Scams Are Ruining Pakistan’s Digital Economy
The last time Zippy posted to Instagram was in April 2022—a four-paragraph-long apology note saying he was sorry for not delivering orders on time, and that he would make it up to everyone. Then, he vanished.
Sheikh says he’s still struggling to understand why Zippy did what he did. “If he really wanted to leave, why didn’t he just disappear or vanish right off the bat? Why was he putting up long apology posts?” he says. “Was he always a bad guy? Or was he a good guy who saw money and went rogue? I suppose we will never know.”
But scams and swindles have proliferated in step with the growth of informal online businesses in Pakistan. Last year, hundreds of Pakistani women were scammed by a Karachi-based entrepreneur, Sidra Humaid, who ran online committees—a method of saving money by pooling a specific amount each month. After collecting nearly $2 million, Humaid announced that she had “no means to pay off her committees.”
In 2020, over 100,000 people in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province were robbed of 5.6 billion rupees ($19 million), according to news reports. Scam victims were promised high profits—nearly 13 percent—on investments by a Peshawar-based online investment company, only to have them disappear without a trace in November that year.
Tariq, the tech founder, says that she thinks the rise in scams is down to a combination of economic stress and the fact that there’s rarely any recourse for victims. About a month ago, Tariq heard about yet another scam: menacing loan sharks prying on the unsuspecting working-class women borrowing money to make ends meet.
“These women who got scammed knew what the risk was. They probably knew they were getting ripped off, but there’s really no other avenue available,” she said. “And they were not taking loans for frivolous reasons or to buy clothes or whatever. They were probably taking them because someone in their house is sick. So it’s that desperation, that exploitation, that is absolutely booming right now. We are also seeing it in the startup ecosystem, where startups are getting bad terms by pretend investors.”
And yet, Tariq says, no one is banking on law enforcement to step in. “I don’t think the common person, even for a minute, considers going to court,” she says. “And I think that’s what scammers are banking on, too. They know no one is going to take them to court.”
The ZipTech scandal might have some kind of resolution, however.
One member of the Pakistani PC Gamers group, Khizer Ali Khan, happens to be a lawyer. After reading accounts from angry ZipTech customers in April, Khan got in touch with a barrister friend, Khaleeq Zaman, and suggested that they start legal action. They offered to take the case pro bono, and within a day, more than 150 people had reached out for help. “People were calling me a savior,” Khan says. “It was overwhelming.”
On May 17, they sent Zippy a legal notice—to his two shops in Karachi, his villa in the city’s Bahria Town neighborhood, and his other residence in Sukkur, 230 miles from the city. All the notices were sent back. “We discovered that he had fled,” Zaman says. “The shops he had opened were closed. And the residential addresses sent back the legal notices, too, saying he no longer lived there.”