Syndicates prey on people’s emotions online to extract money from them or use them as pawns in criminal enterprises, according to the section head of the police’s electronic crime unit.
Some victims even continue paying the criminals despite being warned by their family or the police, Brigadier Piet Pieterse told News24 this week.
The unit, attached to the Hawks, deals every week with online dating or romance scams and they usually end in tears, he said.
“A lady who was a victim in a romance scam last year committed suicide. She was about 70 years old. People are lonely and when they are given attention, they tend to fall for it.”
He said that in some instances, people pay over hundreds of thousands of rands in a series of transactions.
The unit has been operating since 2011 and works with banks to “follow the money”.
When Pieterse first started investigating electronic crimes, he dealt mainly with 419 scams which promise victims a large amount of money in return for a relatively small upfront payment.
“In these scams there is greed involved. If something sounds too good to be true, it is.”
What’s love got to do with it?
But with romance scams, victims are likely vulnerable and lonely, choosing to keep in touch with people who are nice to them online.
“At first, when you engage with this person, there is absolutely a social engagement and on the surface, everything appears to be 100%.
“I have seen many of the communications from these guys and at first glance, you would not be suspicious. It is quite professional. The correspondence is generally of a high quality and they are more sophisticated.”
Pieterse says South Africans are both victims and perpetrators.
Passing on packages
In a transnational operation a year ago, the unit made arrests in a marketing fraud that used romance scams to move merchandise.
The syndicate bought merchandise (usually electronics and clothing) around the globe with illegally obtained credit card details.
Syndicate members then befriended or became romantically involved with people online and asked them to receive a package on their behalf, keep a part of the merchandise and then repackage it for distribution in South Africa.
“It continued for a number of years and ran into millions of dollars,” Pieterse said.
“I normally get involved when funds are moved. You can’t separate the romance aspect from the prejudice that the victim suffered.”
The unit is decentralised with the provinces at a commercial level, and crimes are reported to them via Crime Stop and other police structures.
Pieterse trains station commissioners on how to deal with cybercrime and reminds them of their obligation to assist victims.
Without divulging police operations, he said they use unique characteristics of each crime to link them together on an existing database.
His advice to citizens? If they have not yet been prejudiced, it’s best to cut the communication immediately and delete the person’s particulars.