How former public protector Thuli Madonsela lost cash after she fell for a WhatsApp scam

Professor Thuli Madonsela. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

Professor Thuli Madonsela. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Jun 8, 2023


[This story has been update with more information]

Cape Town - Former public protector Thuli Madonsela has opened up about how she was scammed “for months on end” by someone who had hijacked a friend’s WhatsApp profile and used it to regularly extract “small amounts” of money from her and other friends.

Madonsela estimated that she and others in her circle who had been targeted by the scammer, who pretended to be a mutual friend in dire financial straits, had been taken for approximately R10000 altogether.

The story emerged in a tweet she posted on her account yesterday in which she said: “I and a friend lost thousands of rands from a scammer who had hijacked the WhatsApp profile of a mutual friend.

“He was pretending to be that friend. It was only when the scammer became so greedy and brazen that my son and I figured out the scam and warned other friends. WhatsApp ID theft or hacking is real.”

Screen shot of Twitter post

In a telephone interview, Madonsela said the friend whose WhatsApp profile had been hijacked was someone known to her and her friends, and they often chipped in to help the woman, who was down on her luck, using the eWallet platform.

Seeming somewhat amused by the fact that she had been conned so easily, Madonsela said it was only much later after her son had helped her realise she was being scammed, that she began to notice jarring things that should have been plain through the experience.

“Every time I called to speak to my friend there seemed to be a problem with the line or her phone and she would text saying she could hear me but because her phone was broken I probably couldn’t hear her.

“Also, the terms of endearment she used, such as the word ‘darling’ were not words my friend would ordinarily use for me, but I was so busy most of the time, I didn’t really pay much attention. It was only later.”

Madonsela said she did not know much about how the eWallet works, but her son got suspicious....

“We used my son’s cell number for an eWallet which was collected in Joburg while the scanner claimed not to have received the pin. Through that we knew where the amount was collected. We now knew he was in Joburg.

“From the text language we could also figure out he was youngish and male.”

When she mentioned the issue to mutual friends, they all confirmed that they had been scammed by the same person who had even sent photos of an empty fridge to illustrate how dire the situation was and saying she could not feed her children.

Asked if the matter had been reported to the police, Madonsela said that when she discovered it was a scam and finally managed to contact her actual friend whose profile had been hijacked, she asked her to report it.

Essential Security Against Evolving Threats expert Carey van Vlaanderen said that with 23 million users in South Africa, WhatsApp is the dominant social messaging platform and was a popular platform for scammers looking to cash in quickly.

“WhatsApp scams are usually social engineering scams, which can be difficult for users to detect as they often rely on exploiting human vulnerabilities rather than technical vulnerabilities.

“This makes it important for users to be sceptical of unsolicited messages or requests and to verify the authenticity of any communication or offer before doing anything else.”