THE RACKET IN YOUR POCKET
They started out as “petty” consumer gripes about mysterious charges – R50 here, R120 there – appearing on cellphone bills. It would invariably transpire that their network provider was playing banker, deducting amounts to pay third parties for sundry ludicrous “services”, such as “IQ tests”, “brain teasers”, infantile games or outrageous ringtones. All too often, the customer was unaware that he or she had subscribed for any of these “services” – and had certainly not authorised their network provider to make such payments on their behalf.
The latest hits a new low: Vodacom is now deducting charges from the cellphone accounts of unsuspecting customers for pornographic material supplied, unsolicited, via their network. Read our cover story and let us, and Vodacom, know what you think.
Ah, you say (as we at first thought) – in the bigger scheme of things it’s just another irritation. Until we had a closer look at the bigger scheme of things ... and discovered it’s no mere irritation: it’s a massive scam with serious implications for the national economy, built on the old adage: Steal a million from one man and you go to jail for life; steal R35 from each of ten million people and you’re laughing all the way to your offshore bank!
South Africa’s network operators and their associated “service aggregators” have for the past couple of years been operating a vast racket to scam extra billions of rands off their claimed 45 million-odd subscribers – and then sending most of the money offshore, taxfree, as “subscription fees” paid to invariably shady and obscure offshore companies for “content services” that have no economic value.
In short, it is not only a scheme to rob the foolish masses by luring them into fairground “games”; it has all the appearances of a sophisticated scheme to move huge sums of money offshore, in contravention of tax and exchange control laws.
In the process they also happen to be contravening any number of other laws, such as those designed to ensure probity in banking, control gambling and prevent the distribution of pornography to minors.
The racket’s continuing and growing success is a terrible reflection on our law enforcement agencies, who still appear to be blissfully ignorant of it all. And what of the banks and the Reserve Bank, who are, ultimately, handling the cashflow? Have they not noticed that it has reached such a scale that it must by now be a serious drain on the country’s dwindling foreign exchange reserves? Or is it business as usual for them too?
Marike Roth wrote her first Web Dreams column for noseweek in May 2006. Appropriately it was about romance on the internet: Marike had met her American husband Pat Tully on the internet – and it made for a very happy marriage and the best years of her life. Marike loved the internet and engaged with the world through it. As a result her columns about the internet were inevitably also about Marike’s joyful engagement with the issues and curiosities of life and, ultimately, her own approaching death. When she was diagnosed with leukaemia in September last year, she returned to Cape Town for treatment. That temporarily cut her off from the internet – but did not stop her writing her column, in which she bewailed the lot of the deprived addict. In her November column came bad news:
“Did you speak to the doctor today?” [the hospital social worker – “the buffalo”] asked.
“Yes I did,” I said.
“Well, as you know, my leukaemia is resistant to the chemotherapy, so I’ve decided to end the process because the risk of complications is much higher than the likelihood that I’ll go into remission, so there’s not much point really.”
“And what did he say?”
“He said that in about three to six months’ time I’m probably going to float off on a white cloud.”
“And how do you feel about that?” asked the buffalo.
“I’m just busy getting my speech ready for God.” I said. “I reckon she’s got some explaining to do. But before I do that, I’m going back to the USA to spend the rest of my days with my dear husband.”
The buffalo blinked. “Well, don’t you dare leave without saying goodbye,” she said and left the room, and I was glad when she was gone, because I wished to get back to the story about the [cleaning lady’s] hardships.
But the cleaning lady was gone and I was alone again. I thought about my life, and I thought about the cleaning lady’s life, and I felt lucky. I didn’t even know her name, but I knew I wouldn’t swap my life for hers for anything.
In the script of our lives we can write the dialogue, but the plot is completely out of our control.
Marike Roth’s columns continued to arrive from America, month after month. The last, written ten days before her death, appeared in our July issue. Thank you, Pat, for always encouraging her. It’s amazing what love can do.
We dedicate this issue to her cherished memory.
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