EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is a part of our Money254 Partner series and is produced in partnership with Zenka Digital Kenya.
Is that digital loan app you are downloading legit? The relief of getting a loan within minutes should not blind you from the potential helplessness of extortion for months by copycat apps.
Chances are yourself or someone you know has taken a digital loan in the last 30 days.
Tough times, the need to take advantage of a quick money-making opportunity, a delayed payment, disrupted cash flow or emergencies are some of the reasons why Kenyans are finding themselves on the Google Play Store downloading a digital loan app.
They have saved many on a rainy day, pulled others from really tough situations, but many others have horrifying stories of harassment, extortion, blackmail and being fleeced through incredibly high interest rates.
What differentiates the first group that praises digital loan apps for saving the day once or twice and those who curse the day they ever thought of installing a digital loan app?
It’s simple. There are hundreds of loan apps aimed at Kenyans on the Google Play Store - and as would be expected in a yet-to-be-fully regulated space, some are good and others are products of the destructive minds of fraudsters.
So long as the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) is yet to conclude the licensing process of digital lenders, and the Google Play Store has not been purged of such apps, you have to raise your awareness of digital lending fraud and precautionary measures.
While it may be easy to suspect an app with a name you have never heard of before, one your friends or colleagues have never mentioned or one that sounds too new or noticeably sketchy, apps that mimic the brand names of well-known digital loan providers can be harder to detect.
There has been a notedly worrying growth in the number of new apps that seem to have names of well-established apps or non-app services that may potentially mislead customers.
Some of the lenders affected by this include Zenka, Tala and Branch. For example, when you are trying to pay for that emergency quickly, you may be intending on downloading the Zenka app, but on typing Zenka, you may come across an app named “True Zenka” which has no affiliation with the brand you had in mind.
Like in the example given above, apps are considered “copycat” when the name or iconography is “deceptively” similar to another brand, such that it is very likely to deceive or cause confusion.
We recently pored through the Google Play Store and encountered a couple of apps that may fit the rough criteria of what a copycat app may entail. Note that the fact that brand names may be near-similar does not necessarily mean an app is deceptive.
We found the use of names similar to established digital apps, the grouping of known loan apps into one app, the addition of suffixes or prefixes to established digital lending apps names and attempts to mimic brand colours of established apps as some of the tactics potentially deceptive digital loan apps may be using.
One common feature among the potentially “copycat apps” we found on the Google Play Store is the requirement for a borrower to part with an upfront fee before getting a loan disbursed.
Here are two examples,
While the popular Zenka Digital Loan App charges an interest rate of between 9% - 39% per loan for a maximum tenure of 61 days, apps with similar-sounding names have different terms.
One we found named “Zenkah Kash” claims to charge an interest of 6% for a period of three months and curiously charges an upfront fee of between Ksh121 and Ksh120. Another one named “Zenkas Cash” claims to offer loans at 3.5% for 60 days but charges an upfront fee of Ksh159.
In yet another example, while the interest rate by the equally popular Branch Digital Loan App is between 2% and 18% per 62-day loan with zero fees upfront, a possible “copycat” app by the name “Fuliza Branch” claims to offer loans at 13% but requires you to part with Ksh95 before you can get a loan that they say has a tenure of between 91 and 365 days. At the time of publishing this article, “Fuliza Brnach” was no longer availanble on the Google Play Store.
For all these apps, you send the upfront fee after registration.
While one of the biggest advantages that digital loan apps have offered Kenyans is the speed in which a loan decision is made, it will pay to exercise a little more caution when downloading a digital loan app for the first time, or even when you are trying to re-download an app that you liked.
The problem of possibly deceptive apps on the Google Play Store targeting potential customers of legitimate digital lenders is not one to be taken lightly as digital lending industry players warn.
"The proliferation of fake lending apps with similar-sounding or purposely misspelt names aiming at confusing customers draws our attention and arouses the need to warn borrowers against the increasing threat," says Duncun Motanya, the Country Manager for Zenka Digital, one of the apps that has attracted the attention of copycats in Kenya.
Zenka, a founding member of the Digital Lenders Association of Kenya (Now DFSA-K), has been running informative campaigns on its social channels to increase customer awareness and encouraging them to take extra precautions when choosing a lending partner.
"In the best interest of customers benefiting from the one and only legitimate Zenka lending app available at Google Play Store, we kindly suggest reaching our contact points to clarify any doubts if they arise. We also suggest paying attention to the misspelt lending app names, suspiciously good offers, and suggestions to pay a deposit before applying for a loan," implores Motanya.
So, if indeed copycat digital loan apps targeting someone like you are on the rise and since the CBK licensing process is yet to be complete, how can you spot a copycat digital lender and protect yourself from fraud.
This may come in several forms but the warning sign is generally being asked to part with a small amount to “register”, or “commit”, or for “processing” etc. before being allowed to borrow a loan from the said app. Note that the Central Bank of Kenya (Digital Credit Providers) Regulations, 2022, prevent digital lenders from taking deposits in any form.
Once you part with the small fee they ask for - typically around Ksh200, according to those who have experienced this type of fraud, the fake apps ensure you can no longer log in using the details you used to register with.
If you encounter messaging on an app that tells you to refer the app to other borrowers in order to qualify for your first loan, you may want to take a step back.
While referral programmes that offer a bonus for a successful customer referral are genuine and a great way to earn some extra cash online, being asked to refer the app to others so that you can get a loan is suspicious.
Legitimate referral programmes reward a referrer without any other conditions as long as the person they referred took the action prescribed - e.g. downloading an app or taking a loan - using your referral link or code.
If the referral programme is set up by a digital lender, such as the Zenka Referral Programme, you can borrow and repay your loans as usual whether you refer someone or not.
Learn More About Referrals: How You Can Make Money Through Referral Programmes in Kenya
One important tell-tale sign that you are dealing with a copycat lender is if they appear not very keen on determining your ability to repay. You would expect any legitimate lender to either check your credit report, or have some other requirements to show your credit history.
If a lender does not seek confirmation of whether in the past you have paid back a loan, paid it back on time, whether you have an income, and the size of this income and frequency, you may want to take a pause and see if you have downloaded the right app.
Under the Central Bank of Kenya (Digital Credit Providers) Regulations, 2022, a digital lender is only allowed to offer credit to a customer they have determined has the ability to repay - which is, in part, a characteristic of predatory lending.
“A digital credit provider shall not advance digital credit to a customer unless it has first taken reasonable steps to satisfy itself on the customer’s ability to repay the credit facility,” the regulations read in part.
Illegitimate lending apps seem to purposely target high-risk borrowers who in the haste to find a loan app that can lend to them may not take the time to investigate whether it is indeed who the app says it is.
If you feel that the loan app is applying pressure on you to take a loan quickly you may want to take a step back. One of the ways they do this is by placing a kind of deadline after which you may “lose out” on a chance of qualifying for a loan at the “cheap” rate displayed.
It is generally not a good idea to make a financial decision with haste. Chances are the loan app giving you pressure to make a decision is a fake one.
Why would you take a loan whose cost you are not completely sure of?
Under the Central Bank of Kenya (Digital Credit Providers) Regulations, 2022, digital lenders are required to fully disclose the terms and conditions of a loan in a transparent manner.
“The terms and conditions provided by a digital credit provider shall highlight to a consumer the fees, charges, penalties, relevant interest rates and any other consumer liabilities or obligations in the use of the financial product or service,” the regulations read in part.
If for any reason you feel you are unsure of what the total cost of the loan will be, you are better off delaying the decision to take that loan and investigate the app.
One way is by simply contacting the loan app directly using the formal channels provided. Here, you must be careful too since it may be an elaborate con. Which brings us to the next point.
One common feature of possibly illegitimate lending apps is failure to provide working contact details such that a borrower cannot get support or clarification on any queries they may have.
Secondly, if a lender does not provide a physical address, it is possible they are trying to stay anonymous and make it hard for authorities to unmask the fraudsters behind the app’s operations.
Thirdly, if the app doesn’t have a website or social channels - which can be also used for contacting the lender - you may be right to feel suspicious.
And even when the lender has a website, you must make sure it is secured. You can do this by looking for a padlock symbol next to the url on any page where you are required to provide personal details such as your ID Number etc.
Also, make sure to take some time to read online reviews of the said app. If the reviews are too few, the majority are suspiciously too positive or no reviews at all, you may have a reason to take a step back. Reviews, if existent can be very useful in helping you make a decision on a loan app.
You can also check out professional websites, such as Money254 that review various financial products in the Kenyan market as a good way of identifying a trustworthy lender.
If you have encountered a digital loan app you believe to be fraudulent, you can report it to help have it taken down from the Google Play Store. To do this, follow these steps;
The Digital Lenders Association of Kenya (Now DFSA-K), - the collective body dedicated to ensuring a strong future for the digital lending industry built on best practices in lending and consumer protection - also has a customer complaints portal you can use.
Follow these steps to report a potentially fraudulent app to DFSA-K;