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Vodacom, MTN make breakthroughs against battery theft syndicates

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South Africa’s two biggest mobile operators – MTN and Vodacom – say they are making gains in the fight against criminal syndicates targeting cell tower batteries.

This as criminal syndicates are increasingly targeting South African mobile operators’ base stations, stealing or vandalising critical infrastructure like batteries, copper cables and diesel.

The theft and vandalism of this infrastructure has resulted in the mobile operators losing hundreds of millions of rands.

The rate of vandalism and theft, especially multiple repeat incidents, is sometimes forcing the operators to abandon base stations due to nonviable replacement costs, thereby adversely impacting network availability or quality in some areas.

In a statement this morning, Vodacom says in a move that demonstrates the efficiency of the high-tech security technology the telco has deployed to fight battery theft in its base stations, the mobile provider’s national security team in partnership with South African Police Services (SAPS) led to the arrest of suspects belonging to one of the largest syndicates behind battery theft in SA.

Intelligence-driven operation

The operator says through an intelligence-driven operation initiated by Vodacom National Security, with assistance of the SAPS, Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department and Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Police Department led to the arrest of five suspects and the recovery of batteries in Soweto.

It notes the successful arrest of members belonging to one of the largest syndicates stealing batteries nationally follows an incident at the Middelburg R35 base station sites in Mpumalanga province where Vodacom’s lithium batteries were stolen.

Suspects managed to flee before local police arrived on the scene.

The company explains that the following day, using advanced intelligence systems, Vodacom ascertained that the suspects were on route to Gauteng province and the telco’s national security engaged law enforcement in Gauteng for assistance in pursuing the suspects.

The operation led to a property in Turffontein where they apprehended suspects on the scene, says Vodacom.

It notes the suspects were linked to various cases of battery theft and vandalism across the country’s nine provinces.

Vodacom batteries stolen in Mpumalanga were recovered at the scene in addition to rounds of 9mm ammunition and house-breaking implements.

Johan van Graan, chief risk officer for Vodacom Group, says: “We are not resting on our laurels. We are fighting back and the clear message that we want to send to thieves out there is that you will be caught and you will be prosecuted.

“That we were able to use our systems to track the movements of the members of the syndicate from Mpumalanga to Gauteng demonstrates the efficacy of the high-tech systems and technologies we have adopted to stem the tide of battery theft. We are constantly implementing new technologies to make sure the thieves are caught and prosecuted.

“Crucially, the suspects apprehended at the scene were linked to various cases of battery theft and vandalism across the country. What is clear is that through this arrest, we are making inroads into one of the biggest syndicates operating inside the country. We are using all the means at our disposal to protect our base stations, so we can afford our customers unmatched customer experience and uninterrupted mobile service whether they are in urban or deep rural areas of the country.”

According to Vodacom, it is estimated that local cellphone network providers lose hundreds millions of rands in damage to base stations annually as a result of theft and vandalism.

Vodacom is losing R120 million to vandalism and theft each year, it notes, adding that more importantly than the monetary impact, criminals are cutting off entire communities, it says.

One of the biggest hauls

Meanwhile, yesterday MTN said it continues to make inroads in the fight against battery theft at base stations.

According to the operator, seven individuals were arrested, a total of 55 batteries were recovered, and four vehicles with tools were confiscated in a series of operations across the country in the past few days.

In one of the biggest hauls to date, SAPS arrested a suspect at the Beit Bridge point of entry in possession of 32 batteries. His vehicle and trailer were also impounded.

In another successful operation in Greytown in KwaZulu-Natal, MTN says three suspects were apprehended after a tip-off while they were still inside the perimeter of the base station. Two vehicles with false licence plates were recovered at the scene, including the tools the suspects used to break in. The suspects have been detained and have been positively linked to other cases.

In another successful multi-party operation, MTN’s security and the SAPS nabbed three suspects after a tip-off from another telco operator. A total of 16 MTN batteries were subsequently recovered.

“We are encouraged with the breakthrough we are making in the fight against vandalism and the theft of telecommunications infrastructure; all the hard work is finally yielding results,” says Ernest Paul, MTN general manager for network operations.

“MTN will continue to collaborate with other telco companies to completely clamp down on the scourge of battery theft, which is costing mobile network operators millions of rands and depriving consumers access to communication services.

“We wish to thank members of the SAPS for their diligent work, and we once again appeal to our communities to work with mobile network operators and law enforcement agencies to end the scourge of battery theft.” 

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