By Dasen Thathiah
At least 100 vehicles - worth an estimated R35-million - have been stolen by a car-theft syndicate preying on sellers utilising car sales magazines such as Auto Trader.
Seven new cases had come to light in the past week, police said.
The spiralling number of cars stolen since last year had sparked the formation of a specialised task team - headed by Senior Superintendent Jakes van Zyl - to tackle the problem, said Hawks' spokesman Musa Zondi.
"We are taking this matter very seriously and if more officers are required, they will be recruited from other departments," he said.
Zondi said the modus operandi in the new cases appeared to match those of the previous cases.
"People have come forward from as far as Bloemfontein and the Cape. This is a national problem," he said.
Zondi added that although many of the victims had advertised in Auto Trader, the scam was not restricted to one magazine and that fraudsters scoured all forms of advertisements for potential victims.
Among the stolen cars are a Mercedes-Benz SLK 55 AMG, a Chevrolet Lumina 5.7 UTE and a Golf 5 GTI.
In most cases, the criminals called sellers and arranged a meeting to purchase the vehicle.
The caller would then claim he was busy a few hours before the meeting and send a substitute with a fraudulent bank-guaranteed cheque.
The amount sometimes included travel costs for the seller.
A man calling himself Johannes de Villiers has been linked to several of the cases as a buyer.
The Daily News recently reported that Durban businessman Eugene de Klerk was still trying to recover his vehicle after it was stolen in October last year.
De Klerk - who had advertised his Chevrolet Lumina 5.7 UTE - had been asked to meet De Villiers at the OR Tambo Airport, but instead sent his "driver", who paid with a false cheque.
Another victim Sagie Naicker said yesterday that he had been duped by two men, "Johan" and "Rudi Strydom", in January.
Naicker had called a cellphone number listed on a classified advertisement, which offered buyers the opportunity to take over payment of vehicle instalments.
The men, who claimed they lived in Gauteng, had apparently asked Naicker to deposit R10 000 into Strydom's bank account to secure a new-model Toyota Corolla.
They eventually agreed on R4 000 - which was deposited on January 14 - when Naicker expressed concern at the deal.
After initially promising to deliver the car a few days later, the men claimed they were unable to locate an appropriate vehicle for him.
Naicker said he repeatedly called their cellphones after the incident but was unable to reach them.
Auto Trader has also issued a warning to buyers and sellers, adding that any vehicle-related publisher could become a target for such scams.
Auto Trader's advertising and promotions manager, Angelique Peters, said the public's safety was their primary concern.
"Auto Trader urges motorists to be vigilant when buying or selling a vehicle privately, or through a dealership, and to take note of the helping-hand section, which appears weekly in the Auto Trader magazine, as well as on autotrader.co.za," Peters said.
"This provides the public with much-needed tips on (how) to protect their own safety, as well as what to expect when buying or selling a vehicle and how to deal with the viewing process to avoid being caught out," Peters said.
She said the company had not received any calls from victims of the scam.