Nightmare as ID thief rings up R93,000 debt at Woolworths

Are impersonators’ days numbered as we move into the era of Digital IDs?

Wendy Knowler Consumer journalist

As a proof of identity, a green book or card does a terrible job of protecting us from impersonation fraud.

Incidence of this crime quadrupled in 2020, so more South Africans than ever have had impersonators go on a merry spending spree in their name, leaving them with huge debt and nothing to show for it, except for a financially debilitating “blacklisting” on their credit profile.

Clearly, we need more protection, and it’s coming soon – a Digital ID, including our unique biometrics: voice, fingerprints and face.

This was the main focus of a fraud summit hosted by the Southern African Fraud Protection Service (SAFPS) on Wednesday.

One of the speakers was Dalene Deale, executive head at Secure Citizen, a digital identity platform which has partnered with the SAFPS to create a platform for citizens to verify their identities using these biometrics.

She made a really relevant observation: “Fraudsters exploit the gap between corporates and consumers. We need to make the consumer engagement experience frictionless and make the fraudster experience friction full!."

Things are clearly far too easy for the great pretenders, and it’s far too hard for their victims to prove it wasn’t them who opened that card or account and spent all that money.

If ever there was a case study to back that up, it’s that of Julia Mdzikwa, who wrote to me in desperation after 10 months of trying in vain to get a firm of debt collectors to stop hounding her to settle a Woolworths credit card debt of more than R93,000. “My life is made hell by Woolworths and VVW,” she said last week. “Please help me!”

Her hell began in July 2020 with an SMS from the debt collectors VVM, asking her to contact them to make arrangements to settle that huge debt.

She’d been debt-free for years, choosing to spend in cash or by lay-by. When she disputed the debt with Woolworths, she was told to jump through all the usual hoops which those in her position are required to do – submit an affidavit with a copy of her ID and a dispute form.

She did all that, and sent the same to VVM. When the pay-up calls didn’t stop, she lodged a complaint with the Credit Ombud. The outcome of the Ombud’s investigation was shared with Mdzikwa in October.

It stated that Woolworths had concluded that her account was fraudulent and that as such, the R93,000 was reversed on October 1 2020, “and the required bureau updates have been requested”.

Remember, Mdzikwa first told both parties that the account was fraudulent, and submitted her affidavit and copies of her ID in July, three months earlier. She sent the Ombud’s report to both Woolworths and VVM. 

So you’d think that would have been the end of it, but it wasn’t.

The petering calls continued –  in fact VVM was still contacting her almost daily when she e-mailed me last week.

And that wasn’t all – when she requested her credit report from TransUnion recently before applying for a  loan, she was horrified to discover she had an adverse listing relating to that Woolworths debt in her name.

Like most victims of impersonation fraud, Mdzikwa was curious to know how the fraudster had got away with pretending to be her. She’d asked the retailer for a copy of the ID used to open the account, the application form and copies of the credit card statements, but she got nothing.

I took up the case with Woolworths.

Responding, the company said the system-generated instruction that should have told VVM to close Mdzikwa’s file was not sent to VVM “due to an internal processing error”, which resulted in her continuing to receive messages regarding outstanding payment.

“We understand that this would have been very distressing for Ms Mdzikwa, most especially in the current climate. Please rest assured that this failure in our process has been addressed as a matter of urgency. We have made the relevant business unit aware of the failure to ensure that the same does not reoccur with other customers, as treating our customers with care remains a key priority.”

The retailer’s financial services people have now told VVM to “cease all communication” with Mdzikwa with immediate effect.

Then this: “The required credit bureau updates have been requested. We would like to advise that updates to the bureau can take up to 21 working days.”

In other words, a month. This after telling the Credit Ombud back in October: “The required bureau updates have been requested.”

No, man.

Credit providers and their debt collectors clearly need to do a lot of work on their policies and protocols around investigating fraudulent accounts, so that people like Mdzikwa do not get put through this type of nightmare.

This is probably an extreme case, but very unlikely to be the only one.

Mdzikwa had not registered with the SAFPS’s digital protection registration to prevent falling victim to further impersonation fraud, but she has now.

Her information – including a full-screen, clear photo of her face, will be available to the credit provider the next time an impostor tries to open an account in her name. Voice and fingerprint capture will be enabled soon.

Dare we hope that as we move into the era of Digital IDs, the impersonators’ days are numbered?

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