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Nairobi has developed a reputation for theft and robbery that has been difficult for police to combat, despite a decline in many types of crimes.
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Nairobi has long struggled to shake off the nickname Nairobbery, but Mike Pflanz discovers during a day with a CID detective that most crime figures are falling.
Behind the frosted glass door of an empty office in one of Nairobi’s largest banks, Corporal Patrick Simiyu is quietly meeting a source.
In February, hackers broke through the Cooperative Bank’s online security and illegally transferred half-a-million dollars from customers’ accounts onto 480 cellphones hooked up to Kenya’s mobile money scheme, M-Pesa.
When they began withdrawing the cash, computer alerts sounded.
Since then, Mr. Simiyu, 41, has painstakingly been building his case. Trawling records from the phone company, running surveillance on suspects, and partnering closely with the bank’s own investigations team, today he’s close to an arrest.
“These kinds of electronic crimes, they are something new, something I’ve only really started seeing in the last four or five years,” he told me earlier, in his dimly-lit office at Nairobi’s Criminal Investigations Division headquarters.
“It’s not like the old days when someone would walk into a bank with a gun and steal all the money. People are using computers, the thieves have become much more sophisticated, we have to constantly improve our learning to be ahead of them.”
Born to a poor family of farmers in a small village four hours drive northwest of Nairobi, Simiyu knew he would one day be a policeman here in the capital.
His father, although not wealthy, was an important man, a village elder called upon to arbitrate disputes over stolen livestock, farm boundaries or cheating middlemen.
“We were not allowed to be in the room for these meetings,” said Simuyu, today a quiet-spoken, methodical man with a quick smile. “But he would tell us stories afterward, I would always offer advice.
“To be a policeman, for me it was not just about getting employed in a job, it was because it was something I really wanted to do. And I think the dream of doing this job I do now, it started there, with my father, talking about those disputes.”
Twenty years after he first joined up, Simiyu is now a lead detective at the Anti-Fraud and Forensic Investigations department, headquartered in a narrow room decorated in the maroon, navy and cream livery of the Kenya Police.
Neckties, already knotted and ready for court appearances, hung on bent nails. Half-a-dozen metal filing cabinets with busted locks lined the walls. The electricity came and went.
Today, Simiyu’s working on four cases. The half-million-dollar mobile money fraud. Another involving checks stolen last year which have just turned up being used to pay for electricity bills. A third where a woman was conned out of a $190,000 deposit she put down to buy land that the seller didn’t own.
And – the most high-profile – a huge daylight theft by tricksters disguised as security guards who turned up to a bank masquerading as a team hired to move money, and then calmly walked out with more than $1 million in cash.