How fraudulent customers, banks frustrate BVN policy

The Bank Verification Number was applauded when it was introduced early last year. But recent developments have unearthed yet another sore aspect of the Nigerian life as many citizens live with multiple identities, OLAWUNMI OJO reports

After waiting almost endlessly, Sylvester Okechukwu heaves a sigh of relief. His goods, imported from China, have arrived at the seaport in Apapa, Lagos the day earlier. He is quite delighted.

In need of funds to make some payments and initiate the clearance process, he heads for the bank. But on this day, the banking hall is busier than usual.

The apex bank had on February 14, 2014, through the Banker’s Committee and in collaboration with all banks, launched a centralised biometric identification system for the banking industry.

The BVN registration commenced in July 2014 and the CBN gave a June 30, 2015 deadline for all customers to have the BVNs. It was later extended to October 31. Yet, according to an official of the bank, “less than half of the total bank customers nationwide had been captured as of Monday, November 2.

It was a few days after the expiration of the extended deadline for customers to regularise their accounts with their BVNs. His bank branch, one of the new generation banks at Ilasamaja in the Itire area of Lagos, brimmed with people.

In line with the CBN’s directive, banks had placed restrictions on several accounts and most of those affected had thronged the financial institutions following their inability to access their accounts and funds.

“Chineke, wetin be dis now? Not today, abeg,” Okechukwu muttered under his breath while he waited in the queue in front of the customer service personnel.

Shortly before the expiration of the deadline, he had visited the bank and submitted his BVN for linkage to his account. Unknown to him, the linkage was not successful and a restriction had been placed on his account. He was told that parts of his personal information did not tally with what the account at the other bank bears.

Restlessly, he waited till it was his turn. “Oga, some of the details on your account here are different from what you have with the other bank,” the young customer service lady told him courteously. “What do you mean? I don’t have time for this nonsense abeg,” Okechukwu retorted.

“But Oga, it’s not our fault. The age we have on your account here is 25. It is different from what you have on the other account. Even your address is also different. This is why we couldn’t link the accounts,” the lady explained.

Okechukwu would have none of that; he went livid and made a scene. “What nonsense! Even my first daughter is more than 25. How can you tell me that? Do this thing and let me have my money!” On and on, he went… It took the intervention of the bank’s branch manager to calm him. The manager later explained to him the steps to take to have the issue resolved – he was to do an affidavit affirming his true age and correct residential address, have it published in a national daily and return with both documents before his account details could be regularised and the restriction lifted.

John Nedum is another such example. According to a customer service executive of EcoBank, who spoke on condition of anonymity, John recently returned home from Malaysia for the nuptials between him and his hearthrob, Ijeoma, only to realise that the account, into which he had been making transfers from overseas had been put on restriction.

In his case, the names on the account bore no similarity with the names on all his official documents, including passport, with which he returned from Malaysia. Caught in dire straits, and in urgent need of funds for his wedding preparations, he had to confess to bank officials how he came about the names on his official documents.

The said account into which he was making transfers from overseas had been in operation before he left the country in search of lush pasture. But when he travelled out, he had done so using the identity and passport of an older relative’s son. So, he naturally assumed that status on getting over there.

In his case however, because of the urgency of his needs, his money was released to him and the account closed. This was after he had put everything in writing and some of his sibblings and relatives had come along to explain the circumstances to the account officer and bank’s senior managers.

But Okechukwu and Nedum are not alone. Hordes of Nigerians across the country suffered a similar fate, with many still unable to access their bank accounts owing to unresolved data irregularity issues that arose because of the BVN.

A consequence of this situation – customers’ data irregularity and the need to get requisite documents to regularise their accounts at the banks – has been the sudden increased patronage of notary publics for affidavits and newspapers houses for change/confirmation of names.

Following the expiration of the deadline, a national daily that publishes its change of name pages on Saturdays and which usually featured between three and four pages at most, suddenly published over 10 pages the next Saturday. The following day, a Sunday, it did what it had never done before; the newspaper ran more change of name publications. More followed on Wednesday of the same week.

Though, it later reverted to its regular Saturday publications, the increase in its change of name pages was sustained through December. And in an informal chat with the newspaper’s advert executive who co-ordinates the pages, Odueme, he made allusion to the fact that the increase was due to more inflow of change/confirmation of name requests from Nigerians.

Looking through the pages, however, presented an interesting discovery. While there were genuine cases of omission of middle names or change of status due to marriage, there were bemusing cases of people with completely different sets of names confirming that both sets represented one and the same person. The nine-page publication also had cases of correction of dates of birth.

Specifically, in the newspaper’s publication, there were such publications of Confirmation of Names as: “That John Joel and Ali Abu is the same person. Former documents remain valid. Public note,” and “That Abdulahi Abbey Abiodun and Adabi Eniola Mutari is the same person. Former documents remain valid. Public note.”

On another page, there were yet similar examples: “Wadiale Temple also called Ehizokale Omonkhdgbele. All documents remain valid. General public take note,” and “Formerly Miss Victoria Onyowu Elaigwu, now Mrs. Regina Ikwuletu.” The list drew on.

   The introduction of BVN, according to the CBN, is targeted at addressing cybercrime, ATM fraud and other kinds of financial frauds as well as safeguard customers’ funds to avoid losses through Personal Identification Numbers (PIN).

Besides this, the BVN, the bank said, would also strengthen the current Know Your Customer guidelines and allow banks to have more confidence in giving out loans.

The BVN project manager at Nigeria Inter Bank Settlement System, Oluseyi Adenmosun, once said that customers with suspicious accounts or transactions would be tracked with the BVN, making it difficult for fraudsters to maintain bank accounts. Adenmosun explained that once customers’ accounts are linked, their identity could be authenticated at point of transactions.

But if truly the purpose of the BVN project is “to use biometric information as a means of identifying and verifying all individuals that have account(s) in Nigerian banks and consequently, as a means of authenticating customer’s identity at point of transactions,” how effective would the entire process then be if some individuals are still circumventing it?

The revelation of Nigerians with multiple identities however raises a number of questions, which are vast and varied. What are the true identities of these persons with two different name sets? What are the true ages of those with different and arbitrarily spaced age ranges? What are the actual residences of some with multiple house or contact addresses? And save for the genuine cases of omissions, what could be the motive of the falsifications and misrepresentations by these sets of people.

Also called to question is the ease with which affidavits are obtained from notary publics by just anybody, without status verification. Besides, beyond the quest for profit making, are there no ethical issues raised with the acceptance and publication of such suspects’ names confirmation by media houses.

On another hand, even after presenting affidavits and publications in newspapers, do banks have any responsibility to raise the alarm and invite the Police to investigate such persons or they are just duty-bound to accept the document and link such customers’ accounts. All these posers are as disturbing as they potray Nigerians as people of multiple identities and a dubious lot just as the nation’s quest for a central data base remains elusive.

Speaking on how the banks have been handling the numerous cases they confronted with on a daily basis, another customer service executive in Ecobank, Nike Adelani, bemoaned the ugly situation. She was particularly alarmed by the number of Nigerians who had been operating accounts with irregular personal data.

“We have had a lot, in fact we experience it everyday. One thing that has become very disturbing however is the validity of some of the forms of identification Nigerians tender. There was a particular person who came and had no valid ID. We were surprised to see him the following day with a newly done National ID card but with an issue date reading 2005. I honestly do not think our valid means of identity are valid anymore because they are very easy to get.

In cases where women are changing names, Adelani confirmed that such account linkages are not done directly by the banks. The person is asked to write explaining the reason for the change and attach evidences. The request is sent to NIBSS, which then accepts or decline such request based on its merits.

For cases where all the names on the BVN are totally different from those on the account, she says the Nigeria Inter-Bank Settlement System classifies this as fraudulent.

“A fraud team unit has been created for that. So, we send all such matters to them for investigation.

“Cases with date of birth reduction are required to bring birth certificates. But most of them still do not bring it; it is the age declaration that they come back with. I think those lawyers must be enjoying the sudden boom in business. The court is not far from us; so, before you know it, the customer is back.”

Chike Maduekwe, an Abuja-based legal practitioner and Principal Partner, Custodes Juris Solicitors, says the banks and their managers are the problems and cannot pretend not to know about the existence of multiple identity accounts all along.

“The KYC regulation of banks should have made the bank officials know the owners of the accounts before now. So they must have been colluding,” he says.

But if what inside sources in some of the banks told our correspondent is anything to go by, Maduekwe may be right after all.

According to them, a lot of the accounts with this kind of problem are being used for money laundering by public officials, including governors and top civil servants as well as other Nigerians to swindle foreigners.

“You find a situation where a public servant opens an account with a fictitious name and everybody who has one illegal money to remit pays into that account. The public officer later transfers the money from that account to other accounts from where the money is taken to the Bureau de Change for conversion to dollars,” the source says.

“Some of such accounts are being used for shady foreign deals. The issue is that the banks are cooperating with them. The KYC regulation of the banks is not being implemented. But with the BVN, we will now be able to track such transactions,” he adds. But does this category of people violate any section of the country’s law. And constitutionally, are they punishable under the law? Why has it been easy for such persons to approach lawyers and get affidavits? What evidences or documents would they have provided or tendered to such lawyers before they could be issued affidavit confirming that someone who is John Joel is the same person as Ali Abu? These are questions posed by concerned analysts.

For instance, the Editor, Nigerian Law Weekly, Oluwole Kehinde, says such cases are patently fraudulent and meant to hide the identity of the people involved.

“In dealing with this kind of cases, most of the banks require some means of identification. So, if you say your name is Israel Dada, they will ask for a valid means of identification to back it up. And they have such standard and acceptable means of identification as a passport, driver’s licence and national ID card. Where all the names are different or even if they are the same but the identity is not the same, then that is a clear case of fraud. You can have two names but different identity; that will be classified as fraud. This is a clear case of perjury and fraud,” Kehinde declares.

He says that the bank will need to certify that it is one and the same person before they do the account linkage by ensuring that sufficient documents are provided to back up such claims.

“If this is not adhered to, it will then amount to the bank colluding with the person to perpetrate the fraud,” he notes. Kehinde further affirms that where one person bears two different combination of names, the fellow may be accused of impersonating another person.

“Secondly, it is perjury because he has gone to do an affidavit that he is the same person. He is lying on oath. In fact, under the banking law, it is tantamount to altering the bank records.”

Kehinde, however, stresses that the primary agent to disclose the commission of the offence will be the banks because they are the ones that the materials or documents will be presented to either for authentification or acceptance.

“If you present a forged document to the immigration or a consular office, once they detect it, they will call the attention of the police. So, the banks merely accepting such documents and linking the accounts may be said to have also colluded with the customers instead of reporting them to the police for investigation.”

In recent times, a number of government agencies have begun to migrate from manual records to semi-automated and electronic processing of data. With the advent of biometric identification and smart card technology, the quest for data capture has increased along with various kinds of upgrades, notably ‘Government Identity Tokens’, issued by agencies with such sole responsibilities.

Examples of these are the driving licence by the Federal Road Safety Corps; the Permanent Voters Card by the Independent Electoral Commission, Tax Identification Card by Federal Inland Revenue Service, the pension card by National Pension Commission, e-Passport by the Nigeria Immigration Service, the National Identity Cards by National Identity Management Commission and most recently, the BVN by the CBN/NIBSS.

These efforts have been initiated primarily to create a central databank for the nation. But the immediate past Director-General, NIMC, Chris Onyemenam, while commenting on the country’s identity ecosystem, says its not-too-impressive growth has been due largely to lack of a central national identity infrastructure, limited efforts of managers of functional identity schemes towards fostering a harmonised and integrated identity eco-system, resulting in the duplication of identity life cycle activities.

Onyemenam stresses that such centralisation of identity database is an antidote to identity theft-related frauds, especially the advance fee type commonly called ‘419’.

He says, “’Who you are’ needs at all times to be unambiguously answered; whether it is a company or a government institution, at the Visa section of an embassy or high commission. Typically, an individual’s identity is established through a breeder document, preferably a ‘birth certificate’. But in Nigeria, as in most less developed countries, births and deaths registration data are not well managed and so not reliable.

“While working this out is most imperative, the next best alternative is to use various biometric technologies, identity management processes and ‘acceptable breeder documents’ criteria to establish a unique identity for each individual. The resulting ‘identity’ from this process is then deposited in a central identity data repository with a means to cross reference it each time a verification or confirmation is required.”

Some analysts have also argued that without a good births and deaths registry, a country cannot have a national identity database. Even where there is one, an identity database with the entire population as target is still necessary. They emphasise the need to have a ‘single version of truth’ of personal information of the population in a central accessible repository.

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