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Storm over Hawks probe into Cele’s fake social media accounts

Read time 3min 40sec
Minister of police Bheki Cele.
Minister of police Bheki Cele.

Opposition party the Democratic Alliance (DA) is up in arms over the South African Police Service (SAPS) probe into 160 fake social media accounts impersonating police minister Bheki Cele.

In a statement last week, the Ministry of Police said it has noted with concern the proliferation of social media accounts purported to belong to Cele, even after a warning was issued two years ago by the office against such fake social media accounts.

The minister has no social media account, be it private or official, it notes.

According to the department, Cele has denounced any social media account in his name as fake and has issued a stern warning to those impostors whose motive for impersonating the minister cannot be for anything else but to draw unsuspecting social media users into their criminal activities.

It notes investigations by the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (Hawks) to identify and locate these fake account operators, and bring them to book, are at an advanced stage.

Says the department: “There are at this stage, more than 160 accounts across Twitter and Facebook bearing as profiles, pictures of minister Cele and his particulars, with some pictures as old as about 10 years from when the minister was still the national commissioner of the South African Police Service.

“One such account has just under 60 000 followers who wrongfully believe they are following and interacting with police minister, general Bheki Cele, which is not the case.

“It is worth noting that a number of crimes have been solved through tip-offs and through confidential information provided telephonically to minister Cele by members of the public. It is on this same principle that some citizens who are active on social media, may want to share similar anonymous tip-offs, only for such information to fall into the wrong hands of these impostors. This in itself poses a risk on the personal safety and the lives of law-abiding citizens whose intention is to work and collaborate with the police on crime prevention and combating.”

Cyber crime priorities

However, George Michalakis, DA’s MP for security and justice, says the opposition party is not happy with the investigation as other fraud investigations against businesses and the public are placed on hold.

Michalakis notes that since the lockdown started, real cyber crimes that affect the public have exponentially increased, exposing individuals and businesses that are already under economic strain to online fraud and other crimes.

In response to a 2019 parliamentary question, the Hawks Cyber Crime Unit, now investigating Cele’s fake profiles, had 937 cases referred to it with a total fraud value of R7.9 billion, while only 178 of these cases could be successfully prosecuted with a total fraud value of only R23 million, he says.

According to Michalakis, despite very capable police officers within the unit, it is grossly under-funded, under-resourced, lacking sufficient cyber forensic capacity and struggles to fulfil its obligations while retaining well-trained investigators within its ranks.

Furthermore, he adds, with the Cyber Crimes Bill not yet passed by Parliament, it is hard to see how these crimes would be prosecuted for spreading false news where a prior qualification is made that such an account is a parody account.

“The only reason why fake accounts of a fake Cele making ludicrous statements would be believable is because the minister himself has been no stranger to making ludicrous statements in the past, not least during the lockdown.

“If Cele is serious about fighting cyber crimes, he should start by properly capacitating the unit charged with investigating it, so that they can do their jobs in the interest of the public, before focusing on the minister’s own vanity projects.

“I will continue to demand of the department and the minister, as I have been doing for the past five years, to adequately fund and capacitate this unit so that ordinary South Africans falling victim to real cyber crimes can have the same justice that Cele claims for himself.”

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