A deadly fire is all that betrayed a suspected Chinese hacker group in Kenya believed to be trying to infiltrate banks, mobile money transfer networks, and ATMs.
So far, police have arrested and charged 77 Chinese nationals in connection with activities in an upscale Nairobi suburb. During the raids, police found soundproof rooms fashioned like military dorms that were full of computer equipment and outfitted with high-speed Internet connections, which is uncommon in Kenya.
The discovery of what police call a cybercrime command center comes as Kenya is experiencing a wave of computer crime, with criminal hackers carrying out phishing campaigns to extort money from citizens and launching attacks on banks. The arrests are a fortunate break for a police force struggling to contain the problem.
Kenya loses $22.8 million annually to computer crime, according to a recent report on cybersecurity from Serianu Limited, a Kenyan IT and business consulting firm. In 2013 alone, the company found, bank customers lost $17 million through fraudulent schemes involving their employees. It said the number of cyberattacks there has climbed to 5.4 million in 2013 from 2.6 million in 2012.
Cybercrime in Kenya has been "going on unnoticed for sometime," says Richard Tutah, a security expert. "People have lost lots of money through this crime. The ordinary people take it for granted, but they will not from now on. We have to take this very seriously and fight it with same zeal as we are fighting terrorism."
In Kenya, the perpetrators of computer fraud and criminal hacks are rarely found or arrested, say experts. In this recent case, fire blamed on a malfunctioning computer server revealed the suspects. With the fire spreading quickly, killing one person, the Chinese nationals refused help from their Kenyan neighbors, creating suspicion that prompted them to call the police.
An eyewitness who visited the houses following the fire said computer equipment was everywhere inside. “There were seven houses being used by the Chinese. I think some escaped the raid,” says the witnesses, who did not want to be named.
So far, charges facing the suspects include being in Kenya illegally and running radio equipment without the necessary permit. Prosecutors say they will add more charges for the remanded suspects, as they moved to the High Court, seeking bail.
Chinese Ambassador to Kenya Liu Xiafana was called by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to explain if his government was aware of the suspects, who held Chinese passports. There's no indication that they were connected to the Chinese government.