"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


proven innocent?

Shelby Grossman has a somewhat appalling anecdote from northern Nigeria, where she's studying this summer:
Every time I access Facebook from an internet cafe I spend 10 minutes identifying pictures of friends so that Facebook knows it’s me.

I used my Mom’s password to access JSTOR the other day. Her account was canceled due to suspicious international activity.
Ah, yes, the assumption of guilt and attempted fraud until proven otherwise. It's a strategy more and more international corporations and small businesses are using with regards to Africa-based transactions. I experienced this firsthand a couple of weeks ago when trying to check in for my Delta/KLM flights to Entebbe. Their system wouldn't allow me to check in online or at the airport kiosks. When I finally got to the front of a ridiculously long line, I was informed that Delta requires passengers traveling to certain countries to present the credit card with which the ticket was purchased in order to be allowed to check in for the flight.

I found out later that this is because they assume that transactions involving the purchase of a ticket to Uganda are fraudulent. The burden of proof otherwise is on the customer.

As it happens, despite my purchase having been entirely legitimate, I could not present the card with which I'd purchased the ticket, because that card was compromised when someone booked a fabulous vacation on it with a company in Germany. The bank chopped up the old card into bits, as well they should have.

I could provide Delta with three photo ID's, the card from the same account that replaced the compromised card, and several other valid forms of identification, but Delta wouldn't have any of it. Instead, they refunded the ticket (which took 3 business days), charged it again on my new card (which, naturally, was an instantaneous transaction), and had the nerve to charge me a fee for "purchasing my ticket at the airport."

(Have I mentioned that I hate Delta and will never fly them internationally again? Or the 22 hours they made me spend in Newark?)

The irony of all this is that Delta keeps insisting that they were protecting me. "It doesn't feel that way," I told them, " when I can clearly prove my identity."

What makes me nuts is the assumption that because I was flying to Africa, it must have been fraud. Or that Facebook and Gmail don't believe that someone who's been in Nigeria for a good two months now isn't really in Nigeria. Or that no one could possibly be doing legitimate academic research on JSTOR from West Africa. Or that I couldn't get a wireless modem remotely unlocked from the DRC because I was on a satellite internet connection. These blocked purchases or use of systems aren't because of a block from my bank (which, of course, I called beforehand to notify that I would be here); it's the corporations themselves that are blocking transactions before they're allowed to happen.

Fraud happens everywhere. This kind of thinking on the part of businesses certainly reflects legitimate concerns about fraud protection. Never mind that the only international fraud ever committed using any of my accounts came not from central Africa, but from Germany.

But it also reflects knee-jerk prejudice and the willingness to write off an entire continent of people as liars and cheaters. The consequences of this attitude are far reaching, in ways as varied as the crazy TSA decision a few months back to require extra screening of all passengers associated with Nigeria to immigration rules that assume most citizens of developing countries wouldn't want to come home to their families and homes.

Furthermore, by making it more difficult for Africans and others on the continent to conduct business, purchase goods and services, and engage with the rest of the world, international companies are setting back Africa's economic development even further.

That's not okay.


Anonymous Matt said...

I would hesitate to say that they are writing off an entire continent. I've worked in east and south-east Africa for quite some time without any hassle from Facebook, airlines, or my bank (I ran around using my ATM card and wrong checks without even notifying them).

My biggest inconvenience ever wasn't caused by extra security checks, but by my bank in Malawi selling copies of my cheques to someone who forged them, then tried to extract money out of my account. It only failed because they had tried it on my friend (Ranil!) the previous today (and succeeded!).

It seems like most of the knee-jerk reactions are from US corporations - I think the rest of the world is a little bit less hysterical. Something in between is probably optimal.

Monday, July 05, 2010 4:00:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Yeah, the fact that your bank is in Malawi or wherever probably had a lot to do with it seeming natural that you would use your cards there. This whole thing seems pretty recent to me; I haven't had these problems in the past, and of course, my accounts are all US-based.

Monday, July 05, 2010 7:28:00 AM

Blogger bankelele said...

It seems to be a different policy decision at a company. e.g. I picked out a hotel I wanted to stay at in London but when I tried to make an online reservation (from Nairobi), the buttons remained inactive. I even sent them an e-mail but nothing happened. So i tried my second choice hotel (Radisson) and the booking went through ok, reserved and paid for by credit card. So the first hotel lost out
- also its true that even from here - Kenyan credit cards, in the fine print, explicitly state that their cards cannot be used in some countries.

Monday, July 05, 2010 7:51:00 AM

Anonymous Ranil Dissanayake said...

TIA - actually, it was two banks involved: we were using UK cheques to pay money into a Malawian bank - the UK banks in question had no problem with the arrangement, which is why when my cheques got cloned, the fraud wasn't detected immediately.

I have to say, after five years in Africa, I almost never pay for anything using my debit card or credit card anymore. I just use cash whenever I can. It's not because my bank blocks the payments, it's because I've had so many fraud attempts on my bank accounts, and it normally comes from using the cards in a restaurant or business and the clerk taking down the details and selling them. The next step is normally trying to make a big purchase at some dummy company and pocketing the money. This happens pretty frequently.

It's of course wrong to blanket-ban cards used from Africa or any parts of it, but there is reason for higher security - frauds on cards in places where chip and pin technology has been completely pahsed in are much rarer (in much of Africa, people still take imprints of the card, and thus can easily take down your security number on the back and use the information to make purchases).

Monday, July 05, 2010 8:02:00 AM

Anonymous Linda @meowtree said...

I'm not sure if it's Africa or not. I tried to purchase a Nokia phone on the Nokia website in the US. Denied: please call your cc company. I called my cc, and they had authorized it. Called Nokia and they wouldn't allow me to purchase because I had put in a different shipping and billing addresses, which apparently means fraud. The refund took 5 days to appear, without me being able to purchase the phone. I went on Amazon (where I'm a 'known' and habitual customer) and was able to buy the exact same phone (and for less) using my cc and a different shipping/billing address. The next week, tried to purchase 3 phones from 'Cell Hut' (online) and was only allowed to charge less than $700. Above that is fraud alert. My credit card has been suspended before for purchasing electronics online in the US also, even though they were all legit purchases. I have to call the cc company before I travel each time to alert them where I'm going or my card won't work. Such a pain. And yes, all for my own good, apparently. Can't they look at my purchase patterns and travel patterns to know that these are normal things for me to use my cc card to do? They seem to be able to use all that info to market to me....

Monday, July 05, 2010 8:24:00 AM

Anonymous Shelby said...

A similar thing happened with my Delta/KLM flight to Kano. I didn't have the credit card I had used to purchase the ticket. It took twenty minutes of negotiating to convince them to give me a boarding pass.

Monday, July 05, 2010 9:08:00 AM

Blogger bangers said...

i've never had trouble from facebook or credit card companies in east africa (rwanda, uganda, kenya), but i was in egypt recently and facebook made me identify my friends each time i used a new computer.
i think they probably pick and target specific countries that are fraud hotspots.

Monday, July 05, 2010 1:02:00 PM

Anonymous hash said...

Did Shelby delete that post? I can't find it from your link or on that blog.

Monday, July 05, 2010 2:43:00 PM

Anonymous jina said...

I had to do that on Facebook from either burundi or the CAR, I forget now. Met a woman in a cafe today in Freetown who can't access Facebook now, after having had to do that three times.

And the first time I flew Delta to Accra, they also asked me for the card, which I simply didn't bring. I talked them into letting me on the plane after a long charade of identity questions, but they hassled my home number for weeks after that about verifying the card... Never had that problem flying to east africa though.

sorry about newark!

Monday, July 05, 2010 7:29:00 PM

Anonymous wachumi said...

@Ranil: for my information, i wonder if you are you able to say which countries you spent your five years in Africa?

Generally speaking most of what you write about is pretty standard in other parts of the globe,especially South Asia,the Subcontinent - India&Pakistan - and some parts of the Middle East (here in Australia ATM skimming is all the rage!)yet i dont see such draconian measures being inacted to counter this. I am told India (Bombay & New Delhi) are particularly bad with many a traveller have experienced these fraud schemes there...indeed i reckon the "strategies" in Africa are simply bad versions from the subcontinent elsewhere.

I am aware that India etc tend to have higher volumes of tourists so maybe the costs to corporations related to negative customer satisfation from of imposing such general and blunt measures outweight the benefit?

Monday, July 05, 2010 9:15:00 PM

Anonymous Ranil Dissanayake said...

Wachumi - Malawi,Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Liberia and a few other countries. actually, at the moment, I'm not able to use my debit card at all after the most recent fraud attempt.

I don't dispute that fraud is common in many places - if you read my comment I say it's where chip and pin has completely been phased in that fraud is less common - and of course ATM skimming is still possible in such places.

Given the hassle I have to go through to get my bank to issue me with new cards when I've been victim of fraud, it's easier for me to use them as little as possible. I'd do the same in Asian countries where fraud is common. It's not been an issue for me at all in Hong Kong, the Asian country I go to most often, because it's almost always chip and pin that is used.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010 1:31:00 AM

Blogger Adam Hooper said...

"Knee-jerk reaction" is a bit unfair. In all likelihood these companies have created formulas which maximize use and minimize fraud. Their goal is to make money, and if employees lazily did that with no more than stereotypes about African countries, they'd be fired without hesitation. Not because it's unfair: because it's unprofitable. Instead they likely created a "neural network" (learning machine) which makes stereotypes rationally based on present trends.

"Short-sighted" maybe. (I'd argue "medium-sighted".) But perfectly rational.

I've had more issues with suspected fraud from Bank of America in the States than I've ever had in Africa. When I go to Africa I inform my bank, and that phone call becomes yet another input in the giant anti-fraud formula.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010 12:51:00 AM

Blogger Michel S. said...

With regards to the Facebook issue, that does not only happen in Africa. I'm in Germany, and was visiting a friend in a different city that's only 1.5 hours away by train, and got hit by the same security measure.

And was it not.. umm.. suspicious behavior, anyway, to use someone else's JSTOR account?

Friday, July 09, 2010 9:56:00 AM

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010 1:36:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Has anyone had any luck fighting this? I'm in Kampala I just won an auction on ebay only to have my account cancelled as I went through PayPal's drawn out process of account verification (they're depositing small amounts into my account, then I verify that I received them and tell them the amount). I'll try calling them tomorrow but I'm not hopeful...

Friday, August 13, 2010 5:35:00 PM


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