Dubious debits off your bank account can be a sign that your identity has been stolen, in which case reversing the debits won’t solve the problem. In fact, it could lead to your being “handed over” to debt collectors, as Cape Town doctor Katherine McDonald discovered.

When McDonald noticed two suspicious deductions from her bank account in January, she notified her bank immediately via its fraud line and had the debits reversed.

She couldn’t tell from the references on her bank statements who had deducted money, but her bank, First National Bank (FNB), told her it was MTN.

FNB advised McDonald, who has never been an MTN customer, that she would have to dispute the debit orders with MTN directly, and she was given a number to call. But the number turned out to be for Standard Bank, which had processed the debit orders.

Standard Bank told her to go to FNB and “log a request on Bankserv” in order to obtain the correct contact number for MTN. McDonald did that, but, instead of being given the number she needed, she was told that she would be contacted within 48 hours. No one contacted her.

Six days later, MTN deducted more money from her account.

A frustrated McDonald phoned FNB’s fraud line – again – and this time she was given the correct number for MTN.

“MTN told me that a contract in my name had been opened telephonically in October last year. They [MTN] had my name, ID number and bank details. MTN had been debiting my account since November, for different amounts.

“At first, I was told to submit an affidavit stating that I had not opened the account. This was to be emailed to MTN. But then MTN said they had to check who the call centre consultant was who dealt with the initiation of the contract over the phone. I was to speak to this person and organise to get the fraud reported.”

McDonald was given the name of the consultant and told that she would receive an email from her, advising her of the steps she had to take to report the fraud.

“But I received nothing from her. I tried calling the call centre back and asking to speak to her, but she was always busy on another call. More promises were made, my email address was taken again, but nothing came of it,” McDonald says.

But one of the call centre agents told McDonald that MTN had had problems with this particular staff member. “Apparently, she went on maternity leave and her log-in details were stolen and used to open some fraudulent contracts.

“I was assured they were aware of the problem, that the contract had now been cancelled, and she [the consultant whose log-in had been compromised] would get back to me.”

But no one got back to her and, because MTN did not debit further amounts from her bank account, McDonald thought the problem had gone away.

Then in early July, some four months later, McDonald received a call from debt collectors acting on behalf of MTN, claiming R13 000 from her. For a month she has had to endure daily phone calls and SMSes from the debt collectors, who have threatened to have her “blacklisted”.

In an attempt to convince the debt collectors that she was a victim of identity theft, she sent them an affidavit and specimen signatures to authenticate her affidavit.

“It became untenable. I’ve had to get an attorney to deal with them, because I can’t handle it and cope with my day-to-day life,” she says.

Alain Hewetson, the chief executive of Identity Guard, says McDonald’s experience is not uncommon. “You will be sent from pillar to post, and the credit provider will hold you liable until you can prove that you are the victim of identity theft.”

While the onus of proof of innocence is placed on the consumer, he says the liability is on the credit provider, not on the consumer. In other words, it’s up to the credit provider to prove that it was you who entered into the contract.

Identity Guard helps clients in the event of identity theft, by deploying a forensic investigator to act on your behalf.

Hewetson says it can be time-consuming and frustrating for consumers to investigate a case of fraud, and syndicates are often involved.

He says his company has helped consumers to restore their credit profile after their identities were used by fraudsters to buy houses and cars.

“Cellphone contracts are more common, because fraudsters know that the procedure for obtaining a mobile contract is designed with an emphasis on consumer convenience. Therefore, the process is quick and easy, which allows fraudsters and syndicates to exploit this process.

“There is a constant trade-off between client convenience and risk management,” he says.

Personal Finance asked MTN the following questions:

* What checks does it perform to authenticate the identity of a customer who wants to open a contract with MTN telephonically?

* Could it confirm that an employee’s credentials had been used to initiate fraudulent contracts?

* How many fraudulent contracts had been entered into?

* What is it doing to prevent this type of fraud?

* Why didn’t MTN terminate the customer’s service after the debit order was reversed for the third time.

MTN failed to respond.