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When the police were called to Durban’s City Lodge to attend to a “minor complaint of fraud”, they had no idea of the identity of one of the suspects.
But word spread fast and crime intelligence soon confirmed that the man behind bars at the Durban central police cells on a somewhat paltry charge involving R8 000 was Frans Sithole, a suspect in thousands of cases of electronic banking crime involving millions of rand.
A search of his car – described by the police as “an office on wheels” – netted 580 exhibits, including keystroke loggers, bank cards, ATM transaction slips, bank account numbers and receipts of transactions, all of which the police allege can be linked to crimes.
Sithole, 53, of Kempton Park, and Daveyton resident Themba Mtsweni, 26, who was arrested with him at the hotel on May 7, are applying for bail in Durban’s commercial crime court.
They profess their innocence. But the application is being strongly opposed by the State which alleges Sithole is the main man of a fraud syndicate and he only started using this name when he was 37 years old.
The police say that over the years, he has used about five different names, four different ID numbers and four different addresses in his various brushes with the law.
He has, on different occasions, given different names, ages and occupations for his children.
He also left and entered SA regularly using various passports, a Home Affairs official testified during the bail hearing.
In an affidavit submitted to the court, Captain Louis Helberg, of the police banking crime task team, said the police had been called to the hotel when managers discovered a deposit slip for the reservation of two rooms for one P Nkosi, reflecting a payment of R8 800, had been forged.
In fact, only R90 had been paid into the hotel’s bank account.
Sithole and Mtsweni – who both used the name P Nkosi when checking in and buying food and drink at the hotel – were arrested and detained. Crime intelligence soon alerted Helberg that Sithole – on the radar of many banks and fraud investigators in the country – was in custody.
Helberg said he had searched Sithole’s Audi in his presence the following day.
He alleges he found the keystroke loggers – which banks say are a huge security threat – stolen and cloned bank cards, a printout of key logger strokes linked to a bank official now arrested in Gauteng, various asset finance applications with copies of identity documents, payslips and bank records not in Sithole’s name, used air tickets in various names, transaction receipts, two of which are linked to bank account take-overs in which more than R1 million was lost, blank forged Home Affairs documents and other documents relating to the Lesotho receiver of revenue.
He said no documents pertaining to Sithole’s stated occupation – selling clothes – were found.
Helberg said bail should not be granted.
“Perpetrators of these crimes are able to easily merge back into the masses,” he said.
In his affidavit, investigating officer Paul Rajoo lists 20 cases to which Sithole is allegedly connected.
And Captain Anton Grimbeek, based with the task team in Gauteng, says he is also linked to an “empty envelope” scam in which “deposits” were made at ATMs and then cleared using the ID of one of the tellers. It was later discovered that the envelopes were empty.
Grimbeek also links him to a scam in which money is transferred from accounts with information obtained through key logging.
The matter before the Durban court involves more than 1 000 counts of fraud relating to unlawful transfers from the account of the Lephale municipality in Limpopo.
The SA Banking Risk Information Centre’s Susanna Potgieter said banks had reported losses of R435m through electronic banking crimes in the past three years and had declared card and electronic crimes “priority crime threats”.
“These crimes are faceless by nature and can be perpetrated from any location at any time of the day without any physical interaction between the perpetrator, the victim or the bank.
“Frans Sithole has been identified by name as a known perpetrator,” she said.
Since their arrests Sithole and Mtsweni have made two unsuccessful high court applications, asking for an order releasing them from custody, claiming their innocence and saying their right to a speedy bail hearing has been infringed.
They say they came to Durban to attend a traditional ceremony and have been victims of Percy Nkosi of Sizabantu Travel who they paid to make the hotel bookings.
Sithole alleges that the police searched his car without his being present and “to my shock they claim to have discovered scanning devices used for fraud card”.
The bail application will continue in September.