June 28, 2019

“Wealth Fitness” Fraud Conference Speaks To How “Developed” We Have Become

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Before the “conference” turned rowdy, the mood around was normal like any of the global events that take place at the KICC; posters and delegates mingling around. All that was about to explode in the next few minutes

An unusual event took place in Kigali this Tuesday, June 25. A company known as “Wealth Fitness International” organized a fake international conference and swindled an estimated 6,000 youths of their money!

As The Chronicles reported on Wednesday, the youths “came from all corners of Rwanda….Many borrowed money hoping to win quick returns” but were “conned by an unknown group” of individuals.

The conference was supposed to “teach” attendees how to “get rich” and after the conference, each participant would get a bonus worth US$197 (about Rwf 190,700).

To be eligible to attend however, attendees had to first pay an entrance fee divided into three categories: Expert, Rwf 4,550, VIP, Rwf, 13,650 and Diamond, Rwf 23,300).

And, as is often the case with such fraud schemes, the thieves informed their unsuspecting targets that: “In order to guarantee your seat at this event, please purchase one of the… (above) packages or you can purchase via mobile phone: 0781990341”.

The “conference” was supposed to take place at the Kigali International Conference Center (KICC) that also houses the high-end Radisson Blu Hotel.

And on the day of the conference, many tuned up. As The Chronicles reported, instead of being ushered into the conference hall, “A team [of individuals] acting busy arrived to announce that those who had not paid for the ticket can pay at the entrance. There was a big fight [to pay first]” and “Those paying Rwf 5,000 notes did not even bother to claim their change”.

Interestingly, even after paying at the entrance, the conference didn’t take place! Instead, after realizing they had been swindled of their money, a struggle to recover their money ensued that drew in the Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB), leading to some arrests of the swindlers.

While it’s not clear how much was stolen, media reports indicated that “unconfirmed reports say organizers collected about Rwf 30 million” on the gate but “what was paid via mobile money isn’t known”.

This kind of “enlightened” stealing at a high-end hotel is highly unusual in the country especially due to the usual alertness and presence of security at such places.

So, how was it possible to pull off this scheme without our intelligence services learning of it or security at the hotel detecting it? Most important, what does it tell us about the state of our development as a country?

Some on social media attributed the theft to the “mindset” and “get rich mentality” that makes some individuals less likely to question such nefarious schemes.

This mentality is also related to what I have written about elsewhere; which is the culture of expecting “free” things from government and donors among many Rwandans.

Others attributed the success of this fraud to high unemployment and the dangers it portends for the country. This explanation holds a lot of water.

In fact, while official unemployment figures are relatively low, there is evidence to suggest that joblessness and poverty is very high.

For example, while the national institute of statistics reported in 2017 that unemployment stood at 16.7% and youth unemployment at 21%, its survey shows that 91% of those employed are in the informal sector and “About 30 per cent of the population were found to be underemployed”.

If 91% of the employed are in the informal sector, it means that unemployment is higher considering that there are so many in this sector who have no reliable income except to wake up and say they are going to work without knowing where money will come from.

In addition, the same survey conducted by the National Institute of Statistics in collaboration with the Ministry of Labour showed that “The average income from paid employment…was about Rwf55, 934 per month while the median was Rwf20,800”.

Considering the high and increasing cost of living, it’s plausible to say that earning less than Rwf 60,000 isn’t something one can reliably say is dependable employment.

In total, “unemployed people totaled 606,997 as of February” 2017, says the say survey by the National institute of statistics. This include the educated and the uneducated.

However, in 2017 alone, the University of Rwanda graduated more than 8,000 and has been graduating this or more numbers every year for the last two decades. If we add those who graduate from private universities, the numbers are even higher. This means that there are far more unemployed graduates than the survey was able to capture.

In that sense therefore, the big turn up for this fake conference in the hope of getting some dollars reflects the double challenge the government faces; which is how to solve high unemployment and rampant poverty.

That said, this unusual fake conference speaks to two further factors that haven’t been discussed and yet they explain why even detecting this fraud wasn’t possible until the deed was done.

The factors are what I would call the effect of our “local development” and the widespread access to mobile telephony technology that allows individuals to exchange money without the intervention of the traditional middlemen like banks.

Let’s explain further.

First, fraud related to promises to double one’s money, income or making someone wealthy isn’t new. What’s new in this case it the scale, the method used and the place it took place.

In the past, fraud was individual. That’s, the conman or woman would approach an individual with promises of doubling their money at a certain fee. Or someone would start a cooperative and use it to steal from members or, in some born-again churches, some pastors would promise wealth to individuals who paid handsomely for their prayers.

This time, a large group of individuals were conned without ever meeting their cheats or knowing them. How did they gain their trust?

To understand this large-scale swindle, one needs to understand the role the Kigali International Convention Center plays in Rwanda’s current development discourse and how it must have affected the minds of those who trusted fraudsters.

The Convention center is not only the most visible symbol of status, affluence and development in the country today, but is also well guarded and reputable-thus far. That anyone could suspect it could be used for fraud was, until it happened, unimaginable.

In fact, many ordinary souls and the less fortunate are intimidated by this structure that, if you ask some, they even think visiting it requires some kind of payment!

We could therefore say that many individuals trusted the organizers of this event largely because of the venue used! It could also be true that those in charge of intelligence and security became less suspicious because of the same factor!

It’s unlikely that if the organizers had used some ramshacled or poorly reputed hotel, they would have attracted the numbers they did.

We could, in that sense say that these fraudsters succeeded, at least in getting the money, because they were “innovative” and imaginative!

This also tells us that, as it were, the more joblessness and poverty bite, the more the educated devise ways of putting food on the table; however dubiously.

Finally, organizers largely used social media to advertise and market the event and were only able to raise money prior to the day of the conference only because of the availability of mobile money services where individuals use their own phone to pay for services without going through any third parties like banks.

That tells us that advance in technology hasn’t only brought opportunities and eased our life, but also risks. And it will get worse before it gets better.

That said, it’s still baffling that such fraud could take place without the knowledge of management or security at the Convention. More answers are needed.

The larger lesson though is that everything should be done to address the problem of high unemployment, rising cost of living and low wages that drive these kinds of frauds and worse─including insecurity.

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