UPDATE: Travellers warned to be vigilant as OR Tambo 'airport spotter' crime syndicate probed

Cape Town - South Africa's airports are the first welcoming point for some +10m visitors according to Acsa Aviation barometer in 2016. But the reality is that criminals operating through sophisticated syndicates within the airport, using "airport spotters" are putting SA's lucrative travel and tourism industry at risk. 

OR Tambo International issued a statement last week, following the most recent in a spate of attacks in and around the airport - involving a couple from the DRC who were attacked and robbed after taking an Uber to their hotel, in what has been deemed a "follow-home" robber. 

SEE - ALERT: OR Tambo warns passengers of 'follow-home' crime issue

However a Carte Blanche investigation into the matter has revealed the issue runs far deeper than travellers being followed once they leave SA's busiest airport. 

Aired on Sunday 25 June, the actuality programme interviewed an alleged spotter, keeping his identity a secret, as he detailed how airport insiders, known as spotters, are helping criminals identify tourists, businessmen and even locals with valuable luggage and goods as they pass through OR Tambo International.

SEE: OR Tambo Airport uncovers internal 'illegal commissions' scam

These insiders, according to the alleged spotter, are spread across a variety of people working in different roles at the airport from car rental agents to porters to cleaning staff - watching and identifying people coming from high-shopping destinations as potential targets. Spotters can earn "anything between R300 to R4 000 depending on the value" of the goods stolen, he says.

Watch the Carte Blanche Airport Spotters segment here

Acsa has since issued a statement, confirming that on Tuesday, 27 June it met with the various stakeholders involved in the safety and security of the airport operations and is working through its Public Safety and Security staff to identify these alleged “airport spotters” believed to be alerting criminals behind follow-home robberies.

Acsa says it is supporting the  South African Police Services Crime Prevention Plan in identifying the alleged spotters.

'Decisive action to be taken'

Leigh Gunkel-Keuler, spokesperson for OR Tambo International Airport says, “We will not hesitate to take decisive action when we identify any person helping the criminals, irrespective of whether these spotters are employed by Airports Company South Africa or one of the many service providers operating at the airport.”

An estimated 35 000 people are employed air-port wide, across airline companies, ground handling companies, cargo operators, security companies, retail concessionaires, hotels, public transport operators and government agencies.  Further, only about 10% to 15% of people working at the airport are directly employed by Acsa.

“In addition, we continue to work closely with the SAPS on a variety of measures, including surveillance and intelligence work, to identify the spotters and the criminals.”

SEE: OR Tambo heightens security as multi-million rand robbery details emerge

Acsa is also working with the travel and tourism sector so that it remains engaged on the issue of crime - having met with the Tourism Business Council concerning the spike in this crime trend.

“In so far as driving more robust and consultative engagement is concerned, a case in point is today’s (Tuesday 27 June) Tourism Business Council of South Africa meeting to which we as airport management, Ekurhuleni Metro Police and the SAPS were invited to present.

“As airport management, we met with key stakeholders in the travel and tourism sector. We too spoke of our mounting concern around issues of crime in a candid and transparent manner. SAPS officials were also present to provide an update on their crime prevention approach. Our commitment to being a part of the solution continues," says Gunkel-Keuler.

SEE: OR Tambo heightens security as multi-million rand robbery details emerge

An airport is a complex facility within which many stakeholders operate and Gunkel-Keuler says that in this context, efforts in regard to safety and security need to be carefully synchronised.

“We will continue to work with all law enforcement agencies and the wider airport community to implement activities that will help identify the spotters alleged to be employed at the airport by various companies,” she says.

'Safe and secure portal to report crime' 

Traveller24 previously spoke to Tourism Business Council's GM for Policy Analysis and Strategic Projects Tebogo Umanah, following a heist involving cargo to the estimated value of R24m, also believed to have been part of an alleged internal syndicate.

At the time Umanah indicated that the council was actively engaging with detectives in the Gauteng province, especially concerning OR Tambo international.

Umanah's portfolio includes project management for the Tourism Business Index and the Tourism Safety Initiative, concerning illegal activities within the Tourism Sector and what business can do to report as well as tighten measures around the issue.

"We thought we should try to focus our effort here as an attempt to erase that problem before it gets bigger and we have specifically partnered with detectives focusing on this area," says Umanah. 

According to Umanah, not many are aware of the TBCSA's Tourism Safety Initiative (TSI) which offers its members a "safe and secure portal" to report as well as to active investigations around any criminal networks and activities they suspect their employees or guests might be involved in.  

Umanah says the council works together with the police and individuals who are able to remain anonymous but still ensure the issue of criminal activity is swiftly addressed. 

SEE: Holidaymakers' R4bn February spend points to strong SA tourism growth

"Most of our members are not aware of this TSI benefit of the TBCSA and while the report rate is low, we are looking to work with various tourism authorities as well as government entities in different provinces to ensure that they are able to use this reporting system." 

TSI is not just available to businesses though says Umanah and encouraged all in the hospitality to crack down on this issue that could potentially jeopardise South Africa's lucrative Tourism Industry, which has seen a R6.5 billion influx in SA's economy from December 2016 to February 2017 for accommodation alone. 

Added to this, OR Tambo has just been identified as the most search local destination according to Cheapflights Compass Report, especially China, SA's fastest growing inbound market.

SEE: #SABudgetTravel: Online travel booking patterns sees 'positive growth'


The ACSA Hotline:  0800 00 8080

The ACSA Hotline Email: acsa@thehotline.co.za

ACSA Customer Care Services: Customercare@airports.co.za

TBCSA TSI portal: Click here to report a crime

Safety measures

SEE: Hijacking hotspots: Worst areas in Gauteng, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal

In January this year vehicle tracking and recovery experts, C-track, working with Arrive Alive, revealed hijacking hotspots as well as the top vehicles targeted by criminals.  

ALSO SEE: Hijacking hotspots: Most targeted cars, bakkies in SA

Follow these tips according to Wheels24 to avoid a hijacking:  

  • Have your key ready but not visible. Unlock your car when you're close by.
  • Don’t talk on your cellphone as you walk.  

  • Check the back seat before getting into your car.

  • A well-maintained car is less likely to break down and leave you vulnerable.

  • Plan your route and let someone know what your route is and when to expect you at your destination.

  • Always check the rear view mirror to see if you are being followed.

  • Avoid driving with your windows open and keep the doors locked. Put all valuables out of sight. 

  • Avoid distractions while driving such as using a cellphone.
  • If you suspect you are being followed, drive to your nearest police station or a busy public area.
  • When approaching a red traffic light, slow down so that you only reach it when it turns green.
  • Make sure your driveway is well lit and clear of shrubbery. 
  • If possible, park in a central, well-lit place, preferably with guards on duty. 
  • When stopping behind another vehicle, leave half a vehicle length in front so you can make an emergency escape if necessary.
  • Change your routes and your schedule if possible on a regular basis. 
  • Make arriving at your destination safer by calling ahead and asking someone to open and close your gate for you.

What to do if confronted according to Arrive Alive:

If confronted: Do not lose your temper, threaten or challenge the hijacker 

  • Do not resist, especially if the hijacker has a weapon. Surrender your vehicle and move away. Try to put as much distance between yourself and the hijacker(s) as speedily as possible.
  • Do not reach for your purse or valuables. Leave everything in the vehicle.
  • Try to remain calm at all times and do not show signs of aggression.
  • Be compliant to all demands set by the perpetrator.
  • Do not make eye contact with the hijacker. He may perceive this behavior as a threat and retaliate aggressively.
  • Keep your hands still and visible to the hijacker, so as to give him assurance of your passive content.
  • Do not speak too fast (if you are able to talk) and do not make sudden movements.
  • Gather as much information as possible without posing a threat
  • - How many people?
  • - How many firearms and description thereof?
  • - What were the perpetrators wearing (clothing)?
  • - To which direction did they drive off?
  • - Take note of the language they use (the accent).
  • First phone the SA Police Service on 08600 10111. They will dispatch the medical services if needed.
  • Other emergency numbers you could phone are 112 ANY Network (Vodacom+MTN+Cell C) or 147 Vodacom ONLY.
  • Activate the vehicle-tracking device, if the vehicle is fitted with one.

  • What to read next on Traveller24:

    -  SACAA: SA ready to deal with aviation threats

    OR Tambo Airport uncovers internal 'illegal commissions' scam

    Uber adds safety insurance and claims partner protection to all rides in SA

    We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
    In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
    Subscribe to News24
    Lockdown For
    Voting Booth
    Who do you think is going to win the 2020 US election?
    Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
    Biden is going to take it
    46% - 4800 votes
    It's four more years for Trump
    54% - 5720 votes
    Brent Crude
    All Share
    Top 40
    Financial 15
    Industrial 25
    Resource 10
    All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes morningstar logo