Nomnikelo Sigenu, a housing activist, lives in a two-room shack in the Good Hope shack settlement in Germiston, east of Johannesburg. Sigenu makes a living by selling amagwinya (vetkoek) and sliced polony.
Between 22 October and 5 November last year, the mother of two says she was scammed out of R20 000. The money belonged to her stokvel, a community savings pool, which she and her colleagues had been using to save up for December festivities. “People want their money and I don’t have it,” she said. “They should have received their money on 1 December … but I will try to pay them by the end of January.”
It began when Sinegu received an email in October, claiming to be from a commercial bank in Ukraine called First Ukrainian International Bank.
They explained that Banele Sigenu, her brother, had died of an undisclosed illness in 2016 in Ukraine. “The person who sent me an email said I have to fill in a form to claim $2.6 million [more than R30 million at the time] that my brother left,” she said.
Sigenu said she had no reason to question the authenticity of the email as the person identified in the email as Banele Sigenu is her brother, who left South Africa in the late 1990s. She’s unsure where he went, but thinks he left for Europe with seven other employees of a manufacturing company.
“There is one of my cousins who tried to trace my brother and found one of the people who left with him. They told my cousin that my brother was sick, but we’ve never been informed whether he got healed or not,” Sigenu said.
The email asked Sigenu to scan and send some of her personal documents, including her ID, to verify her as her brother’s beneficiary. After the verification process, she was asked to create a Ukrainian “non-residential” bank account online to enable her brother’s lawyers in Ukraine to transfer the money to her South African bank account.
The email said there was a compulsory fee for registering such a “non-residential” account. “The only secure means of transferring such huge sum from Europe to South Africa without any hitches is through online transfer … There is an obligation that you make a payment of $620 [then about R8 500],” the email read.
“We have the account of our agent in South Africa, in who’s [sic] account you will make the deposit and he will pay us in dollars, that is to save you the stress of going to Western Union and paying charges,” stated another email, sent on 12 October.
She paid the registration amount on 19 October, mistakenly paying R9 000. But she was told not to worry about it because when the more than R30 million was deposited into her account, all the administrative fees would be paid back.
Sigenu then received acknowledgement of the registered account. But after a series of additional emails, she was told there was another R39 101.43 required to activate the account. “As you can see your account status is INACTIVE hence there is need for you to have the account Activate [sic] before you can be able to make the transfer to your designated bank in South Africa.”
But Sigenu was unable to raise the required amount. “I must pay R39 000 for activation I don’t have that money ‘Steven’ [the lawyer] I’ve never have it in my life so please I’m begging u can u please pay it for me I also don’t want to lose this money please I’m so stressed now,” she pleaded in an email, explaining to the lawyer how desperately she needed the money.
She told the Ukrainian bank and ‘Steven’ that she only had R11 000, not the R39 101.43 required. The lawyers told her it was fine, that she could pay the amount she had, which she did.
It wasn’t long after that Sigenu realised she had been scammed.
Webroot Smarter Cybersecurity, an American company that protects businesses and consumers from cyber threats, said in 2017 that about 1.4 million phishing websites were created globally every month. Statista, an international data company with headquarters in Hamburg, Germany, recorded the detection of at least 233 040 phishing websites between the second quarter of 2013 and second quarter of 2018.
“In the past, phishing attacks targeted as many people as possible … Today’s phishing has become much more sophisticated … Attacks are highly targeted, they carry advanced payloads and they use a sense of urgency to impel reckless response,” said Webroot’s report.
On 19 November, Sigenu went to the police station to report the fraud. She told New Frame that officers “at the Germiston police station said they will not allow me to make an affidavit about money that I deposited myself”.
On 21 November, she went to an FNB branch in Germiston to report the incident because the bank account of the so-called agent, into which she was instructed to deposit the money, was an FNB account.
When she explained that she was there to report a scam, “the lady I found there said there is nothing they can do. They even prevented me from entering inside the bank to seek help.”
Sigenu lost hope and gave up.
She has since decided to join another stokvel where each person contributes R1 000 a month. She has requested to be the first person to receive the money, at the end of January.
“With the R10 000 I will get from this stokvel, I will use it to pay the other stokvel members that I owe. I will pay the outstanding R10 000 via instalment until I finish,” she told New Frame.
The bank and SAPS fail to help
A banking official at one of Johannesburg’s FNB branches told New Frame that she was shocked the Germiston branch had turned Sigenu away instead of assisting her.
Another FNB official, who works in the fraud department, said: “At the fraud department, we only try saving funds if there are funds still available in the account [once we’ve frozen it.] If there are no funds in the account, the complainant is advised that unfortunately funds in the account [under investigation] have been utilised.”
The bank official added that “if the complainant wants to know who the scammer was, that is when we advise them to report to the South African Police Service. The police will subpoena the bank to disclose details of the account holder. The first thing that should happen when a customer gets to the branch and informs them that ‘I have been scammed’, the branch should have called the fraud department.”
The Germiston police station communication officer, Constable Mabunda, told New Frame: “There was supposed to be a case opened … If a person pretends to be something else, even if you deposited money wilfully, and you find out that the person is not what she or he said to be, that means the police must get what is going on because this person might not be the first or the last person to be scammed … This means that [the police officer] who turned [Sigenu] away did not do a right job.”