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'We live in fear,' say e-commerce couriers on increased robberies

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The worsening spate of robberies targeting delivery courier vans and scooters could hit the budding e-commerce sector’s pocket and reputation.

While the South African lockdown resulted in online shopping reaching a tipping point in 2020, growing by 66% from 2018, industry players have expressed concern at the surge in robberies targeted at courier vans and scooters.

In March, Gauteng provincial police commissioner lieutenant general Elias Mawela provided anupdateon vehicle and truck hijackings in the province. He noted that car hijackings had gone up by 5.9%, while truck hijackings increased by 31.8%. He noted that in recent weeks the spotlight had been on courier van robberies.

The E-commerce Forum South Africa (ECFSA) notes that SA’s move to adjusted level four lockdown results in a higher dependence on online delivery services – throwing the increasing number of attacks on delivery staff into even greater focus for the sector.

“The ECFSA is greatly concerned by reports of increased thefts and violence targeted at e-commerce delivery personnel since the COVID pandemic started last year,” says Lauretta Ngakane,head of communications, ECFSA.

“We are closely in touch with the South African Express Parcel Association, which promotes guidance for its members’ delivery staff in the event of attempted hijackings, or theft of equipment. We are keen to see similar guidance programmes for other delivery staff and also to ensure there is adequate insurance available for staff. Delivery is a core requirement of e-commerce and must be adequately protected.”

Duane Bernard, delivery driver and spokesperson for Uber Driver Partners SA, told ITWeb that last year, three of his courier colleagues were shot and robbed by hijackers, while delivering food to customers.

“We have been engaging UberEats about this matter for months. I was personally hijacked in December 2020, and sadly, these incidents targeting online delivery services are taking place daily and are becoming more violent.The thugs know drivers are unprotected and they know drivers carry some cash, goods and even smartphones which they use to work with,” notesBernard.

In some instances, the criminals don’t drive around seeking victims but opt to put through a cash-on-delivery order and pounce on the couriers as they make their deliveries, he adds.

A courier who works for Takealot and Mr D Food, who did not want to be named, says he is in constant fear of hijackers, as some of his colleagues have been victims.

“I know of some colleagues who have lost their motorbikes due to these hijackings. I think if our bikes were not marked or if we don’t wear our uniform, it would make life easier. We are in constant fear of being robbed,” he says.

Increased insurance, delivery prices

Local smart security solutions company VaultGroup says after observing this crime trend, it has collaborated with industry players to help fight courier crime by developing high-tech electronic lockers and storage solutions.

“The boom in online shopping has also caused a surge in courier van robberies, with crime syndicates targeting high value goods such as mobile devices,” says Michael Gewer, CEO of VaultGroup.

“The courier drivers face increasing risks, with gangs of up to 25 hijackers swarming a van with military precision and high-grade weapons. No longer are these just opportunistic crimes but highly-organised attacks that focus on goods that can be quickly sold on the black market.”

World Wide Worx MD Arthur Goldstuck points out that while he doesn’t have the statistics showing the extent of this crime trend, if these robberies don't subside, this may have a negative impact on the e-commerce industry in SA.

“Any crime targeting app-based service providers like couriers and ride-hailing drivers would damage the reputation of safety and reliability of e-commerce deliveries and services.

“It will require additional checks and verifications to be added to the services, especially for first-time customers, who would probably have to go through a FICA-like process if the problem becomes widespread.

“The Protection of Personal Information Act allows for personal information to be collected for a specific purpose, if it is necessary and the customer agrees, so newcomers to e-commerce can expect to have to agree to a lot more than would previously have been the case, if they want to receive the service,” he explains.

Ngakane highlights the potential long-term consequences:“Level four lockdown will encourage home deliveries for restaurants and will encourage consumers to buy more online from retailers.

“The hijacking of delivery vehicles from motor bikes to courier vans, increases insurance costs and puts delivery staff in danger. If hijackings and thefts continue to increase un-checked, the cost of delivery will increase and this will inevitably reduce the attractiveness of e-commerce for consumers and business.”

Uber says the safety of its delivery-partners is a top priority and it has taken several measures to ensure their safety, including setting up the Uber Incident Response Team, which is trained in incident response during time of emergencies.

Takealot Group declined to comment.

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