Durban — A gang of women pretending to be police officers – who assault and force victims to give them their bank cards and pin numbers – are believed to be behind almost 100 cases of robbery and assault from Durban to Port Shepstone.
Police say the matter is under investigation, but community activist Zain Soosiwala from eThekwini Secure, a security company, confirmed they knew of about 50 cases reported to the police. Soosiwala said there were also many more anecdotal accounts, not officially filed because those attacked were scared of secondary victimisation by the police, or were not taken seriously.
“There have been incidents all over the city, all over KZN, but a large number of these incidents have happened around Berea, Musgrave and Overport, basically where there is a high population of people. They are taking advantage of the vulnerable, the elderly, because they are soft targets,” he said.
While some attacks have happened inside malls, others have happened when people left these and were walking towards a taxi, a bus or an Uber, he said.
“They are followed into a mall, tailed around, their movements are watched, and then they are approached at a quieter place … these criminals are also aware that there are cameras and that they might be recorded inside the malls,” Soosiwala said.
He said many people were deterred from lodging formal complaints because in some instances police have asked alleged victims to prove that they didn’t withdraw the money for their own use, accused them of being forgetful, laughed at them, and been rude or reluctant to take down details; and apparently one person was told that a case couldn’t be opened because there wasn’t a pen at the police station.
Last week an Overport pensioner said she was accosted by three women in The Atrium shopping centre. They asked her for help and then forced her out of the building.
Outside, she was told that they were police and she was a suspect in a murder investigation. The woman said they threatened to shoot her when she tried to escape, then bundled her into a car and sped off.
She said the three women, who appeared to be a mother and her daughters, choked her, burnt her with cigarettes and beat her up, while the driver, a man, steered them from place to place, at times stopping so they could withdraw money from her account or to go on a shopping spree for alcohol, cigarettes and juice with her money.
The woman said because she is Hindu, the women also force-fed her pork sausage, which she doesn’t eat because it’s against her religious beliefs.
Soosiwala said despite the influx of similar reports, police had done nothing to nip it in the bud.
“By SAPS’ own admission there have been more than 50 cases that have been opened. Unfortunately, nothing was done; no task team was set up, no inquiry was done from a higher level, and that is quite disturbing,” he said.
It was left to civil society and community activists to raise public awareness through social media, he said.
“We’ve got 187 groups, 100 000 followers on Facebook and Twitter. We reach 250 000 people easily in our posts, so we decided to take it upon ourselves that if no response comes from law enforcement, we need to warn communities about what is happening.
“It’s not a kidnapping per se, but it is a robbery. People are taken for joyrides for a period of time where they are robbed, abused, assaulted and threatened, and then are dropped off within the city.
“In one case a lady was dropped off in the deep recesses of an informal area and she had to make her way home,” Soosiwala said.
The Atrium management this week urged customers to be alert during the peak seasonal trading times and to contact local authorities with information or questions regarding these crimes.
“The Atrium can confirm after engaging with the local police that there has been a significant increase of reported abductions within the greater Berea area; management had met with local authorities after the most recent incident was reported on November 1.
“As this is a growing safety issue in Overport City, it is imperative that the community and customers work together in a combined effort to work against criminal activity and report any suspicious behaviour immediately to local authorities,” it said in a statement.
Police spokesperson Colonel Robert Netshiunda confirmed that a 64-year-old woman was robbed of an undisclosed amount of money and a cellphone by unknown suspects who reportedly posed as police officers outside a mall in Overport last Thursday.
“The woman was forced into the vehicle, robbed and was dropped off along the freeway towards Pinetown,” he said.
This week the police launched the Safer Festive Season Operation, which included safety at malls and shopping centres. However, security for shoppers was the responsibility of the centres, Netshiunda said.
“Police are pleading with shoppers not to carry huge amounts of cash. They must be vigilant whenever going for a shopping spree and be wary of scammers and robbers,” he said.
Criminologist Professor Nirmala Gopal says it’s not unusual for women to be involved in gang-related crime but their involvement has always been overlooked because of society’s focus on men and as a consequence of that there wasn’t enough empirical evidence that showed, over a period of time, to what extent women belonged to gangs and perpetrated criminal activity via a gang.
She said their actions were probably motivated by various economic reasons and they chose to become professional criminals because targeting others was an easy way to sustain themselves.
“In all probability they have been doing this for a while and they got away with it, and so they continue with it until they are apprehended and receive an appropriate sentence through the criminal justice system.”
She said criminals usually carried some form of emotional psychological baggage of their own as a result of being victims of violence or other types of abuse which led to the phenomenon of “violence begets violence”.
“No criminal believes that he or she will be apprehended. So that is the greatest motivation. These are usually people who have no empathy, so it’s very selfish. They don’t care about the feelings of others, they don’t care about the consequences of others, whether psychological, emotional or social.
“They are unremorseful, and these kinds of individuals we label as sociopathic, because they manipulate, they perpetrate these crimes without having any feeling, care or emotional attachment to what is happening to the victim,” said Gopal.
Independent on Saturday