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Robbers threaten digital banking costumers

Digital banking in South Africa has grown and it is predicted that users who access banking services via mobile-phone apps will have transacted up to $ 13.6 million in 2022. However, the popular bank apps have attracted criminals who physically assault and rob users.
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This new wave of crime is a deviation from the usual online fraud exercised through phishing emails and hacking. Itumeleng Morapedi from Johannesburg describes how the bandits act: “They grab you, drive you around and force you to tap your fingerprint sensor to log in, increase your withdrawal limit and surrender your life savings.”

Morapedi recounts a time when he was hijacked while driving with a friend in June 2021 in Sandton, Johannesburg, South Africa’s fanciest suburb. They were taken to a township. “Our smartphones were taken, app log-in details were demanded from us and funds transferred out,” he says. “Our bank cards were also taken and funds withdrawn from the ATM. The ordeal lasted over two hours.”

This wave of crime is making ordinary South Africans to shy away from digital banking apps. “We are leaving smartphones with bank apps at home and traveling with the 1999 Nokia phones when going out to the pub. What an uncomfortable way to live in a hi-tech society,” Edna Ramotswe, a teacher in Duduza township, 56 kilometres east of Johannesburg, says. “It’s a bit safer to delete the (bank) wallet app or not carry the cards if in a dodgy place.”

Drewmore Sikhokho, a former detective with the South African police services, says that “taking safety precautions to protect oneself from being a victim of robbers seeking to raid smartphones and bank PINs is the smart thing to do but being proactive too has risks”. Sikhokho, who now works as a private investigator for commercial firms says that it’s risky to delete one’s bank app from the smartphone. “When they find you without any bank app or money, they might harm you for not having money. A frustrated robber in South Africa can do the unthinkable on finding that the victim is walking around with no money, smartphone or bank card.”

These criminals are hard to track as they minimise activity over traceable platforms. They do not transfer their stolen money over bank accounts but rather use mobile platforms offered by several banks in South Africa. Sikhokho says: “With just an SMS, anyone can go to an ATM and withdraw the money. That’s how the telecom networks operate.”

Whereas banks in South Africa operate a 24-hour dedicated service where victims of theft or robbery can make a phone call and block the movement of funds out of their account, the robbers have moved ahead of that system. They sort of abduct and hold their victims for hours to disable the communications with the bank while they empty the account.

Nyasha Bhobo is a freelance writer based in South Africa.