/ 10 June 2008

Cybercrime syndicate swindles govt out of R199m

The government has identified at least 27 cases where a syndicate has swindled more than R199-million from government departments in four provinces over the past three years — using cyber-spyware.

This was revealed by KwaZulu-Natal minister for finance and economic development Zweli Mkhize in Durban on Tuesday.

He said the commercial crime unit has made 32 arrests for 86 counts of fraud in Durban and Pietermaritzburg but the syndicate is still operating.

Some of the alleged perpetrators have appeared in court and their assets have been seized. Several state employees have also been dismissed.

Motlalepula Motaung, head of internal audit services, said the syndicate has been using advanced spyware to commit the cybercrimes, which have been identified in four provinces: KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape.

She said the crime was first identified in 2005.

In the 2005/06 financial year, eight fraud cases were opened, and in 2007/08 another 18 cases were reported.

The syndicate has defrauded government departments — including the transport, education, health, housing and agriculture departments — of more than R199-million.

Motaung explained that the syndicate has been identifying corrupt officials at government departments and would also approach suppliers that the department did business with.

”Officials and suppliers would then be given spy-work — they would be asked to connect a spy-plug on to a computer and download any information they want,” she explained.

Motaung said the syndicate would then be able to access any information without needing passwords and would use it to defraud the government of money.

She said the corrupt official and supplier would get a portion of the money for their criminal work.

The spyware can download information that is nearly a year old, as well as information that has been typed out, but not saved.

The device is as small as a memory stick and is connected to the back of a PC.

Mkhize said it was extremely easy for crooked officials to use the spyware.

”Just by leaving your computer running and going out for a smoke means it could be accessed by a corrupt official,” he said.

He added that he wants civil servants to be aware of this new type of crime.

In this regard, the KwaZulu-Natal treasury has launched a new project called Unembeza 2008 to develop and implement preventative measures to secure computer systems.

Answering questions from reporters, Motaung said the syndicate has also been targeting banks, but she could not provide any immediate details.

Asked why it has taken the government three years to come up with an operation to combat this crime, Motaung said initially the aim was to investigate the crime and find out more about it — ”but now the objective is to find a solution”.

She was unable to say why the government has revealed this information so late.

Mkhize, meanwhile, said the operation is in line with the government’s committment to eradicating corruption and ensuring good governance. — Sapa