June 18, 2024

Fraudsters are preying on traditional African beliefs to scam South Africans

5 min read

South Africans are deeply connected to their culture and cultural beliefs. Followers of the fundamental traditional African belief system believe they are watched over by their ancestors, who guide them in times of crisis or when facing an important decision in their lives.

Many South Africans are facing harsh economic conditions and would typically seek guidance on how to see them through these challenging times. “Scam artists are abusing cultural belief systems and are taking advantage of the believers’ financial desperation to scam them for everything they have,” says Nazia Karrim, head of Product Development at the Southern African Fraud Prevention Service (SAFPS).

She adds that the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation’s specialised 419-Scams Task Team has noticed the emergence of ancestry scams, and approached the SAFPS to help inform the public about the threat.

High-value scam
Karrim points out that the modus operandi is intricate and malicious. The scam is run by a syndicate, who profile their potential victims before approaching them. When the opportunity arises, a member of the syndicate, the communicator, makes contact with the potential victim who is subsequently informed they have been sent on behalf of a sangoma, who claims to have been contacted by the victim’s ancestors, and that the said ancestors need to urgently contact the potential victim to address their plight.

A second member of the syndicate poses as the sangoma who is receiving the messages from the potential victim’s ancestors, informing the potential victim that they need to be cleansed to help improve their financial circumstances and life in general.

“The victim is told to bring a set amount of cash in a bag when visiting the sangoma, which will be cleansed and blessed by the ancestors,” explains Karrim. “On arrival, the sangoma requests the victim, as part of the ritual, to drink a cleansing herbal remedy, containing hallucinogens where they reportedly hear the voices of their ancestors, prompting them to hand over the bag full of cash to the sangoma. The sangoma blesses the money, which miraculously doubles in value. The scammers, unbeknown to the intoxicated victim, add the additional cash into the bag during the ritual, leading the victim to believe the ruse.”

The victim is then told to return to the sangoma after they have withdrawn a significant sum of money (either after liquidating their pension fund or withdrawing their life savings). “The communicator within the syndicate promises the victim that the sangoma will cleanse and bless the money, who may double or triple this amount upon their next visit,” adds Karrim.

However, at the next meeting with the sangoma, the victim is drugged again – handing over their life savings, and in return the victim is handed a bag filled with counterfeit money or paper. The sangoma impresses upon the victim that they are only allowed to open the bag a day or two later for the blessing to be successful and promises the victim that when they do so, the money would be twice or three times the value.

“The effects of the drugs take a few days to wear off and that’s when the victim realises they have been scammed, but the syndicate has disappeared by then. The incident volumes are alarming. The DPCI 419-Scams Task Team has informed the SAFPS that this scam has already impacted numerous victims who hand over hundreds of thousands of rands in each case. The loss value of this scam could range in millions of rands,” warns Karrim.

Easy money
She points out that there is another investment scam that the DPCI 419-Scams Task Team is investigating, which involves a commodity trading syndicate.

“This scam is being run by foreign nationals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who are visiting South Africa posing as mining executives from that country. After a ‘chance’ meeting with the potential victim, whom they befriend, the phoney mining executives set up business meetings to present the potential victim with a bogus business proposition that involves the trading of coltan stones. The phoney mining executives advise the potential victim that the market selling price of these stones is currently very high, and that the victim is welcome to take a sample of the rock and conduct their own research. The victim is then contacted by another member of the syndicate pretending to be the buyer who is interested in making a purchase,” says Karrim.

The phoney mining executives and buyer meet with the victim to discuss the potentially lucrative transaction. In keeping with the ruse, the phoney mining executives assure the victim and the phoney buyer that the stones are legitimate, but that they should have the stones tested at their expense. The phoney mining executives arrange a tester who provides a false certification that the sample is genuine.

“To facilitate a large-scale transaction, the victim is informed that they require the acquisition of numerous other certifications, licences and tax documents from the DRC, which the phoney mining executives claim they will facilitate the arrangement of, but the victim will be required to bankroll all the costs. After numerous costly and fruitless engagements, the victim realises the transaction was a scam and by then they have lost a significant amount of money.”

She adds that the DPCI is concerned about the number of people impacted by this scam as well as the potential losses, which are estimated to be of millions of rands.

A platform to address the scourge of scams
In response to the growing need for a proactive approach to fraud prevention, the SAFPS launched Yima: a one-stop-shop website for South Africans to report scams, secure their identity, and scan any website for vulnerabilities related to scams.

A key element of the website is the ability to report a scam incident or any suspicious activity to the SAFPS. These reports are analysed to assist in syndicate identification and shared with law enforcement for investigation by specialised task teams.

A scams hotline is also available to report a fraud incident directly to participating banks, retailers or telecoms companies via a single number: 083 123 SCAM (7226). Users will only need to remember one number rather than search for each institution’s fraud contact centres numbers one at a time, especially when they are dealing with the trauma of falling victim to a scam.

Educating the public is one of the critical functions of the Yima website. Karrim points out that the SAFPS has added a special scam type category for ancestry and commodity investment scams on Yima to help educate the public about these scams.

Armed with this information, potential victims can use tools on the Yima website to help them refine their decision-making process. One of the features on Yima’s website is a decision tree that walks consumers through a decision-making process to help them discover if they are potentially being targeted in a scam.

Potential victims can also use the verification tool, Verify’em, on the Yima website, which will help them identify if a fellow citizen is in fact a South African citizen – verifying them against the Department of Home Affairs database using facial biometrics. If they do get scammed by that individual, they will have a profile confirmation to help identify the scammer.

“Know whom you are dealing with and be suspicious when you are requested to spend large sums of money via unconventional means and circumstances,” cautions Karrim.

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