Job seekers in Africa suffer at hands of online scammers

From careers in banking to roles in globe-spanning agencies, social media in Africa is awash with lucrative job offers. But an investigation by AFP Fact Check found that many of these alleged ads are bogus, designed to extract cash or steal personal data.

Freshly out of college in Kenya – a country with more than 1.6 million unemployed youth – Job Mwangi was shortlisted for a field assistant position at the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) advertised on LinkedIn.

After passing two online tests, he was asked to pay Sh 2,000 ($20) in “facilitation fees”.

Screenshot showing a section of an email message Mwangi received from the scammers

“Everything about the job posting seemed legit,” Mwangi told AFP Fact Check in a recent interview. “I was asked to pay 1,000 Kenyan shillings ($10) for medical and radiology tests… But the tests didn’t happen since I was told that they would be done at the UN offices on interview day.”

A shuttle bus meant to transfer Mwangi and more than 30 other job seekers to the UN office never showed.

“We waited for about one hour for the UN bus but it did not arrive, so we decided to take a bus on our own. On arrival at the gate, we mentioned that we had been invited for interviews with UNEP and the security officers manning the gate laughed at us telling us that we’d been scammed.”

Mwangi filed a police report but says he has heard nothing since.

Promise of easy money

This type of scam is far from uncommon in Africa. UN agencies regularly warn job seekers about hoax ads.

“The United Nations Environment Programme does not charge a fee at any stage of its recruitment process (application, interview, processing, training) or other fees, or request information on applicants’ bank accounts,” UNEP says on its website.

UNICEF, another frequent target, has also issued warnings on its social media platforms.

Searches on Facebook with the keywords "jobs”, “Kazi” (Swahili for “work”) and “recruitment' reveal dozens of suspicious pages featuring bogus job vacancies cleverly crafted to lure hopefuls.

Image shows a job scam notification by Kenya's Huduma Centre - a government agency that provides public services ( AFP / TONY KARUMBA)

The messages follow a familiar pattern: they have short deadlines, promise high salaries, and often include a hyperlink to an external online platform requesting personal information.

Scammers also use logos of reputed organisations and companies to lend credibility to their spoof emails.

Code for Africa, a data journalism and civic technology initiative, found that in 2020 – when job losses soared during the Covid-19 pandemic – some 30 Facebook accounts, groups and pages with over 184,000 followers targeted unsuspecting job hunters in Kenya with sham ads.

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

Many send money without hesitation, hoping this will help them in the race to get the position.

“Most online job scams aim to con unsuspecting people into sending money and once this money is sent the scammer disappears,” Kenyan cybersecurity expert Anthony Muiyuro told AFP Fact Check.

LinkedIn said it was investing in ways to tackle the problem.

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

Africa-wide issue

The problem also affects other African nations including Nigeria, which has more than 23 million unemployed people.

They include Ayobambo Taiwo, a 29-year-old from the southern Ondo state who lost her job in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic.

When she spotted a vacancy with Nigeria's Customs Service, she jumped at the opportunity advertised on Facebook.

She said she paid 25,000 naira [$60] to an alleged customs agent to secure employment.

"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 sensed foul play and told him to refund my money but he stopped picking up my calls since then."

Job cons are also a frequent hazard in South Africa, whose unemployment rate is the highest on the continent - more than a third of its labour force is jobless.

Bogus adverts there typically claim to offer relatively good, entry-level wages up to 10,000 Rands ($630) without any qualifications.

Poorly written Facebook posts are continuously recycled to promote thousands of work opportunities, often with national retailers, the police or the military.

Lockdowns imposed during the coronavirus pandemic, which caused many Africans to be thrown onto the job market, made for especially rich pickings.

AFP Fact Check debunked dozens of false job claims in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa at the pick of the crisis (see here, here, and here).

Compromised security

As part of efforts to crack down on job scams, a man in South Africa was jailed for eight years in 2020 for defrauding job seekers of R95,000 ($6,036).

Kenyan police last year arrested four people for allegedly swindling victims out of millions of shillings with fake employment offers from the Teachers Service Commission (TSC).

The suspects, thought to belong to a crime ring, had opened several fake Facebook accounts in the name of TSC Chief Executive Officer Nancy Macharia, and duped people into paying over fees in exchange for jobs that didn’t exist.

Watchdogs say a common ploy is to get the job-seeker to fill out forms giving personal information – a clear opportunity for blackmail or identity theft.

Muiyuro advises simple but thorough precautions: check the official organisation or company website or LinkedIn page to verify the job opening, "or reach out to friends or acquaintances who work in the organisation".

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