The UnaPhone was no different from a Nigerian Rip-off Scheme

by Rodrigo Fernós

One of the most distinctive traits of Nigerian ripoff schemes plays upon the innate psychological trait all of us share: ego.  Once an individual has pledged a substantial amount of money, say $10,000, for what appears to be a substantial return, say $ 1 million, they are very hesitant to admit culpability. (“Certainly you weren’t that stupid.)  I once witnessed it personally on an old retired geology professor, whom should have known that promises of easy money were just that: promises.  “If you could send us $5,000 more, you will get your full investment and more. We just stumbled on a block, and need the additional investment to pull through the last part.” The hapless geologist sent away $5,000 after previously pledging $10,000, and along with it the equity on his life savings when he was unable to pay his course mortgage.  He ended a broken man.

The UnaPhone is no different in the manner it has deceived its customers. 

Always promising something more on the chance that the customer will wait ‘just a little more’, such promises have turned out to be empty illusions.  Here’s my story, that although not in any ways as tragic as that of the geology professor, it does represent one such example the frauds that occur online.

The UnaPhone was ordered in June 2016. It had received favorable reviews in El Pais and in technology outlets. Its only other serious rival, the BlackPhone by Silent Circle, was selling for some $800, so the notion that I could get a secure phone for $500 looked like a bargain. It had wireless charging, a smart card slot, and a finger print pad—none of which the BlackPhone carried. So, I said, ‘what the heck’, and ordered the phone. It was an Indiegogo campaign, which should have sent warning signals in that none of the individuals involved were listed either on the campaign site or the Indiegogo site.  “Certainly, they can’t be hoaxes’, I said to myself.

It was clear right away that the phone was delayed.  I was told by ‘Sabrina’ that I could get a refund at any moment, but decided to forego hoping that the phone would be shipped shortly; Indiegogo campaigns do take a while given that they are new products, and last minute items on such complex devices are the norm. Ah, I said, what the heck. Sabrina went into some detail regarding the security protocols associated to the phone, which at the moment was my principal concern. Favorable comparisons to Blackphone were made.

But the delays continued. Mike Orton on August 2016 was assuring me that they were finalizing the development of ‘Zenith’, and that the phones would shortly ship one month later in September.  By September, I still hadn’t received the phone. Jen Rowling was informing me that they had sent ‘important emails’, which allegedly I hadn’t received; that I had to verify my ‘junk mail’ or my ‘spam’ to make sure these announcements hadn’t been tampered with by my client. This was BS, but was assured that the phone was coming out shortly.  I, as I am sure many others, was promised that if I were patient enough, they would include a 25 GM SIM card, a ‘high quality headphone’, and a 128 MB (not GB) smart card. 

“With our timetable and testing, we could say that in the next 30 to 60 days, you could expect the arrival of your orders.” (September 19, 2016)

As you may guess the phone never shipped that year (2016).  Excuses provided were that they were emphasizing the quality.

“We would never allow ourselves to deliver a faulty or a problematic product”.

By December, there were ‘obstacles beyond our control’, which “we cannot - sadly - share the details with you.” Presumably legal issues arose, but they were doing everything possible to get the phones out.

“You have been with us from the beginning, trusted us and we treasure that trust. This is a real family and deserves honesty and also teamwork in face the challenge.“

Similar excuses were provided in January 2017, but  the following month, it was suggested that the phone would ship by March!

“Hopefully, the month of March is going to be the really good news for us all.“


March came and went, and still no phone.

Towards the end of the month, another stringer.

“We happily announce that from April 19 to April 21, we will start shipping our phone.” 

Finally, I thought to myself; its lasted waaaay to long already. New phones had already been announced at the Mobile World Congress (Feb 27-March 2, 2017), and the UnaPhone now had more competition. Certainly, that would be enough for them to deliver.

By the END of May (may 22, 2017), Jen Rowling noted that the phones were starting to ship ‘in the upcoming 7 business days.' About time.  Again on June 7, the company had ‘good news’.

“Your order will be processed and shipped on the 14. June.”

Okay. That is what you promised last time, but whatever. Disappointment started to settle in. 

Another suggestive promise was issued June 26: the phones have been allegedly shipped.

“Some packages arrived in time, others arrived earlier, others arrived a few days after it was supposed to. So far no package went missing, and are basically delivered in a 10 to 15 working (business) days. What we are asking you is to be patient. If your package didn't arrived when it was supposed to, there is no need to panic, no need to rage, because if you have received the communication, it means the package was sent and is on his way to you, and there is nothing more to do about.” (UnaPhone Zenith Team)

On June 30, the company contacted me to see if I had received the package.

“Can you kindly let me know if you have received our device?”

My reply was to the point: “Have not.”

By the end of July, I was told that the phone would not ship. I was requested to arrange for a phone call from one of their ‘colleague from Washington D.C.’  (Kambiz) with regard to the arrangement of the refund.  Implicitly it was suggested that there were governmental issues involved, and for some odd reason the phone could not be sent. The next day, Tuesday August 1, I received a call in the afternoon. When I asked Kambiz why the phone could not be shipped, there was no answer. Allegedly, the check would be issued shortly.

Even with the check, there were continued promises and more delays. Two weeks later by mid August, I was cynically asking if it would take as long to deposit the funds as it did to ‘ship’ the phone (1+ years). Jen Rowling again informed me that by the end of August, the funds should be deposited. By the 27th of the month, funds still had not been deposited. No surprise there, in spite of all the lamentations the company’s representative allegedly felt.

“I don't even know how to explain the atmosphere here and how we feel. It is really hard.”

To nobody’s surprise, on the 13th of September, UnaPhone sent an email stating that there had been  problems with the bank transfer. They will contact me as soon as the funds have been deposited.

“Please accept our most sincere apologies…You will not face any other delays.”

Roughly a week has passed, and no word from them. Its now the 18th of September.

There has been little difference between UnaPhone and a Nigerian rip-off schemes from the past.

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