Johan and Maatje du Plessis, who were defrauded out of their retirement funds through Absa bank. Picture: JACKIE CLAUSEN
Johan and Maatje du Plessis, who were defrauded out of their retirement funds through Absa bank. Picture: JACKIE CLAUSEN

Johan and Maatje du Plessis were enjoying a comfortable retirement two years ago until they were caught in an internet banking fraud facilitated by a sim swap.

The Richards Bay couple went from being well off - with R570,000 cash in the bank and a home loan that was almost paid off - to penniless and indebted to Absa to the tune of R171,000.

Now they face losing their home.

Within three weeks of the fraud, Absa sent them a letter referring to disputed transactions on two of their seven accounts. Absa claimed to have investigated the fraud and found the transactions were made using their pin and password. Since these were "known only" by the couple, the bank concluded it was not liable for the loss they had suffered.

But in the interests of "a continued" relationship with Johan, the bank offered him an ex gratia payment of part of the amounts debited to his accounts, in full and final settlement of his loss.

The offer was valid for seven days only.

A month later, after Johan had accepted the bank's offer, he received a call from the forensic auditors who were examining the couple's internet devices, asking for his password. He then realised that they had hardly begun their investigation and the information on which he had based his decision to settle was false.

Johan says he was prepared to fight Absa, but nothing could have prepared him for the bullying he has endured for almost two years.

How does calculate loss of dignity, of sleep ... distress and fear of losing our property?
Johann du Plessis, retiree fleeced of life's savings

He says the handling of their home loan debt is a case in point.

The couple owed about R39,000 on their home loan before fraudsters transferred R53,000 out of their access bond. The Du Plessises continued to pay the home loan instalment they were paying before they were defrauded. However, the bank demanded a higher instalment to cover the stolen amount.

When the Du Plessises refused to increase their instalment, Absa cancelled their debit order. Johan then began paying his bond via electronic funds transfer to ensure he didn't go into default.

Yet early this year Absa issued summons against Johan and, despite knowing that he has a defence, made an application for summary judgment against the couple - to allow a sale in execution of their R2-million house - to recover the disputed R75,000 debt.

Instead of seeking to attach movable property to cover such a small debt, the bank sought to attach the home. Since a magistrate's court will not declare immovable property executable, the application was brought in a high court, where the costs of defending oneself are high and there is the risk of a costs order.

Summary judgment is applied for against defendants when the plaintiff believes that the defendant has no defence to a claim.

Johan has for some time notified Absa of his defence, saying he and his wife are not liable for the money transferred fraudulently from their accounts. He says they were misled into believing that a forensic investigation commissioned by Absa had found that the fraud perpetrated against them was due to their negligence. Absa has refused to give them the forensic report and Johan says he was offered the settlement before the investigation was complete.

He says he accepted the settlement on the basis of Absa's "finding" of negligence and under duress, as the couple had only R318 to their names and no bargaining power.

When asked why Absa had withheld its forensic report from the Du Plessises, whether this was fair and whether the bank would be willing to give its clients the report, an Absa spokesman said this week that "the results of the internal investigation" were communicated to Johan and that by accepting the settlement he had accepted the findings of the investigation.

On Monday, Absa's lawyer said the bank had withdrawn the application for summary judgment and sent the Du Plessises a "section 129 letter" marking the start of legal action for repayments in default.

But on Wednesday, Absa told Money that in an effort to resolve the dispute amicably, it had withdrawn any further legal action and would engage Johan "to conclude a payment arrangement for the outstanding balance" on the home loan.

in numbers

R318 is all that was left after fraudsters raided a retired couple's seven bank accounts

Johan says Absa has also used strong-arm tactics against him in respect of his credit card account, which was also plundered in the online fraud.

At the time of the crime, his credit card account was R1,600 in credit with no outstanding payments. The fraudsters stole R75,000 from this account. Johan contends he is not liable for this debt.

This account has also been handed over to attorneys, who have threatened him that if he does not pay, summons will be issued and he will be "blacklisted".

"They say that because we accepted a settlement from Absa, the bank is not liable for anything more," Johan says.

He does not believe that signing the settlement precludes him from claiming compensation from Absa.

"And we believe Absa acted unlawfully and unfairly by placing undue pressure on me to sign the agreement within seven days, failing which we would not receive anything from the bank."

Johan says the conduct of Absa's attorneys constitutes "bullying of senior people who have suffered a grave injustice".

To lose one's life's savings is devastating, but what's worse is to lose it while it was in the bank for safekeeping and then to be blamed for the loss, he says.

"How does one calculate loss of dignity, loss of sleep - for the first time in my life I have had to take sleeping tablets as my brain does not switch off - severe distress and the fear of losing our property?"

It could happen to you

What happened to the Du Plessis couple could happen to anyone. Out of town for the weekend, Johan du Plessis's cellphone appeared to lose its signal. He went to the nearest MTN store and was told his phone needed to be sent away for repairs. He decided to do the repairs as soon as he got home.

Days later, his local MTN store told him a different story: his phone wasn't working because a sim swap he hadn't authorised had been carried out. En route home, he tried to buy electricity, but the transaction was denied due to insufficient funds. He went to his bank only to be told that his and his wife's accounts had been cleaned out. Between them they had R318.

If that isn't horrific enough, Du Plessis then discovered that new debt had been incurred in his name: a personal loan of R153,000, credit card debt of R75,000, an additional R53,000 on their home loan, and an overdraft of R43,000. Absa says Du Plessis fell victim to fraud through the compromise of his online banking credentials, yet it has not produced proof of this to Du Plessis, despite repeated requests.