How harassment from digital lender drove customer into depression

When *Michael, name withheld, took a loan from an online digital lending application to pay off his sibling’s school fees and send his parents some upkeep money, he underestimated the velocity at which loan sharks would swarm around him, to reclaim the money.

It all began on March 16, 2023, when Michael requested a loan of KES 25,000 from Whitepath Limited, an online application. He was in need of a quick fix to assist his family.

This was not the first time he was borrowing from the app and he had never defaulted on his previous loans which he says boosted his credit. Michael was meant to pay the loan back on March 27.

However, on March 25, calls from employees of Whitepath Limited began streaming in, from as early as 7:30 am, all the way to 8:30 pm.

“At first they were calling asking when I will repay the loan. I told them I have never defaulted and I planned to pay the loan off soon but I just needed some time. Then they texted me incessantly saying that they will start sending messages to my family and friends.” Michael says.

But then, then on March 27, when the debt was due, the messages became more sinister.

“I received a phone call from a friend of mine asking me why I want to kill myself. I was confused so I asked her why. She sent me a screenshot of somebody purporting to be me saying that I wanted to kill myself if I did not receive help to offset my loan because I was a serial defaulter,” Michael said.

“They listed my full name, and Identification Number and they attached my photographs which they pulled from my Whatsapp profile. They then added my family members, my colleagues and I to a group and forwarded the same messages there. I pleaded with them to stop but they formed more groups.”

The agents went as far as telling Michael that they would put him in hospital if he did not pay and that something would happen to him.

The messages from the agents purporting to be Michael, intending to take his life away, particularly affected his father.

“How do you explain to your father that you do not want to kill yourself? It broke my psyche to the extent that I could not go to work that day. Everyone looked at me differently, as a loan defaulter who was planning to kill himself. Even those I tried to explain to could not believe me. It drove me into depression.” Michael adds.

A number of people were angrier about the fact that the company was now relentlessly calling them saying that Michael had listed them as a referee. They lashed out at him believing that he had shared their private information and dragged them into his mess.

“That wasn’t true. I had only listed two people as my referees, my friend and my sister. But when I downloaded the app, I granted permission for them to access my contacts, I believe that’s when they used that to disturb my contacts. I wrote an email to Whitepath Limited complaining about the harassment from their employees. They said they would look into it, but upon following up, they never got back to me.” said.

We reached out to Whitepath Limited to hear their side of the story and to confirm if they are aware of Michael’s case. However, their customer care line operator said she would refer us to their manager and promised to send his contact, but she did not. On calling the different numbers which had called Michael incessantly, the man on the other end seemed aloof.

“Yes, I work at Whitepath but I call so many defaulters so I cannot remember him. My job is to call people.” said the man who refused to disclose his name.

He later said he no longer works at Whitepath despite initially confirming that he does.

According to Section 72 of the Data Protection Act of 2019, a data controller who, without lawful excuse, discloses personal data in any manner that is incompatible with the purpose for which such data has been collected commits an offence.

Additionally, a data processor who, without lawful excuse, discloses personal data processed by the data processor without the prior authorization of the data controller commits an offence.

In 2021, the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner began investigations into a number of digital lenders for sharing borrowers’ confidential data in pursuit of defaulters.

Further, in March 2022, the Central Bank of Kenya banned digital credit providers, its officers, or agents in the course of debt collection, from using obscene or profane language with the customer or the customers’ contacts for purposes of shaming them.

Michael says that he is planning to take action against Whitepath Limited over the harassment he was forced to endure.

“I plan on lodging a complaint at the police station, as well as complaining to the Central Bank of Kenya, the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner, and any other relevant institution. I want to make sure that in any small way, I can, I will ensure that no one else goes through what I have gone through. Despite my attempts to offset the loan including sending smaller amounts such as 3000 shillings to the company, they still harassed me.” Michael says.

To date, Michael is still trying to offset the hefty fines attached to his loan, which have seen it shoot up to 45,000 shillings attracting fines of almost 4,000 shillings daily.

“I did not want to take a loan, nobody does, but I did it to help my family. Yet that same loan is what ended up tormenting them and me.” Michael said.

During our report we encountered numerous complaints from a number of consumers of Whitepath, including a petition generated by one Caroline Kahiu, seeking to ban the application over what she termed severe harassment and debt shaming from their employees.

According to the Office of the Data Commissioner, Whitepath Company Limited has been fined KES 5 million as a penalty for non-compliance, adding that numerous complaints from the public were received regarding the company’s conduct.

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