DEFRAUDED: Domestic worker Zanele Mgwaba had R299 deducted from her bank account after receiving a strange call from a company.

If you seldom, if ever, go through your bank statement, line by line, consider this: Fraudulently acquired lists of consumers’ names, ID numbers, cellphone numbers and bank account details are apparently being traded in the marketplace. This is information that makes it easy for the ethically challenged to activate a debit order on your account, without your knowledge, much less your consent.

Every month South African banks process about 31 million debit orders, 0.4 percent – 120 000 – of which are disputed, according to the Payments Association of SA (Pasa).

That’s up from 0.15 percent in December 2007.

As colleague Angelique Arde reported recently in Personal Finance, many of these disputes are due to fraud and “invalid mandates”, according to Pasa chief executive Walter Volker.

My inbox certainly suggests that debit order fraud is on the rise. I’ve investigated many complaints from consumers that their bank accounts have been debited by companies without their permission.

Either they never interacted with the company at all or they received a call, but didn’t agree to pay for a product or service.

Mostly, after my intervention, the debit order is cancelled and the money that was illegally taken refunded. A call centre agent “who brought her own data with her” is often blamed, or a “system error”, and the companies will say no more.

Many of those who are targeted are unsophisticated consumers. Armed with only a cellphone with pre-paid airtime as a means of communicating with the corporate world, they often face a tough, relatively expensive battle to get to the bottom of who took their money, and why, and then to get the debit order cancelled and their money refunded.

In the most recent rogue debit order case I took up, the victim was my domestic worker, Zanele Mgwaba.

The company involved, Innovasion Marketing Enterprises. Based in central Durban, they had Mgwaba’s name, ID number, former address and bank account details before they phoned her, despite the fact that she’d never done business with them before.

Her account was debited in the amount of R299 on April 30. She knew that because her bank sent her an SMS to this effect, with the name Innovasion as a reference.

She insisted she hadn’t given anyone her banking details over the phone, but she did recall getting an odd call from a woman last month.

“She read out my ID number and my old address, and asked me for my current address because they were trying to send me a letter about discounts,” Mgwaba said.

“It was a very short call, and afterwards I was worried about how she had my ID number.”

I began my investigation by calling FNB and providing the reference details.

I was given the number of the debit order processing company, Stratcol, which supplied the name and number of their client, Innovasion.

I called the number and was put through to a woman who gave her name as “Cathy”.

I identified myself as Mgwaba’s employer and said she denied agreeing to a debit order or supplying her bank details for this purpose, suggesting that the call recording be retrieved.

Cathy put me on hold for a few minutes while she appeared to listen to the recorded call, and then came back to me to insist that everything was above board.

Mgwaba could be heard giving her bank details, she said, discussing what she earned and agreeing to being debited for a LaVida travel membership package at R99 per month, with a R299 debit in the first month.

Mgwaba was incredulous. None of that had happened, she said.

Faced with two vastly different versions of that call, I insisted that the recording be made available to Mgwaba, given that with telesales deals, the call recording takes the place of a written contract.

Cathy said she couldn’t play it to me over the phone, when what she clearly meant was that she wouldn’t.

I was told to send an e-mail to the company, requesting that the call be sent to me by e-mail.

Cathy’s attitude was dismissive, and when she was challenged, patronising.

I sent that e-mail immediately, revealing that my interest in the case was both personal – on behalf of Mgwaba – and professional.

Cathy called me two days later, this time adopting a friendly, apologetic tone. She said an unspecified “investigation” was under way and that Mgwaba would be refunded.

Naturally, I asked her why, in our previous conversation, she had claimed that the telesales call was perfectly in order, with the offer and its costs fully explained, and Mgwaba giving her consent and supplying her banking details, when clearly, none of that happened.

She said the conversation in question was conducted in Zulu, and the “quality assurance” (QA) woman had listened to it through a headset and translated it for her (Cathy).

“So the QA person lied?” I asked. Yes, said Cathy.

“We suspect that she was working hand in hand with the telesales agent because her (the agent’s) commission was high for the month of April.”

When I asked how the bank details had been obtained, she said: “Agents come in with their own data.”

Again I asked for the recording to be e-mailed to me.

And I asked what the investigation had revealed and how many other people had had fraudulent debit orders activated on their bank accounts. And again, the most crucial question of all: how the telesales agents came to have Mgwaba’s and other people’s ID numbers and bank details.

I asked if other victims had received apologies and been refunded, as in Mgwaba’s case.

Last Tuesday, Innovasion owner Lloyd Moonsamy e-mailed me, saying he’d prefer to answer my questions in person at his office, on Thursday morning.

I agreed, but it was his “PRO” Mo Gopal who was tasked to deal with me.

He had not had sight of my two e-mails to the company, outlining the case in detail, and was clearly determined to tell me as little as possible.

“It was totally wrong…” he began.

“What was wrong?” I asked.

“It’s an internal policy,” he said.

The telesales agent had been suspended, Gopal said.

He didn’t appear to know about the QA person’s involvement, but a manager who had joined us confirmed she had been suspended.

I again asked to listen to the recording in question. Gopal refused, saying I wasn’t “the customer”. I said Mgwaba was willing to supply her consent over the phone, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

Later, I phoned to say that we were both willing to return to the office to listen to the recording, but got no response.

So I think it’s safe to say that the company has no intention of letting us hear that call.

I repeatedly urged Moonsamy to respond to my questions in writing, but that didn’t happen.

Clearly, had Mgwaba attempted to get justice on her own, she would have got nowhere with Innovasion.

She would have been told she had agreed to everything, and that there was a recording to prove it, and she would never have been given the opportunity of hearing a recording of that conversation to prove otherwise. This is a despicable state of affairs.

Clearly, many people have debit orders on their bank accounts which they didn’t agree to, and either can’t get stopped, or haven’t noticed.