Imagine you lose your identity document; on your way home from work, you get arrested. You discover someone has been committing fraud under your name. It could happen to you.
This happens across Africa and no one is safe. It’s called identity theft.
This is the sad tale of 37-year-old Bokang Tsie. We meet outside a restaurant in Krugersdorp, a town known for mining, west of Johannesburg. He is a bit anxious as he tells of what happened when his green identity book was stolen from him.
On a quiet Saturday afternoon in 2014, Tsie was going home from varsity when three men attacked him and ran off with his bag. Inside was a phone, books and an ID book.
“They grabbed me, and my bag. I tried to take it back but one of the guys managed to run away with it,” says Tsie, who is now a pastor.
Tsie opened a case at a police station and received a case number but nothing happened. Four months later he got a call from a police station in Pietermaritzburg informing him of fraud they alleged he tried at a bank.
“A policeman asked when I was last in Durban; I told him I haven’t been to Durban for five years. He also asked when was the last time I used my ID, I said I had lost my ID. And I started opening up to him about what happened,” he says.
Before he could plead his case, the police came to arrest him. It was a petrifying moment for Tsie; he says his heart beat fast. He was taken to a police station. Luckily for Tsie he had reported the loss of his ID book.
“They said if I didn’t report my missing ID I would have been arrested on charges of fraud. Imagine, I’d be sitting in jail for a crime I didn’t commit and I’d have a bad credit record,” he says.
Fraudsters wanted to cash a cheque of R160,000 ($12,000), that they had stolen, under Tsie’s name. They failed when a banker noticed the photo was torn out.
“I was told that when the banker was checking out the ID, they noticed that. They were caught and ran away. That’s when the bank called the police station.”
That’s not all. The fraudsters also opened an account at a retail shop, it also failed – because of a sharp-eyed shop assistant.
They removed Tsie’s photo and replaced it with another person who looked a few years younger than Tsie.
Tsie got his ID back and took it to private investigators to check for other accounts the fraudsters tried to open.
Sadly, its It’s been three years now and the people who attacked him and used his ID haven’t been arrested.
“Criminals don’t care how they ruin lives, they just don’t care. They could be stopping a person’s life, I don’t know what happens with their conscious,” says an upset Tsie.
‘It’s Like I’m Dead’
Aphelele Busuku got the shock of her life when she discovered she was married to a person she doesn’t know and had a child she’s never met.
A devastated Aphelele Busuku found out that she was married to a person she never met.
It was the end of October last year, when Busuku moved to Johannesburg, from Durban, for a new job. She needed a place to stay and after meeting a private property agent, she had to submit an ID number, bank statements, proof of address and a payslip.
“It was just two weeks into my new job, I gave him all my documents and went to view the place and found out that it was a scam,” says 23-year-old Busuku.
The fraudster took Busuku’s money and documents.
“I was going to apply for a car so I had to get my credit record at TransUnion and found out that my score was very low. I was wondering what was going on because I only had a certain amount of debt which was from owing school fees and one account,” she says.
“When I received my credit statement I saw that I have a recurring Vodacom under my name, and there was a Sportscene account.”
What shook her most is when she found out that she’s married to a man she has never met.
That’s not all; she also found out that she has a child. She submitted an affidavit to dispute this.
“I was so shocked because I don’t have a child and now I’m registered as a mother of one. It confused me.”
“On the statement there were phone numbers that are not mine. When I called it a lady answered, I asked her who are you and then she hung up. I don’t even know if I’m married to a male or female, Home Affairs couldn’t give me proper details,” says Busuku.
Home Affairs told her if she wanted to get married in the future, she’d have to first get a divorce.
Busuku had to start afresh; a new bank card, ID number and a cell phone number.
“I had to change at least one digit so that I can have a new ID book, and have a clean credit record. It’s like I’m dead.”
‘People Thought I Was A Scam’
After having her identity stolen, journalist Gabisile Mbele had to sign her own death certificate.
“I’ve been a whole new person since April last year. I had to get a new passport, a new ID number, I had to denounce myself and sign a death certificate. Everything that I’ve done in my life doesn’t exist.”
These are the words of Gabisile Mbele, a journalist and one of many victims of stolen identity. But here’s the twist; she never even lost her ID book.
It was in 2000, in matric when somebody opened a bank account using Mbele’s ID number.
“Luckily I was with FNB since I was nine years old; they quickly picked up that someone is using my ID and told me that this person has the same ID number, same birthday but different address,” says Mbele.
The person also tried to open an account at an Absa bank. All the banks were alert and informed Mbele.
Criminals use an ID, change the photo, buy on credit, apply for loans and open bank accounts.
“When I looked at that girl’s ID, I could swear it was mine but I had never lost my ID before. I was like ‘how the hell did this person get my identity when I’ve never lost my ID?’” she says.
Four years later, the problem resurfaced. Mbele had just started work and wanted to open a retail account.
“I wanted to open a Woolworths and an Edgars account. Woolworths was like ‘sorry this is fraudulent, we’ve already got an account with this number’. I gave them my bank details and cell number but they still said no.”
It got worse when Mbele fell pregnant and needed to apply for UIF at the Department of Labour.
“I was told I need to own up for the job of being a domestic worker and why don’t I have a UIF form. The first thing I thought was ‘do these guys think I worked as a journalist first and left to become a domestic worker?’ It didn’t add up,” says a puzzled Mbele.
She asked the labor department to give her the woman’s contact details.
“I called her employer, it was a white lady from Kempton Park; she said her domestic workers name is also Gabisile Ndebele, but from Zimbabwe. I then asked her ‘do you know that she can’t possibly have an ID?’ Her response was she has an ID, she went and registered her at the Department of Labour.”
When Mbele gave birth she couldn’t register her daughter for four months. She was a non-existent citizen because, according to Home Affairs, Mbele had another child who was eight years old.
“I’ve sworn at everybody, including Malusi Gigaba, the [then] Minister of Home Affairs, I went to them over and over. And still nothing.”
Mbele’s parents, and a witness not related to her, had to do an affidavit confirming that she never had a child. She also had to change her surname from Ndebele to her father’s surname Mbele.
In April last year, when she wanted to renew her passport for a trip to Los Angeles for the BET Awards, she couldn’t.
“A woman at Home Affairs said ‘hayi sisi (no my sister), we’ve just given you a passport last week and now you want a new one. I remember crying and sitting on the floor at Home Affairs thinking that this cannot be my life,” says Mbele.
“I had to change everything, people thought I was a scam. I had to get all the paperwork, emails and faxes. It is the most devastating thing ever; I don’t wish it on anyone.”
What to do when your identity is stolen:
- Contact the credit bureaus
- Change bank accounts
- Change your car registration number
- Seek legal advice
- Report it to the police
- Hire a private investigator
- Renew your driver’s licence
- Alert the Fraud Prevention Services
What to watch out for:
- Identity thieves may shoulder-surf when you are entering your pin at an ATM
- Dumpster diving – criminals seaching through rubbish
- Phony websites that look identical to those of authorized banks
How to avoid identity theft:
- Shred your documents
- Do not disclose your identity number unless it’s necessary
- Don’t provide sensitive information over the internet
- Check your credit reports regularly
- Never carry more credit cards than you need