Pietermaritzburg police believe they may have cracked a syndicate said to have generated hundreds of thousands of rands from lonely, unsuspecting women leaving them out of pocket and broken-hearted.
The criminals had allegedly been involved in a romance scam that netted them hundreds of thousands of rands before disappearing without a trace.
Captain Kholeka Mhlongo, Alexandra police station spokesperson, said in January a man was arrested following extensive police investigations. He is due back in court early next week.
Mhlongo warned women, especially government employees, to be alert of opportunistic criminals promising they can multiply people’s money and make them millionaires.
She said some victims of this scam have gone as far as to resign from their work and take all their money to these con artists.
Speaking out, a Howick woman said she wanted to warn others not to part with their money.
What was supposed to be a fairytale, turned out to be a nightmare for the mother-of-two, after she was scammed of over R257 000.
The woman in her forties, Thandi* (not her real name), who is a government employee, became a target.
A sponge, a candle and a grass hat
She met the man, who said he was a veterinarian and traditional healer, in the CBD last October. The pair exchanged numbers and soon developed a relationship. A few weeks later, the man told Thandi that he had intentions of paying lobola for her.
Immediately after the proposal, the man asked if he could introduce Thandi to his ancestors before proceeding to send a delegation to her family for the lobola negotiations.
The man took Thandi to a block of flats in Hayfields, where he operated as a traditional healer in a “dark room” with a sponge, a candle and a grass hat.
“He made contact with the ancestors and we started talking to them.”
She said the voices of the ancestors came from the grass hat. “The ancestors asked if I was employed, where I was employed and how much I earned.”
She said the “ancestors” told her they could see she was experiencing financial problems and needed a cleansing.
The cleansing would cost R2 500.
Subsequent to the cleansing, Thandi was told she would receive a “gift” of R12m to help them start their new life together.
‘The money was mine’
A few days after the cleansing, the woman went back to the dark room to check if she had been cleansed of bad luck.
After a small ritual and prayer over a small box, they opened their eyes and the box had suddenly been filled with cash “with a note from the ancestors informing me the money was mine”.
“Then the ancestors asked me to open a bank account and take out a loan to avoid possible questions from police about where the lump sum came from. After applying for the loan, the ancestors said they would deposit cash into my account,” she told Weekend Witness.
Finally, the woman hesitantly took out two loans, one for R97 000 and the other for R160 000 from different banks.
After applying for the two loans, she received further instructions to withdraw the money and give it to her boyfriend for the ancestors, so they could pray for it before depositing it into her account.
A string of SMSes
A few days later, the man told her he was going to Cape Town on a business trip. In the days that followed, Thandi received a string of SMSes, one which was seen by Weekend Witness, alerting her that over R4m had been deposited into her bank account.
“I sought a bank statement and discovered that nothing had been deposited into the account and that the SMSes were fraudulent.”
Thandi reported the matter to the police who opened a case of fraud. She said she was shocked when the police told her that many other government employees had fallen into the same trap.
“He was just so charming. It was like he used something on me, and I couldn’t think clearly.”
“I don’t even know how I’m going to pay back the loans. I earn R10 000 a month … how will I manage?” she said.
In 2018, The Witness reported that at least three Pietermaritzburg women had fallen prey to smooth-talking men who stole their savings before disappearing, leaving the women destitute.
‘Once the men get the money, they disappear’
Using similar modus operandi, the men lure women, mostly government employees, into a relationship, before persuading them to quit their jobs and withdraw their life savings. Once the men get the money, they disappear.
In 2017, a former nurse said in an interview with Weekend Witness that not only did the flashy former “man of her dreams” steal her new Maserati sports car, but he also took off with R400 000 cash. She said he told her that he was a businessman and a prophet from Jamaica, but she later discovered he was from Uganda. After dating for a few months, she said the man persuaded her to resign and she received a R1,3 million lump sum.
He then asked her to deposit R750 000 with a car dealership in Benoni to buy a Maserati.
The man vanished with her car and the cash she said he convinced her to withdraw by suggesting her estranged husband might claim the money.
How criminals use psychology
A local psychologist said that some of the reasons why people fall for scams are fear and self-gain. He said the fear of losing an opportunity is what pushes them most into responding to the scam.
“Scams are effective because they touch people’s feelings and emotions,” said the psychologist.
“It is easy for people to comply when they are told they will benefit easily with little effort, more especially if it’s for financial gain,” he said.
He said criminals deliberately seek out vulnerable individuals.
“They use psychology and play on an individual’s weaknesses and needs,” he said.