LAKE PLACID — A local mission’s plan to buy land for a school in Kenya has been torn asunder by an email scam.
Reason2Smile has generated thousands of dollars for Jambo Jipya Academy and Children’s Home in Mtwapa, Kenya, for seven years now.
Founder Keela Dates Grimmette, who is from Lake Placid, spearheads fundraising on the U.S. side, working with the school’s founder and director, Christine Mwende.
They raise about $100,000 annually to provide education in 13 classrooms for 300 students, many of whom are orphaned or at risk.
The two use wire money transfers — about two each month — and have worked this way for four years.
In October last year, Reason2Smile transferred $17,000 to Jambo Jipya’s Barclays Bank account, And the school’s director received the money.
But the money was stolen by an email scam, Grimmette said.
“The money was to purchase the land the school is currently built on,” she said Tuesday.
But then email conversations went awry.
“Through the course of the next three weeks, I was receiving emails from someone whom I thought was Christine, putting me off from calling her directly.”
Postponed contact did not seem out of the ordinary, at first.
“I knew one of her family members had passed away,” Grimmette said.
“When it happened three weeks in a row, I finally just called. It was early November. We had a normal conversation, and I asked how the project was coming. That’s when she said she transferred the money to Uganda, ‘like you asked me to.’”
Grimmette said it turned out that Mwende, in Kenya, had been receiving emails during the same time from someone pretending to be her.
The emails authorized Mwende to send money to two projects in Uganda.
“One was a project supposedly for widowed women struggling with HIV and AIDS,” Grimmette said. “She (Mwende) sent a wire transfer of $6,000 to a random woman in Uganda; she thought I told her to.
“Then, she transferred over $10,000 to a bank account within Barclays that was supposed to be used to buy two big incubators for the school, so we could raise chickens. That is something we had never discussed before, and Christine had questioned it several times in emails to the person pretending to be me.
“Apparently, they had convinced her that this is what she should be doing.”
The $10,000 Barclays transaction occurred about a week before Grimmette called the school director in Kenya.
When the women realized they had been victimized, she said, Mwende called Barclays to report the fraudulent bank account.
“Barclays could not actually do anything until Kenya’s Central Bank filed a report to Barclays, saying you must put a hold on this account,” Grimmette said.
By the time the paperwork was complete, the scammers had already withdrawn $8,000 of that $10,000 deposit.
“The other agency we are working with is the Kenya Fraud Police, and they are excellent,” Grimmette said.
“They work very intensely with the entire police system in Kenya and identified the individual who they believe is responsible. They believe he is Ugandan and that he has done this before. They haven’t caught him yet. He is on the run.”
The $6,000 wire transfer likely cannot be recovered, unless it is connected to this ring, Grimmette said.
But the Barclays money might be retrieved.
“They are going to try their best to find this individual and seize his accounts.”
The scam took its toll — and not on just the land-purchase plan, which is on hold.
“To me, the biggest thing was being able to trust everybody at the school again,” Grimmette said. “Being so far away, knowing the struggles that happen there in Kenya. Part of it was that all the emails she had been receiving, she went to look for them, and they were all gone.”
Since the Internet hacking scam, Reason2Smile has had a land line installed and will no longer rely on cellphone calls to discuss financial transactions.
And no purchasing decisions will be made without voice-to-voice discussion.
Grimmette is traveling to Kenya again in May and will bring Mwende a personal laptop.
Until now, the school’s director has used public Internet café computers.
Email Kim Smith Dedam: firstname.lastname@example.org