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Durban - Cellphone shops across Durban may have been swindled out of millions by a syndicate that pays unemployed people cash for high-end handsets they fraudulently obtain.
The scam, in which bogus customers take out cellphone contracts using fake IDs, payslips and bank statements, came to light when a local Cell C store investigated why hundreds of people, who were contacted for falling behind with payments, denied taking out the contracts.
“These were people who had numerous contracts taken out on their names,” Seelan Pillay, a private investigator hired by the franchisee, said on Tuesday.
In the past month alone the Cell C franchise owner, who has about 30 shops, allegedly lost more than R1.5 million to the syndicate whose tentacles are believed to stretch across the province.
At the weekend, two women recruited by the syndicate were arrested by police with the help of private investigators.
The women, aged 25 and 22, were in the process of taking multiple contracts on fancy cellphones when their actions raised the suspicion of the store manager.
Pillay and his Bhopa Investigations colleague, Beaver Shanmogum, interviewed the women at the shop and said they established that both were lying about the details they submitted.
They were not the people in the ID books they presented, and not employed by the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education as their salary slips purported to show, Pillay said.
Chatsworth police were called and the women were arrested.
One of the women, arrested on Saturday, appeared in court on Tuesday and the other, arrested on Sunday, was expected to appear in court on Wednesday.
The investigators said they had uncovered the details of at least 200 people whose IDs had been cloned by the syndicate and used to take out cellphone contracts.
Pillay said expensive cellphones such as the Samsung S3 and S4, BlackBerry Q10 and Apple iPhones were the preferred choice of the alleged con artists.
The phones retail from R8 500 to R9 400.
“A pattern emerged and we realised we were dealing with serious fraudsters.
“We have established that they made off with more than R1.5 million at one franchise and we think it may be much more if we had to count the other places which have been hit,” he said.
Pillay believes the syndicate may have struck stores across the province.
One victim had 11 cellphone contracts taken out in his name.
A retired a couple were dumbfounded when they were told that they had fallen behind on the payments of their eight cellphone contracts.
Pillay said from preliminary investigations it appeared that the recruits were given R1 000 for every cellphone they brought to the syndicate.
One of the suspects arrested at the weekend had said that she and others were recruited by a woman in uMlazi, he said.
Shanmogum said that after a recruit was given a fake identity document, payslip and bank statements, he or she would be sent to up to six cellphone shops in a day to apply for contracts.
All of the identity documents had the right ID numbers and names on them but fake pictures. The payslips all purport to be from the KZN education department.
“Depending on how much their payslips said they earned they could qualify for three contracts at one store,” Shanmogum said.
“They will then take those same papers to other stores and apply for more contracts and in no time they could make off with at least R60 000 to R100 000 in cellphones.”
After taking possession of the phones, the recruits would meet the syndicate members in the CBD where they would exchange them for cash.
It is not yet known from where the syndicate generates the fake IDs or the fraudulent payslips.
Dhurmalingam Subramoney said he and his wife Mary of Kharwastan, Chatsworth, were stunned when told that they were not up to date on the payments of eight cellphone contracts in their name.
Over one day in July, fraudsters were able to get contracts for three iPhones and five BlackBerrys worth nearly R60 000, and racked up thousands of rand in calls.
“When that woman called me to say I had all these phones I told her she was crazy,” Subramoney said.
“I do not have any accounts with any firms. Everything I have I pay cash for - always have and always will,” he said.
“Our phones are all cash phones and when we want airtime we go and buy airtime. I don’t know where they think we will take so many phones on contract.”
Cell C’s executive head of communications, Karin Fourie, said identity theft was a problem for all service-related industries and not only the mobile industry.
“The South African public must be aware of how easily their identities can be assumed. Criminals in this area spend months taking over someone’s identity and use it to perform criminal activities,” she said.
Richard Boorman, spokesman for Vodacom, said: “We’re not aware of organised fraud (along) these lines taking place in our stores.
We’ve got an active fraud prevention team and work with the authorities to prosecute the isolated cases that sometimes take place.”
Police spokesman, Captain Thulani Zwane, said police were investigating two charges of fraud against the arrested women. He said that while investigations were continuing, police believed the incident was isolated.
“We are not aware of any syndicate,” Zwane said.
However, Pillay showed the Daily News their case file with the bogus ID documents of 200 people, used to get contracts.
“Unfortunately, we have not been able to track them down because the addresses provided by the syndicates were incorrect or did not exist,” he said. “We want people to come forward so we can build a case around these people.”
Pillay and Shanmogum can be contacted at 078 163 4029 and 082 666 3289, respectively.