Charge sheet ‘like script of a Hollywood blockbuster’

2013-09-01 10:00

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Hawks believe they’ve cracked a 54-member ring that’s fleeced at least R15?million

Hawks investigators believe they have blown the lid on a cross-continental syndicate that has stolen at least R15?million from South Africans in a complex web of sim swaps and identity theft.

The syndicate cleared R6.6?million from 21 accounts in a single day.

On another day, they cleared R3.1?million from 30 accounts.

Fifty-four people, whom the Hawks believe are part of a Mafia-like crime family, are due back in Gauteng’s Nigel Magistrates’ court on Tuesday, where they face multiple charges of fraud, theft, money laundering and racketeering.

The state alleges that the 54 are part of a syndicate that has defrauded thousands of people through phishing scams; opened false store accounts to get clothes, furniture, cars and jewellery; and accessed credit worth hundreds of thousands of rands using cloned identities.

Their operation started to unravel last year when experienced Hawks investigation Captain Oscar Mopedi arrested a man suspected of identity theft.

Mopedi confiscated the man’s phone, then downloaded its contents. It was then, Mopedi told City Press in an interview, that he discovered phone numbers that would lead him to others who have been investigated as part of the syndicate.

The alleged leaders of the syndicate have several different identities and use a number of passports – from Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mopedi said the case was one of the biggest, most sophisticated and elaborate cons he has deal with in his long career.

“When they appear in court and when the charge sheet is read to them, it will all look like the script of a Hollywood blockbuster. It is big, very big and we suspect that they have links to other crime families operating in other countries,” Mopedi said.

The modus operandi in the cases under investigation involves one member of the suspected syndicate sending thousands of phishing emails purporting to be from a bank and asking clients to update their security passwords, pin numbers and residential addresses.

“Many unsuspecting people do respond,” Mopedi said, adding that the emails look genuine.

Once they have these details, the scammers are able to see how much money each victim has. “At this point, they have all your information including credit cards, investment, bond, savings and cheque accounts and they can do whatever they please,” he said.

Members of the syndicate then allegedly approach mobile network operators and perform sim swaps.

“They do this to deflect attention. You know when there are transactions happening in your accounts, the bank normally send you notifications via SMS. When the sim swap is done, the notifications don’t come to you, they go the new number and then they clean you out. They don’t leave anything,” Mopedi said.

The syndicate’s kingpins send other members to areas across the country – particularly townships, he said – pretending to be from different banks and touting for business.

“These people are paid between R500 and R1?500 for opening up the accounts. After opening up accounts, they hand over the pins, passwords and cards, and from there they really have no clue what happens to these accounts. But what happens is that once they hit you, they transfer the money into some of these accounts and then withdraw it at will.”

They are also alleged to get people’s details from doctors, dentists and lawyers. Some members contact the country’s credit bureaux and, after establishing that potential victims are creditworthy, clone their IDs, create fake payslips and start opening accounts.

Craig Rosewarn, the chief executive of Wolfpack Information Risk, said South Africa was always one of the top three countries targeted for cybercrime in the world.

“We are what cybercriminals refer to as a ‘low risk and high profit’ type of country,” Rosewarn said.

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