Justice department hit by a costly cyberattack

Absa bank and the department of justice are investigating the theft of R10-million stolen in a daring hack of the Guardian’s Fund’s accounts in the Pietermaritzburg master of the court offices. 

The Mail & Guardian has learned that the department, together with Absa, is scrambling to try to recover the stolen funds. This is after they learned of the hack late last week. 

It is not clear exactly when the money was taken, but well-placed sources say it was siphoned off in 11 transactions. The breach is believed to have emanated on Absa’s side, the sources said.

Justice and Constitutional Development Minister Ronald Lamola’s spokesperson, Crispin Phiri, said: “Unauthorised transactions may have been attempted on the Guardian’s Fund.

At this stage, it is not clear whether this unauthorised attempt was the work of a cyberattack. The department has opened a case with the South African Police Service (SAPS).

“The SAPS will investigate all elements of possible criminality. In addition, the department of justice and constitutional developments forensic team and banking partners are conducting an internal investigation,” he said.

The Guardian’s Fund falls under the master of the high court and was created to manage money on behalf of people who are legally incapable of managing their affairs. This includes minors, unborn heirs, and missing or absent persons. 

According to the government, money in the fund — about R13-billion in 2018 according to its annual financial statements for that year — is invested with the Public Investment Corporation and audited annually. 

The M&G has established that, beyond freezing the rest of the fund’s accounts, the chief master has taken possession of all employee desktops and laptops in the office as part of an investigation. The hope, sources said, is that the transfers can be reversed. 

“Absa forensic is involved and there is a real fear that this person could have access to other accounts in our other offices across the country,” said the source.

The Guardian’s Fund is also administered in five other masters’ offices: Cape Town, Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Kimberley and Makhanda. 

Absa’s corporate and investment banking division on Wednesday said: “Kindly be advised that the Department of Justice and Correctional Services is our client. Due to client confidentiality obligations, we are not at liberty to discuss issues pertaining to its account.”  

Last month, the South African Banking Risk Centre announced that there had been a significant data breach at the South African wing of the multinational credit bureau, Experian, resulting in the exposure of the personal information of 24-million South Africans and 793 749 businesses. At the time, this was reported to be the biggest data breach in South African history.

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Sabelo Skiti

Sabelo Skiti is an investigative journalist.

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