South Africa has become a haven for operators of an infamous international email fraud scheme that has reaped a known R100-million from gullible victims in the past year alone.
Criminals from various parts of Africa have set up shop in the country as they try to lure people from around the world into fraudulent deals involving advance fees, also known as the "419" scam or advance-fee fraud. The scheme is named after the relevant section of the Nigerian criminal code that outlaws the practice.
According to the South African Police Service and National Intelligence Agency (NIA), foreigners were being lured to South Africa and then defrauded. Among the bigger cases was a Nigerian syndicate that had conned a British citizen out of R32-million, an American out of R6-million and a Canadian out of R5-million.
In South Africa last year more than R100-million worth of known fraud transactions took place. Figures for January indicate that similar transactions have almost reached R5-million.
Selby Bokaba, the spokesperson for the national police commissioner, Jackie Selebi, said despite numerous warnings, recipients of scam letters had fallen victim to fraudsters. "It is a serious problem - that's why we set up a commercial crimes unit to probe the scam, and have enjoyed unprecedented success," he said.
Successes in the fight against the scam show just how widespread it is: during the past two years police have caught about 250 fraudsters, most of whom were from Nigeria. So far 18 people have been convicted and jailed.
The Scorpions and the Asset Forfeiture Unit have also been involved in clamping down on ringleaders, in one major breakthrough seizing the Johannesburg home and vehicles of a Nigerian who was the kingpin behind an operation involving almost R50 million.
Vusi Mavimbela, the director-general of the NIA, said the email scam was commonly associated with Nigerian nationals, but not limited to them. "Even South Africans are running 419 scams," he said.
Mavimbela said the intelligence agency had been investigating the fraudulent use of government officials' names in e-mails.
Several politicians, including Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the minister of minerals and energy, have been targeted by fraudsters. Letters carrying the names of Mlambo-Ngcuka; her deputy, Susan Shabangu; and Sandile Nogxina, the director-general, have been spammed to hundreds of people around the world, promising takers up to $2-million (about R13-million).
Bokaba said victims were targeted at random through circular letters, fax or email messages that related to the approved transfer of funds, often running into millions of dollars. The person receiving the letter was promised a sizeable percentage of the funds if they let the money be cleared through their bank accounts.
If the intended victim was interested in the deal, they were requested to forward a variety of documents - which generally included blank company letterheads to be signed later, blank invoices with telephone and fax numbers, and bank account details.
Once these had been obtained, the scammers often requested that the individuals fly out to South Africa or Nigeria to complete the deal.
In many instances, the victims were identified by hotel managers or consular offices as being involved in a scam, and the police were then notified. Bokaba said the police had set up stings with the participation of either a police agent or the victim. In these cases the the transactions took place under surveillance and the fraudsters were arrested when the transactions were completed.
Bokaba said scam letters received in South Africa were fed into a database that was managed and distributed for further investigation, and the feedback was given to international complainants. Police investigated more than 1 200 letters last year.
Greg Massel, the co-chairperson of the Internet Service Providers' Association, said although the 419 scam was addressed by fraud laws, legislation on spam to prevent electronic messages such as emails was inadequate.