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Hundreds of Kenyan social media users have been duped by a fraudulent charity that claimed to have made shocking discovery of a warzone in Somalia. It was in fact only operating in Kenyan cities, robbing hundreds of people of their savings.

The scam, which has turned social media into a playground for cyber criminals, surfaced after two Kenyan universities declared a national state of emergency and issued floodgates of SMS alerts because of another, unrelated cyber attack.

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“I just opened a Facebook account and within a few days it exploded with money,” said one of the victims who did not want to be named.

“My problems began when I learnt I’d forgotten to pay a Sh5,000 [$50] monthly fee. After one day of checking my bank accounts online I received about Sh120,000 from what I thought was a cash transfer.

“I still need to explain to my kid, boyfriend and maybe parents that we are going through a major problem,” the graduate student said, adding that he believes he was conned because of the nature of his money transfer – as with the university alerts he received a text message.

“Some even said they didn’t know that I was fraudulently involved.”

The estimated 350 affected victims – all are university students and staff – are being counselled to get some semblance of normality back.

“Social media acts as a nerve centre for scammers and every time a communication is initiated, it can be suspect,” Evelyne Nganga, a manager at the Association of Universities of Kenya told the Guardian.

“It has also been known that scammers use WhatsApp and SMSes for their scams, as there are no specific channels available for such distress messages.”

This is the latest to make headlines in a region where cyber crime is rife.

Last week, mobile phone users in Kenya and Nairobi, as well as elsewhere in East Africa, received annoying notifications from false WhatsApp alerts, warning of a cyber attack.

The alert, which said hackers had been following Kenyans to their computers via mobile phone networks, warned: “Your emails are being hacked into and uploaded to WhatsApp to inform you that a virus or malware has been detected.”

Officials at Safaricom, Kenya’s largest telecoms network, announced that they were investigating the scam and would “resolve the problem as quickly as possible”.

The latest exploits were likely preceded by a surge in demand for unlicensed mobile phone sim cards, which have mushroomed in size and popularity in recent years.

“We can’t blame Kenya’s booming e-commerce for this problem because the internet is awesome. However, the current state of insecurity – either on the borderlands or urban city centres – has created a genuine black market for sim cards,” says Bob Cheembe, of the online media watchdog Tabitica.

“Often the numbers can be higher than the value of the money deposited. And then you get cheques that even criminals have trouble depositing.”

He added: “Since sim cards are easily accessible to the cyber bad guys in Kenyatta, Kisumu, Nairobi, Nakuru and Mombasa, we are facing a serious threat. We need to see real-time alerts given out on issues relating to cyber crime.”

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