The untold story of Mobile Money Accounts: What happens when users pass away?

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Sierra Leoneans use mobile money to pay bills, do person-to-person transfers, recharge, and deposit funds. Photo credit: Shutterstock 

By Alfred Koroma

Few days after her dad’s sudden death, Fatmata Kpanabom, 20, recalled her dad was an active Orange Money user. Convinced he had left money in his phone, she embarks on a journey to access his mobile money account, only to discover a locked account with no access to the elusive password.

Frustrated by the digital barrier and financial strain, the grieving young lady tried to seek answers to as to the reason she could not access her dad’s accounts and check whether money is in there.

“My dad was frequently receiving Orange Money before his death, Fatmata said, “it’s really frustrating that we have no way to know whether he left money in his phone.”

On the back of this, Concord Times launched an investigations into the registration of mobile money accounts and what happens to those accounts when users die.

Three major telecommunications companies, namely Orange, Africell and Qcell operate in Sierra Leone.

These companies provide primarily voice, data, internet, and cloud services.

But another crucial service being provided by these companies is mobile money services.

Customers often use mobile money services by visiting agents at the nearest kiosks, hand them physical cash to pay their bills and transfer money. Photo credit: Customer Care, Orange Sierra Leone

The biggest mobile money operator, Orange has about 1.1 million active users.

According to Afrimoney Communications, 8 or 7 out of 10 people in Sierra Leone, use mobile money.

Mobile money platforms operated by the companies are commonly used to pay bills, do person-to-person transfers, recharge, and deposit funds. 

This growth has revolutionized financial inclusion, made transactions easier and enhanced access to financial services to those previously deprived of access to the formal banking system.

But Concord Times investigations have revealed that as mobile money wallet usage surges in the country, thousands of people fail to pay attention to registration processes and information while signing up.

 Despite the fact that people save money in their mobile money accounts, mobile companies provide no option to designate next of kin for those accounts.

 Many Sierra Leoneans also deposit and save funds in mobile money accounts that are not in fact registered in their names. 

 David Samba Mansaray, Chief Executive Officer, Orange Money Finance told Concord Times that Orange Money registration process gives option for next of kin since they took over from Airtel Money, but Concord Times investigation found no such option provided for customers and agents who registered for Orange money as recent as March and April, 2024.

To confirm this, Adama Mansaray went to buy Orange sim and register for Orange Money last month. At the time, she was given an already registered sim card and was only asked to change the password of an existing account in the sim she bought.

“I was asked nothing about next of kin when I went for Orange money sim,” she said.

One of Afrimoney POS Centres in Jui, opened in January 2023. Credit: the Calabash Newspaper

For Afrimoney, the second biggest mobile money operator in the country, the Company’s Communications Supervisor, Robert Charles Davies admitted that his Company provides nothing like next of kin in the registration of Afrimoney Accounts for both agents and customers.

Afrimoney has been operating since 2016 during the Ebola Pandemic in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. It was launched as a payment platform for Ebola victims and survivors in the country. Since then the Company has rapidly grown its customer base.

Lack of identification of next of kin for mobile money accounts leaves funds vulnerable in the event of the account holder’s death or incapacitation.

This loophole not only gives mobile companies a way to facilitate the concealment of illicit funds but also deprives rightful beneficiaries of their inheritance.

“That is an area where all the mobile companies are using to defraud people’s hard earned money,” Victor Jones, a journalist and a mobile money customer said.

“It’s a huge avenue for theft, in fact, one of the most calculated thefts that has ever occurred in Sierra Leone using electronic money transfer,” he added.

Unlike Sierra Leone, countries like Ghana and Nigeria provide options for people to designate their next of kin details when registering mobile money accounts.

In those countries, mobile money subscribers are not only allowed to provide next of kin, but they are also at liberty to change their next of kin data anytime they wish.

Concord Times contacted the National Telecommunications Authority which regulates mobile companies, but the authority refused to comment on whether companies are required to strictly ensure that users provide next of kin details while registering for mobile money account.

The authority only said mobile money operations in the country are regulated by the Central Bank.

The Central Bank as well did not respond to Concord Times request for interview.

Mobile money has been in existence in Sierra Leone since 2010 starting from Zap to Airtel Money which was later taken over by Orange Money.

Since then, mobile money usage has grown rapidly in the country with a larger number of people now using the platform to send, receive and save money using their mobile phones.

This means, there are a larger number of people who were using the platform but died and left their accounts and funds unclaimed.

Mobile money accounts after death

It’s typically much easier to own a mobile account in Sierra Leone. Just with a sim card and a valid ID, your registration can be done within a few minutes. This can either be done by an agent or through self-registration.

These accounts are accessible in the case of death, according to the two mobile companies that spoke to Concord Times.

But it is easier, if relatives know the password of the deceased’s accounts. In the case where no one knows the password of a deceased relative’s account, Orange Money CEO said there are defined Central Bank guidelines on how Mobile money operators go about handling abandoned accounts and how relatives can claim funds.

It involves gathering valid IDs of the deceased relatives and other relevant documents to go through a prolonged and tedious court process.

“It’s a long process, we understand, but it’s the process,” Samba Mansaray said.

But the problem is that a lot of mobile money users in the country are not properly registered with those companies.  Most of them use sim cards that are already registered with different names. 

With the prevalent inconsistency in the data of most mobile money users coupled with the fact that no next of kin option is provided for them, it becomes even more impossible to reclaim the funds of deceased relatives from telecom companies.

The Communications Supervisor for Afrimoney told Concord Times that they’ve had cases wherein most people use mobile money, but their identity is different from the registration of their sim cards and their mobile money accounts.

“We’ve had cases wherein you see someone using an Africell sim card, but when you check the database of the Afrimoney system, the person is named Ibrahim Sesay, when you check the sim registration, he is Mohamed Conteh,” Davies said.

 “In such cases, the money cannot be easily accessed by the relatives, ” he stated. “When the information is different, it opens room for investigation. There comes the delay.”

Apart from the improper registration, another key challenge is that mobile companies have not sensitized the people about the procedure involved in reclaiming their relatives’ funds in the case of death or incapability.

Mobile money users in the country are not even aware that there is a way to reclaim funds of relatives who have passed away. And many have no knowledge about the fate of their accounts after death.

 “The only thing I know, if I die and my wife and children don’t know my password, everything wastes,” Abu Bakarr Sannoh, Orange Money and Afrimoney subscriber said.

Sannoh has used mobile money for over ten years. He loves saving money in his phone for easy access, but has never given proper consideration about the procedures for accessing his account in case of death or incapability.

Sadly, he is not alone, fifty (50) other mobile money users who spoke to Concord Times said the same.

“It’s an area where mobile companies have failed,” Jones said. “The most painful part is that there is no sign of getting better when it comes to mobile money management and regulation in Sierra Leone.”

So for Fatmata, she may never be able to access her late father’s Orange Money account.

Her father died in Rutile where they live, and he was buried without a death certificate. We don’t have an ID for him, she said.  After understanding the procedure involved in accessing her father’s account, she gave up on the fight.

Next of kin, proper registration and sensitization

Imagine the situation of Fatmata. Her Father died and the family is no longer able to access the account of their late father even when they are convinced that he left money in his account.

More families would have suffered the same, simply because of improper registration, lack of next of kin and the long bureaucratic nightmare people have to go through before mobile companies give access to funds in the accounts of deceased relatives.

While mobile money offers unparalleled ease of use, the rigid procedure and the way mobile payment accounts are being handled in Sierra Leone leaves users very vulnerable to exploitation.

“It’s a cause for concern because ideally, when opening a mobile money account, one should be given the opportunity to select a particular next of kin and feel their databases.”

 “So that in the event a customer passes away, there will be someone to easily claim their accounts or funds,” Jones explained.

Davies, the staff from Afrimoney reechoed similarly, stressing the need to reconsider regulations that provide a much easier way for people to access their relative’s digital accounts in the case of death or incapability.

“To be fair enough, our communication has not been tailored around addressing some of those issues,” he disclosed. “It has to be taken into consideration and addressed.”

“There is a need to create a platform for next of kin and raise awareness for people to know,” he added.

At the heart of the need for improvement, Jones emphasizes the necessity for stricter policies and regulations that paves the way for proper customer registration, addresses the issue of next of kin and sensitization.

This report is produced under the DPI Africa Journalism Fellowship Programme, organized by the Media Foundation for West Africa with support from Co-Develop.

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