with the receiver providing a Nigerian GSM number in the space provided for the sender's number who resides in Singapore. Can there be a clearer indication of collusion between the receiver and the paying agent when coupled with contradicting addresses?

In this age of rapid communication, it is advisable that all relevant information (test question/answer and money control number) be provided through telephone call or text message.

What has helped the Nigerian racketeers is the slow nature of our judicial system. Many fraudsters know that victims, many of them poor, cannot hire lawyers and even when one can afford a lawyer, the case may never be heard. In Lagos alone, so many pending cases have not even appeared on the judicial diary. Perhaps there are too few judges, but how can injustices be redressed if the poor do not even have a chance to be heard. Many of the stolen monies lost in the Western Union system are intended for school fees, the sick in hospitals, for the jobless and socially incapacitated loved ones to eat or to fend off harassing landlords, etc. Meanwhile, the fraudsters and offending bankers are feeding fat and driving about in their air-conditioned automobiles. Today, they are "the successful ones." But the justice of God is patiently waiting for them.

Odum lives in Lagos.

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