ID theft danger in SA - expert

2013-07-22 10:29
The onus of proving identity theft lies with consumers, an academic has said. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

The onus of proving identity theft lies with consumers, an academic has said. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Johannesburg - Identity theft is a real and persistent problem in South Africa, and consumers have to be aware that the onus of proof lies with them, an academic has warned.

Identity theft is very high in South Africa - I don't have the latest statistics with me - but it is very high and the amounts are very high," Sylvia Papadopoulos, lecturer in the Department of Mercantile, Cyber Law at University of Pretoria told News24.

She said that consumers' financial records may be seriously impacted by scammers who typically target people with spam e-mails and messages in order to steal online banking details and personal information.

"The effects are devastating: Potentially it can mess up your credit records for years and it takes you years and years to rectify the problem," said Papadopoulos.

The SA Fraud Prevention Service reported in 2008 that identity theft in SA could exceed R1bn in annual losses, while some estimates put UK identity theft at £1.7bn per annum.

Despite the checks and balances at government and private institutions, if identity theft does occur, it is up to the individual to prove that a particular organisation is responsible in the event of financial losses.


Proving responsibility was difficult because of the nature of the crime, Papadopoulos argued.

"It's a very complex situation: Holding someone liable means you need to prove negligence.

"Now if I'm negligent and you're negligent, my claim gets decreased by my own contribution to that. That's as the law stands in South Africa at the moment," said Papadopoulos.

Media24 CEO Esmaré Weideman recently lost thousands in an apparent SIM swop scam.

Her bank was able to freeze her account, but the thieves managed to get away with about R360 000.

The South African Banking Risk Information Centre (Sabric) said that users are required to carry responsibility for their online financial transactions.

"The problem ends up being with the user themselves. We've got these apps sitting on your mobile phone or your computer, but it's out of the banks' control in terms of where you go and what else you do," said Kalyani Pillay, CEO of Sabric.


Papadopoulos warned consumers that proving a company was guilty of allowing one's personal information to fall into the hands of criminals was difficult and expensive in South African courts.

"Proving negligence is not always an easy thing to do, particularly in law. You're standing in front of a judge and you need to show 'It's your fault.' What are you going to do? You're going to cover everything up and make sure it's not your fault.

"It's very difficult, particularly if you're going against big corporates with very sophisticated legal teams," she said.

The Protection of Personal Information Bill (Popi) is expected to become law in SA by the end of 2013 and it is expected to severely curtail how much personal customer information companies may share.

However, despite the provisions that Popi promises, consumers will still have to show that "reasonable organisational measures" were taken to protect the data.

"It's where you can prove the negligence - that's where the liability sits. It's not an easy thing, which is why people don't pursue it," said Papadopoulos.

She added that in SA, enforcement of law around identity theft was hampered by poor skills by prosecuting authorities that resulted in the majority of criminals getting away with the crime.

"You need to understand the nature of the crime; you need to understand what you need to take to court to prove the person is guilty. Those are skills I think South Africa is still working on."

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