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Credit card scam costs SAA R14m

By Lee Rondganger

10 May 2007

A Nigerian credit card fraud syndicate has infiltrated South African Airways and is colluding with its call centre staff in scamming thousands of unsuspecting people.

Forensic investigators have discovered that between January and August 2006, call centre staff at have helped the syndicate to process 1 949 fraudulent transactions, costing the national carrier more than R14-million.

The syndicate has apparently recruited several staff at the call centre to help them buy airline tickets using unsuspecting international tourists' credit cards, which they sell to a third party at half the price.

Police have arrested several "runners" working for the syndicate, who claim they are working for a Nigerian man based in London.

'Police have arrested several runners'

According to investigators, not only are the tickets sold to third parties at a reduced cost, but they are also used by the syndicate to transport drug mules to and from South America and to traffic humans.

Most of the credit cards belong to tourists who have visited South Africa. The syndicate is able to obtain these details from a number of people who work with them either at hotels, lodges or car rental agencies, where a credit card holder might hand over their credit card number, expiry date and CVV code (the three-digit security code printed on the back of the card).

The syndicate then passes on the details to staff at SAA, who then use it to buy an air ticket in what is called a "card not present transaction".

In most cases, the fraud is noticed by the credit card holder weeks after the ticket has been bought, and by then it has already been used.

SAA on Wednesday confirmed that some of its call centre staff had been targeted by foreign syndicates, but said it had put together a number of initiatives to curb the internal fraud.

'This fraud is massive'

SAA spokesperson Robyn Chalmers said cases where passengers had fraudulently obtained tickets had been handed over to police, and investigations were under way.

"A syndicate of eight foreigners were arrested in March in Cape Town on similar charges. There are investigations under way involving staff members, but we cannot divulge details at this stage as the investigations may be jeopardised," she said.

The syndicate began exploiting the call centre staff at SAA in January last year, when it bought 39 tickets using a Visa or MasterCard and 20 tickets using an American Express Card. That month, SAA lost more than R375 000.

However, SAA's biggest monthly loss occurred in July, when tickets worth R1,3-million were fraudulently bought using tourists' Visa or MasterCards. Fraudulent American Express transactions amounted to about R176 000 that month.

"This fraud is massive," an investigator told The Star. "We have even taken people off planes who have bought tickets not knowing that it was fraudulent. What these people do is that they would sell a return ticket say to Cape Town, which costs about R2 500, to a person for R1 000.

"We also discovered that fraudulent tickets were bought for drug mules to go to Sao Paulo and fetch drugs. These guys have a very sophisticated operation and it is really crippling to some industries, such as the guest lodges, where they run a similar scam."

At least six call centre staff members have been fingered by SAA, which has enlisted the police's commercial branch to assist in its internal investigation.

Chalmers said that among the measures they had put in place to curb rampant fraud was the introduction of a whistle-blowers' toll-free number, where fraudulent activities against the airline's operations and the airports it serves can be reported. SAA's toll-free whistle-blowers' number is 0800-340-340.

Published on the Web by IOL on 2007-05-09 23:54:00


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