Special report: e-toll cloning mayhem

By Angelique Serrao, Theresa Taylor and Kutlwano Olifant Time of article published Jan 27, 2014

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Johannesburg - Two months into the rollout of e-tolling in Gauteng and the complaints about cloned and fake number plates are pouring in.

The Star set out to see if it would be possible to buy fake number plates – and found it was as easy as buying a takeaway meal.

Five out of six shops in and around Joburg that sold number plates gave journalists new plates without any documentation needed.

Journalists even drove in with a car whose plates were completely different to the ones asked for, and they weren’t questioned.

Sergeant Adele Freshwater, of the Joburg metro police department, said cloned plates were a massive problem they had been dealing with for years. They were expecting things to worsen with the rollout of e-tolling.

Freshwater said they had already received complaints from members of the public who are getting e-toll bills for vehicles they do not own, but which have the same plates as their cars.


SA National Roads Agency Limited spokesman Vusi Mona admitted that number plate cloning was a problem.

“But, as things stand, it looks limited to a few vehicles that have been reported to the call centre,” he said.

Mona said road users who were receiving invoices that could suggest their vehicles had been cloned should contact the call centre at 0800 726 725.

But even being fitted with an e-tag doesn’t guarantee you will not get an e-toll bill from a car that has copied your plates.

John Eksteen, from Ultimate Interiors, registered his company’s 15-car fleet with e-tags as soon as tolling began on Gauteng’s highways.

He said that by the middle of last month he received invoices from Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) that puzzled him. One was for one of their VW Caddy panel vans travelling on the Gauteng highway when it was in fact in Richards Bay. They had a Tracker log for the vehicle.

Eksteen noticed that the invoices showed the vehicle was being charged for travelling without an e-tag, when there is an e-tag in the van.

When he received photos for the transactions, instead of the company’s panel van with blue writing, the pictures showed a red Mini Cooper with the same number plates as their legally registered van.

Eksteen said he had e-mailed the ETC numerous times to tell them the car in the transactions was not their vehicle and the Mini Cooper clearly had fake plates, but he had not received a response.


The transactions keep increasing in price because they had not been paid and all the e-tags in the company’s fleet beep repeatedly under gantries, showing they had an overdue account.

"I feel like their system is not working, and I am keeping a log of every invoice to make sure I am not being double-billed or billed at the wrong rate,” Eksteen said.

Justice Project South Africa chairman Howard Dembovsky said cloned number plates had been a problem since he started working in the road traffic environment six years ago.

At least a third of motor vehicles on the road were cloned.

Dembovsky said the legal, law-abiding car owner had to prove that the car – which is the same model and make – that is receiving e-toll bills and traffic fines was a clone – a task that was often impossible.


He said the black-and-white e-toll pictures added to the problem, because some colour models looked exactly the same in the grey-scale images.


Dembovsky said advanced technology to pick up differences in cars had not proved effective.

“Their science fact appears to be nothing but science fiction. The cameras haven’t combated cloning.”


Theresa Taylor reports:

The illegal plates took less time than a Big Mac to make.

I handed over a scrap of paper with some numbers and letters scrawled across it.

R200 for two.

And minutes later I had in my hands the tool that would allow me to override the e-toll system.

Right opposite the City of Joburg’s regional offices on the corner of Loveday and Plein streets, number plates are being sold illegally, without any proof of who they belong to.

A number of plate makers patrol the streets, searching for customers.

The Star paid R200 to the employees of one company on Plein Street and received the plates within five minutes.

The shop didn’t ask to see any documentation proving that the plate number they had been given actually belonged to me and not to another motorist.

The plate numbers I claimed as my own could have been those of any motorist in the country.

And the ease of getting the plates was not unique to the CBD.

The same situation played itself out at a shop in Fordsburg, where staff issued me with number plates for R110 each.

The store even includes the Gauteng province’s logo on their name board, but appeared to give no thought to the regulations.

At a shop in Vosloorus, Ekurhuleni, staff had a notice on the wall declaring they would not give out any plates without being shown ID and registration papers.

However, after writing down my identity number in a tattered book, they gave over the plates without proof.

One staff member seemed concerned, but accepted the explanation that I was “certain” these plates were my own.


Kutlwano Olifant reports:

It takes about seven minutes to own illegal registration plates.

Simple and easy.

Not far from the Langlaagte testing station in Joburg, illegal number plates were sold to The Star for R240 – after negotiating a R10 discount


The service was quick – the maximum waiting period would be 10 minutes.

We told the salesman we were not in possession of the vehicle papers, nor had we brought the car with us.

He simply asked for the registration number. Seven minutes later, a young man approached The Star team and handed over the plates.

A receipt was given after one was asked for.

Our next stop was Randburg. The woman who assisted us requested documents or to see the vehicle. But when we told her that we hadn’t brought any, she asked for an identity document. After about five minutes, a man presented us with a set of plates which cost R170.

At a shop in Xavier Junction, southern Joburg, The Star team ran out of luck because documentation and the vehicle itself were needed in order to procure number plates. The owner said this was to ensure security protocols were being followed.


Justice Project South Africa chairman Howard Dembovsky said there are two types of illegal number plates.

The first is when a vehicle has been cloned. This is when someone deliberately searches for a vehicle that is the same make, colour and model as theirs and then copies that car’s number plate.

This is difficult to trace and it’s almost impossible to prove that the vehicle doesn’t belong to you.

The second is a fake number plate. This is when the vehicle make, model and colour are not the same and just the plates have been copied. This is easier to trace.


Angelique Serrao reports:

Unless specialised units are formed to combat vehicle cloning, the problem will just keep growing.

This is according to Alex Parkes, a metro cop who deals with customer complaints related to false number plates.

He said they registered 420 cases last year and were seeing an increased number of vehicles with fake plates.

The Joburg metro police have a number plate investigative unit, the only team in the country looking specifically at this problem, and they are seeing the number of false plates and cloned cars increasing constantly.

The unit has three investigating officers and two cars that are fitted with number plate recognition software.

The officers drive around, picking up any problems with the plates and registration of cars.

“It seems to be becoming the norm. People think they will take a chance because they don’t want to pay fines and tolls.”

But there are serious consequences if you are found with a fake or cloned number plate, said Sergeant Adele Freshwater.

“You will be arrested. The perception is that you won’t be caught, but you can be, and then you will face a criminal record.

Sanctions vary from fines to imprisonment.

There are instances where some false plates are not intentional. A mistake is made when the number plate is made and the owner doesn’t pick it up. Other false plates are deliberately made by people who speed but don’t want to be prosecuted.

These are often straight, cloned vehicles that have the same model and colour.

“These are extremely difficult to trace,” said Parkes.

“Cloning is a bigger problem than fake number plates. We are finding that people are purchasing cloned vehicles without even realising it.”

Parkes said often the plates come with fake licence and vehicle registration papers.

The unit was finding that people were using more and more innovative ways to dodge the system.

Karabo Ramohlala, of the number plate investigative unit, said one vehicle was stolen from a dealership brand new and hadn’t even been registered yet. Before it was sold, it had been cloned four times.

He said cases of new cars being stolen from dealerships were increasing because they were difficult to trace, as they had not been registered and did not appear on the system yet.

Freshwater said they knew cloned plates cases would escalate with e-tolling, but the problem was bigger than people realised.

She said that despite the legislation, there was no separate unit that looked directly at the issue of how number plates should be manufactured and sold.

Ramohlala said they were also finding that number plates were increasingly being stolen from cars.

“It’s cheaper. They don’t pay for the plates to be made,” said Freshwater.

“The problem is that when your car is cloned, it’s very hard to convince the authorities that it wasn’t you who committed the traffic offences. Who will believe you?” Parkes said.

In a recent case, a woman who had a 3-series BMW was receiving thousands of rand worth of traffic fines. The BMW in the pictures was silver while her car was white.

The number plate investigative unit found the car. It had been hijacked from a dealership.

The owner had bought the car brand new in Alexandra for R80 000. The car’s licence was also fraudulent. The owner is now under house arrest.

“The best thing would be to have a specialised unit in the department of transport that deals with cases all over the country,” said Parkes.

“That, and we need to stop the corruption in the manufacturing of plates and at licensing departments.”


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