ON 10 May 2021 pensioner Engela Smit received a call from her bank, asking if she had withdrawn N$360 000 from her account.
A shocked Smit immediately headed to Bank Windhoek's Maerua Mall branch in the capital, and asked for a bank statement.
It confirmed that around N$360 000 had been stolen from her account through manipulating the bank's mobile app.
Smit is one of 64 victims of a syndicate that has defrauded Bank Windhoek clients of up to N$2,8 million in the space of a year.
The police said "most of the victims were retired government employees or Government Institutions Pension Fund (GIPF) beneficiaries".
Around 16 cases of bank fraud were reported to the Namibian Police's commercial crime unit between April 2020 and June this year.
Bank employees allegedly obtained information on clients, such as account numbers, postal addresses, card numbers, ID numbers and cellphone numbers, and share them with a well-known fraudster wanted in connection with this case.
They then apparently used the information to log into a client's mobile bank account app to transfer funds to themselves via electronic transfers or EasyWallet services.
In other cases, rogue bank employees targeted vulnerable people such as pensioners who needed help withdrawing money by asking them for their passwords.
As the allegations of fraud started to mount, Bank Windhoek introduced a new application in June this year which includes additional log-in security features.
The bank has also stepped up warnings to clients about sharing their personal information. In May this year, the police arrested two Bank Windhoek employees accused of siphoning N$2,8 million from clients' accounts.
The accused are Maria Ahab - a teller at the Ondangwa branch, and Cornelia Ambuga, an administration support clerk at the Okahao branch.
Police documents quote commercial crime unit investigating officer Hamunyela Haitange as saying that after Ahab and Ambunga allegedly obtained clients's personal information, they shared it with the alleged syndicate kingpin, Ndawedapopeendjebo Mangululenge Hamupolo, who is wanted in connection with this case.
Hamupolo would allegedly give Ahab and Ambuga between N$2 000 and N$5 000 as "a token of appreciation".
Investigators believe more people are involved in the syndicate's network. In another case, the police found that some stolen funds were transferred to the account of a person with a mental illness at Grootfontein.
The authorities suspect the same syndicate may have stolen the person's identity.
Police documents show that vulnerable people like Smit, who lives on a farm with her ailing husband, were prime targets.
"Mrs Smit explained that they were in the process of selling all their belongings, including cattle at the farm, to take care of the medical bills of her husband, who was due to travel to Cape Town for medical attention," a police statement said.
The only place she could remember providing her account details was at a livestock auction in Windhoek.
Smit has opened a criminal case at the Klein Windhoek Police Station.
Another victim is pensioner Luise Mundjanima, who recently received her payout from the GIPF.
She has lost N$179 000.
Mundjanima visited the Bank Windhoek Ondangwa branch to withdraw money from her account.
She was assisted by Ahab, who allegedly asked her to write down her pin so that she could complete the pin-pad withdrawal for her.
On 15 May 2021 a northern-based doctor, Martha Shikulo, lost N$220 200 in the same way.
The money was stolen after she travelled to Swakopmund.
Bank Windhoek investigations linked Ambuga to the transaction.
Ambuga is allegedly related to the person with whom Shikulo travelled to Swakopmund.
She was arrested and later released on bail.
Shikulo's identification card was later found at an MTC outlet in Windhoek after a SIM swap attempt.
She had no idea how her identity card ended up in Windhoek, nor did she receive any notification on her cellphone that there had been a withdrawal.
Bank Windhoek forensic official Erastus Kandjii says most of the cases took place in the Omusati and Oshana regions.
"It was determined during the investigation that the Bank Windhoek mobile app was indeed the sole tool used to defraud the clients," Kandjii says.
He says he believed that employees at other banks allegedly played a key role in providing information to syndicate members.
To illustrate the case, authorities attached a table of the victims of the syndicate.
Some of the amounts allegedly stolen from individual accounts include N$291 000, N$220 000, N$244 000 and N$126 000.
In July this year, Frans Hosea Megameno (31), an employee at Bank Windhoek's Opuwo branch, was arrested in Windhoek for transferring N$729 800 to the accounts of Matheus Inandipumbwasha (24), Nangolo Gideon Nalimanguluke (34), and Silas Tulonga Namupala (35).
They appeared in the Windhoek Magistrate's Court on 19 July and their case was transferred to Opuwo Magistrate's Court.
The suspects are set to appear in court again on 18 October.
During her bail hearing at Ondangwa this month, Ahab denied guilt on all charges.
She said she had assisted Mudjanima on 19 May, but had not stolen from her.
"I never received such an amount in my account, nor do I have knowledge of how the funds may have been stolen," Ahab said.
She has been released on bail of N$3 500, and her case has been postponed to 7 October.
In June this year, a 60-year-old woman from Oshakati lost N$100 000 after a suspect fraudulently siphoned money from her account.
The pensioner went to withdraw money inside Bank Windhoek's Ondangwa branch.
About 10 minutes later, she received a call from a private number and was told she had won an MTC voucher.
She was asked to provide her banking details and personal information, apparently for the voucher to be paid into her account.
At 13h00, she decided to go back to Bank Windhoek to lock into her account, only to find that N$100 000 had been withdrawn already.
In May this year, a Standard Bank manager appeared in the Swakopmund Magistrate's Court in connection with the theft of N$1,1 million at Arandis.
A police crime report indicated that the 47-year-old Standard Bank employee initially took N$800 000 from the bank's safe and handed it to an unknown suspect who had promised to double the money.
Bank Windhoek's retail banking services executive, James Chapman, says the matter had been reported to the police and is under investigation.
To curb fraud, Chapman says action had been taken to ensure clients can transact in a secure manner.
"However, we would like to urge clients to refrain from sharing their personal banking information such as Personal Identification Numbers (PINs) with anyone, including bank employees, in an effort to curb potential theft and the loss of funds," he says.
He says the bank would never request personal banking information such as PINs from clients.
- This story was produced by The Namibian's Investigative Unit. Send us story tips via your secure email to [email protected]
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