From stickups to mouse clicks: Cybercrime in Africa


“Crimes used to happen through stickups, but today criminals use mouse clicks,” says Greg Garcia, a U.S. spokesperson for financial industries. This statement comes after the discovery of malware infections in over millions of computers in more than 90 countries by the U.S. Homeland Security department.

These type of infections are incredibly dangerous because they allow cybercrime orchestrators to get hold of web users’ secret information and passwords and use it to siphon money from their bank accounts.

The issue is no less pressing than in Nigeria, where US experts are working in conjunction with Nigerian officers to fight cybercrime. It is clear from the 2013 U.S. “Money Laundering Report” that Nigeria is very high on the list of countries riddled with financial cybercrime activity. Homeland Security experts from the U.S. are thus stationed abroad fighting the hoards of Nigerian money launderers, while other parts of the department take on the notorious Citadel malware that is at the centre of cybercrimes on a global scale.

South Africa is another country that suffers heavily from the actions of cybercriminals, not least the notorious, cybercriminal mastermind, Sipho Msomi. Msomi, only recently caught by the authorities in Durban, was found guilty of hacking into the computers of none other than the South African government, and stealing in excess of millions of rands from several state departments.

Despite his capture and current eight year prison sentence, he is only one of a “huge syndicate”, according to Sunette Potgieter, a warrant officer for the Hawks Forensic Division. In a speech to the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry, she said that, upon messaging Msomi, informing him that he was to be investigated for cybercrime, he sent an email back to Durban police that read, simply: “Catch me if you can.” She also said that Msomi is only one individual part of a large network, of which three other suspected individuals are now appearing in Durban Commercial Crime Court in March 2014.

Potgeiter also gave information on how people could avoid becoming the next victims of cybercrime. She explained that the majority of the problem lies with ordinary people simply being unaware of the actual presence of cybercrime and the huge risks it poses to them. South African people, in particular, she said “have no idea how they expose themselves and no idea how to protect themselves” from having their passwords stolen and their money swiped. This has happened through devices and gadgets being stolen and hacked. As suggest, it is important to browse safely, to get your devices insured and adequately protected with the correct software to minimize this risk.

She stressed that people must be accountable for maintaining the secrecy of their private information. This can be done through the backing up of one’s data using reliable flash devices and also, as Potgieter stresses, through the use of trustworthy passwords – “unique passwords are the only way to safeguard ourselves…a good password stops a hacker in his tracks.” This can, hopefully, go some way to rectifying the worrying statistic that South Africans have the third-highest number of cybercrime victims in the world, behind Russia and China, according to a global survey of 24 countries. 18 cybercrimes occur per second around the world.

SIM Swapping

Potgieter also talked about the rising number of cybercrimes now occurring through mobile devices and the worrying statistic that forty-four per cent of South African were completely unaware of their mobiles even having security options. This lack of awareness of the incorporation of mobile phones into the plans of Africa’s most dangerous cybercriminals is what has led to the new cybercrime phenomenon, referred to as “SIM Swapping.” This is where fraudsters use the SIM card attached to a person’s bank account to gain the person’s one-time PIN numbers and thus gain access to their bank account fully for fraudulent theft.

In 2012, alone, there were over 1,000 cases of Sim Swapping in South Africa: ten times the amount of the previous year. This has led to disputes between banks and mobile network companies as to who is to blame. Potgieter, herself, seeks to let people know how to prevent such problems happening in the first place: urging customers not to take calls from strange numbers because “they can take your air time, even if you have a contract, and make phone calls”.

Africa is suffering from a cybercrime pandemic. What must be focused on now are the ways to combat the criminals: through increased awareness, through administrative change and through people taking extra care with their own valuable information. People like Sunette Potgieter are doing everything they can to ensure that this can happen.