In February 2023, Kwasi Ntim (not his real name) began receiving alerts from his bank. However, like many people, he assumed they were just random messages. But those alerts Ntim received showed that money was being withdrawn from his salary account by someone other than himself.
It was when Ntim went to use the ATM to withdraw some cash that he noticed 16 unauthorised transactions in his bank account. He told The Fourth Estate it was at that moment he recalled the previous emails he received from his banks.
According to him, all 16 alerts were from his bank’s address which they usually used in sending him notifications. He said he immediately changed his ATM card PIN and reached out to the bank’s customer care as stipulated in the Bank of Ghana’s Customer Rights and Responsibilities guidelines. Kwasi Ntim, who was at the time of the incident in Kumasi, said he also went to his “ branch in Sunyani to tell them what had happened the following Monday.”
He told The Fourth Estate that his bankers did not show much concern about the issue. “All the ups and downs proved futile. There was no sign that they were going to get me any solution to that. They [his bankers] called in three weeks’ time and asked series of repeated questions and then that was it. Then they will ask me what happened, did you leave the card somewhere?”
Kwasi said he realised it was going nowhere, so he decided to open an account with a different bank.
“… I have lost that kind of confidence in them [banks],” he said.
Kwasi’s story mirrors that of several Ghanaians who have lost money to bank fraud as a result of transactions that they were tricked into approving or sometimes, did not approve at all.
A worrying trend?
From 2019 to 2022, the Banking and Specialised Deposit-Taking Industry has reported more than 10,000 attempted fraud cases. This translates into more than GHS 1 billion as the cumulative value of loss recorded from fraud.
In 2018, the Ghana Banking Industry Fraud report said that attempted fraud cases stood at 2,175 making it the lowest in five years (2018-2022). Subsequently, the banking industry saw an increase in the number of attempted cases by 5.4 per cent in 2019 with a case count of 2,295, and 15.5 per cent in 2020 with a case count of 2,670.
In 2021 on the other hand, the number of reported fraud cases declined considerably by 12.09 per cent with a case count of 2,347. However, the number of cases jumped to 2,998 in 2022, representing an increase of 27.74 per cent from 2021, making it the highest number of cases in four years with a total loss value of GH¢56 million.
On the other hand, the highest loss value was recorded in 2021, a staggering GH¢61 million.
Per the Bank of Ghana fraud reports, this is only what is reported by financial institutions. Many other cases, however, are left unreported.
In an interview with an Assistant Director at the Financial Department of the Bank of Ghana, Dr Kwasi Osei-Yeboah, he said the rise in the case count of fraud could be due to the fact that the submission rate of fraud cases by financial institutions has improved over the years.
“When you see the number going up, in this case, fraud numbers per se, the question is are we seeing more fraud happening or are we getting more reporting happening? So, interpreting the numbers is very important. If we are seeing an increase in reporting, I think it is a positive thing. It means that our effort is yielding the results that we want. Much as you may focus probably on the numbers, we go further beyond the numbers.”
Typology of fraud with the highest cases and losses
Suppression of cash/deposits, forgery, and manipulation of documents, Cyber-email fraud, and ATM/POS fraud accounted for the highest number of cases and losses in the four-year period.
Suppression of cash/deposits (also known as cash theft) is when staff of financial institutions conceal or divert cash or cash deposits from customers. It recorded the most cases for three successive years.
Although suppression of cash/deposits has predominantly been the highest reported fraud typology of fraud from 2019 to 2022, cyber-email fraud has recorded the highest loss value in the same period.
Forgery and Manipulation of documentation involves the forgery of an authorizing signature on a genuine document or the alteration of documents, in order to inflate the original amount. As well as altering payment slips, and payment orders, and diverting fixed deposit proceeds to private investments. They were mainly perpetrated by rural bank officials who diverted money from dormant accounts into fictitious accounts.
ATM/POS fraud involves the fraudulent use of the victims’ card details for online shopping, unauthorised debits, and transfers from victims’ accounts through electronic banking. In other incidents, victims’ cards were stolen and used to make withdrawals from ATM machines. The report pointed out that “reported cases in 2020 show a general lack of security awareness amongst cardholders. Victims of such fraud usually compromise their card details or PIN details during a transaction. Their details are immediately stolen and used for unauthorized transactions.
Cyber-email fraud mainly involves sending spam mail and other forms of communication from fake addresses of banks to gain access to the recipient’s personal financial information such as bank accounts, passwords, and credit card numbers.
In some cases, victims were lured to install web-based key logger malware (a form of program or file that records keystrokes as you type) on payment platforms. Once the malware is installed, the customer’s data is copied onto the fraudster’s server. This enables the fraudster to make online purchases with the victim’s card details. As stated by the Bank of Ghana, such online payment fraud is becoming more rampant with the increase in local payment platforms.
The head of the National Computer Emergency Response Team at the Ghana Cyber Security Authority (CSA), Stephen Cudjoe-Seshie, told The Fourth Estate that while the email addresses used by fraudsters may be slightly different from that of the bank or financial institution, it could easily go unnoticed. He said there are instances where fraudsters hack the emails of financial institutions to request customers’ details.
He affirmed that another modus operandi for this type of fraud is through phone calls. This is where fraudsters call unsuspecting individuals and request their card details by posing to be staff of financial institutions.
Speaking on the high loss value, the CSA underscored the point that a lot more people are engaging in digital transactions without taking precautionary measures.
Institutions that accounted for high incidences and high loss value of fraud
Year on year, Rural and Community Banks (RCBs) account for either a high number of overall fraud cases, a high case count of staff involvement, or a high case count of loss under the various typologies of fraud. In 2019, RCBs accounted for 55% of the overall count of attempted fraud cases. In 2021, rural and community banks recorded the highest incidence of staff involvement in fraud cases (46.04%).
A total of 111 attempted fraud cases were reported by rural and community banks in 2022, which is the same number reported in 2021.
Universal banks (commercial banks) accounted for a loss of GH¢32 million which translates into 97% of the total loss recorded in 2021.
In 2022, Universal banks recorded the highest loss value for forgery and manipulation of documents.
Bank of Ghana reports suggest that the prevalence of fraud in rural and community banks is a result of weak internal control systems.
Out of this number, the Payment Service Provider (PSP) sector recorded 12,166 cases, representing 80% of the total fraud count, while the banks and SDIs reported 2,998 cases representing 20% of the total fraud count in 2022.
Staff Involvement in Bank Fraud
Data recorded over the years shows a persistent trend of staff involvement in fraud. In a span of four years, nearly half (47.84%) of all fraud cases in the banking industry involved staff of banks and specialized deposit-taking institutions, according to the Bank of Ghana’s Banking Industry Fraud Reports. Despite the numerous notices of caution sounded out to the banking industry in almost every fraud report, the phenomenon continues to increase.
Although the rate of staff involvement in fraud cases declined in 2021, the most recent report further states that about 94 per cent of the fraud cases reported as suppression of cash and deposits were perpetrated by staff (either contract or permanent) of the financial institutions.
In November 2020, five (5) National Investment Bank (NIB) employees were charged in the Accra Circuit Court for stealing GHc1,111,585.00 from the bank’s general accounts. These five (5) bank officials were accused of depositing varied sums into specific customers’ accounts and facilitating withdrawals without the authorisation of customers.
Aside from this fraud incident, 12 bankers including some staff of NIB were also involved in an NIB money heist of GHS 9.6 million. This fraudulent action was carried out in a span of five years (2015-2019) yet there has been no prosecution even after eight (8) of the bankers’ arrests.
In April 2022, a staff of Fidelity Bank Ghana Limited and three other accomplices appeared before an Accra Circuit Court for allegedly attempting to defraud the bank of GHS 2, 100,000 belonging to customers.
In June 2023, an Absa Bank staff was arrested for conspiring with eleven non-staff members to steal GH¢1,209,304.69 from the accounts of at least seven customers, including the accounts of a former Inspector General of Police and High Court Judge, over two months.
What could be accounting for this?
Banking consultant, Dr Richmond Atuahene, attributed the increment of staff involvement in fraud cases to weak control systems by financial institutions such as a lack of continuous due diligence on staff.
“… it will continue to go up because nobody is looking at the people (staff), how they were trained, how they were recruited, and who is monitoring who,” he stated.
He also revealed that in most cases, staff of financial institutions partner with outsiders to siphon money.
According to the banking consultant, the cumbersome nature of legal and judicial proceedings in matters relating to fraud in Ghana gives perpetrators room to engage in the act. He reiterated that “people are not afraid to commit crime because they go [to court] and it will take unreasonable time to even prosecute them.”
However, Deputy Chief Manager at the Financial Stability Department of the Bank of Ghana (BoG), Ashitey Trebi-Ollenu, told The Fourth Estate that the BoG is expanding its sanctions on bank fraud to the staff of banks who are involved and not just the banks.
“We have come to notice that when it (the sanction) goes to the Bank, people don’t take it seriously because the Bank pays for it (fine) but if a director fails in his duty to the bank we will not fine the bank but the director and if a staff fails in his duty, we will not fine the bank but the staff. So it is not just the bank. It is very wide,” he said.
The statistics regarding bank fraud reports are alarming, but according to Dr Kwasi Osei-Yeboah, the Bank of Ghana draws attention to these instances of fraud to ensure that the vast majority of customers remain safe.
The implications of bank fraud
Dr Richmond Atuahene emphasised that once a financial institution suffers any losses due to fraudulent activities carried out by its staff, it bears the responsibility of covering the losses. This cost is charged against the institution’s profit and loss, ultimately reducing the dividends paid to shareholders. Moreover, losses affect the equity capital (funds paid by investors in exchange for stock) of financial institutions, impair the bank’s finances, and constrain the ability of financial institutions to give out loans.
The banking expert observed that the upward trend of fraud cases can have a potentially debilitating effect on confidence in the financial service sector and may damage the integrity and stability of the economy. It can bring down banks, undermine the central bank’s supervisory role, and even create social unrest, discontent, and political upheavals.
He further states that the magnitude of fraud cases means that the banking sector is not contributing appropriately in terms of profits and taxes because they are written off. At the heart of the consequences of the increasing fraud cases are customers who lose their money in the end.
He said to reduce fraud cases, financial institutions should have a thorough understanding of online financial systems before implementing them. He added that it is important for staff to be trained on risk and internal processes to avoid any breaches.
As stated by Dr Atuahene, financial institutions should make sure that they are adequately auditing their accounts. Internal audits coupled with management reviews can be an effective way to spot signs of fraud. Besides, continuous auditing can be done once computer queries and scripts are written. In fact, tests can be programmed into live corporate systems in order to provide continuous monitoring of transactions rather than audit historical data during the normal audit process.
Additionally, financial institutions including banks, must put in place control measures and invest in technology that ensures multi-factor authentication in all their financial processes. Putting in place strong multi-factor authentication and technology that recognizes behaviours specific to fraudulent activities allows for early detection of fraud and prevents its occurrence.