A lawyer assisting 32 Absa clients on a pro bono basis after they fell victim to internet banking fraud and received inadequate help from their bank says almost all of his clients suffered emotional stress as a result of being conned out of their money in this way - and then being victim-blamed by the bank or banking ombudsman. Picture: GETTY IMAGES
A lawyer assisting 32 Absa clients on a pro bono basis after they fell victim to internet banking fraud and received inadequate help from their bank says almost all of his clients suffered emotional stress as a result of being conned out of their money in this way - and then being victim-blamed by the bank or banking ombudsman. Picture: GETTY IMAGES

"I feel empty. Somebody looks at me and I want to cry. My trust in people has been destroyed."

These are the words of a 76-year-old widow who lost R10 000 after being duped by a conman in online banking fraud a fortnight ago.

The emotional distress suffered by Mrs L of Northwold, Johannesburg, is common among victims of online banking fraud.

Attorney Mark Heyink specialises in information security law and, on a pro bono basis, represents 32 Absa clients who have suffered loss as a result of internet banking fraud. These were referred to him by computer experts who believe that the clients had done nothing wrong and had been treated poorly by their banks in the investigation of their complaints.

I was emotionally stressed to breaking point. My whole family and I were extremely traumatised
Internet banking fraud victim

Heyink says not only do victims suffer severe emotional distress, they are also subject to a form of victim-blaming or secondary victimisation at the hands of the banks or the banking ombudsman.

In addition to the 32 pro bono Absa clients, five matters relating to other banks were also referred to him by the computer experts. All five have been resolved.

Mrs L - who is not one of Heyink's clients - was duped into allowing the conman access to her PC. Unbeknown to her, he remotely installed spyware on her computer in order to access her banking profile.

"It all started in December while I was on holiday in Cape Town. I tried to pay my accounts and was locked out of my app, apparently for entering incorrect passwords. When I got home to Joburg, I started having computer problems. My computer would freeze and I'd be forced to switch it off. My son, who works with computers, could find no reason for this.

"Then I received a call to my landline from a man who identified himself as John Brady from FNB online banking security division. He asked me if I was sending a money order of $5 000 to Australia. I said: 'Certainly not.' He told me I didn't have security software on my computer. I told him what I had and he said: 'That's just antivirus software, not banking software.'"

As plausible as it all sounded, Mrs L says she felt uneasy so she ended the call and phoned FNB's fraud division. "They were experiencing heavy call volumes, so I didn't get to speak to anyone."

The conman called her again, this time on her cellphone. "He knew all my details, even my ID number. He told me there was R20 000 going off my account to be paid to someone named Singh. I said: 'Well, stop it!' But he said he needed to install something else.' She held on while he installed more malware on her computer.

When the fraudster told her that R35 000 had just left her account to pay another person in India, Mrs L ended the conversation, with the conman advising her not to switch off her computer and saying he'd call her in the morning.

"My son came around later that day and told me I'm an idiot. He switched off my PC and unplugged it.

"That night, I got through to FNB online banking and they said they had secured my account."

But the damage was done: the fraudster had made two online purchases from a computer shop for about R5 000 each.

Mrs L says the bank has said it can stop payment to both merchants, because she has disputed the transactions. But there is little relief for the sense of betrayal Mrs L feels.

In a questionnaire completed by 14 of Heyink's clients, they said they had suffered emotional distress and seven said they had suffered from health problems as a result of being a victim of an internet banking fraud. The following comments are taken from the questionnaires:

  • "I was emotionally stressed to breaking point. My whole family and I were extremely traumatised, as our savings, which we believed would be safe in the bank, were stolen. No effort was made by the bank to support us during this stressful period. Instead of support, they accused us of being reckless and careless, which was definitely not the case."
  • "Since the discovery of the fraud in June 2016, I have been having panic attacks, suffered from severe depression and have not been able to sleep without taking sleeping tablets ... I check our bank accounts daily to see whether any changes have been made."
  • "I tried to work through the emotional stress myself, although I have gained 10kg in the process. Whenever there is a significant amount of money in my or my husband's account, it puts me under enormous emotional pressure, because I feel someone is watching our balances from inside the bank."
  • "I cried. I had to keep going because I had workers to pay. My sister and I could not draw salaries."

Mrs L, who has had to close accounts and open others as well as change her e-mail address, says FNB has been helpful, but "the bank has fallen down with all these new technologies. As old people, we can't keep up with them."

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