Africa: Scammed at an ATM in Durban

Filed in Uncategorized by on August 28, 2006 0 Comments

The January Southern Hemisphere sun feels lovely. My daughter Pam and I bask in its light and warmth as we dine outdoors at the Catz Cafe in Umhlanga Rocks, a seaside resort area north of Durban, South Africa.  We flew out of Chicago a week earlier on the heels of a major snowstorm.  Pam eats a salmon salad, and I enjoy a tasty vegetable Mediterranean salad.  We’re both drinking a refreshing Grapetizer, which is carbonated grape juice with no sugar.  The ‘tizer fruit drinks are popular in South Africa, and we also enjoy Peartizers and Appletizers on our trip.

This morning, our tour group flew from Port Elizabeth to Durban, the second largest city in South Africa, to begin the second leg of our trip.  Durban is a seaport on the east coast of South Africa and borders the Indian Ocean.

The previous week we visited beautiful Cape Town with its Table Mountain, the rugged Cape of Good Hope, Cape Point where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet, and penguins at Simons Town beach. Before our morning flight, we had just completed traversing the beautiful Garden Route along the southern coastline of South Africa.

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Cape of Good Hope, the rocky promontory where the Indian Ocean’s warm currents converge with the Antarctic’s cool currents.  It was once called the Cape of Storms for the stormy weather that greeted European seafarers.


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African penguins at Simon’s Town.  They are also known as jackass penguins for the braying sound they make.  I was surprised that penguins live in warm areas.

I give the waiter my charge card to pay for our lunches.  He returns with the card and says I have to come with him to enter my PIN number.  Questioning this since I’ve never used a PIN number for a charge before, I nevertheless follow him.  Sure enough, the charge terminal’s screen is asking for a PIN. The waiter must have entered my charge as a debit transaction.  Since I never use this charge card as a debit card, I don’t know my PIN for it, and I pay him 130 Rand (about US $8.15) cash for lunch and tip for both of us.

After our lunch break, our tour is to move north and head inland, away from the coast. Wayne, our tour director, has suggested that if we need money, we should get it here before we leave.  There won’t be many ATMs available during the next few days.  I wasn’t planning on getting any money, but now that I’ve used up some of my cash to pay for lunch, I’m rethinking this.

We still have time before we have to return to the coach, and Pam and I stroll through the town which, because it’s Sunday, is very quiet.  Nothing catches our eye, but about a block and a half from where our coach is parked, we spot an ATM. I decide to make a withdrawal of 100 Rand.

I make the transaction, take my receipt and debit card, and begin walking toward the coach with Pam.  Someone calls to me, “Lady, you have to complete your transaction.”  I turn around to see a well-groomed, genial-looking man and say, “I’m done.  I’ve got my money and receipt” and continue on my way.  He calls out again, pointing to a couple of people standing by the ATM and says, “These people can’t make their transactions until you close out.”

Hearing this appeal to my sense of responsibility, I turn around and return to the ATM, puzzled about what I still need to do. The screen instructions now are in Afrikaans, and I don’t understand them. The man tells me to insert my card and press my PIN, which I do.  His hand reaches over my shoulder and punches in some numbers.  I wait for my card to come out, but it doesn’t.  I turn around, and I see the man casually walking away.  I shout after him, “Where’s my card?” He keeps walking.  I angrily yell the question again.  He turns around looking blank-faced, shrugs his shoulders and walks down a side street.  I realize I’ve been tricked.  Fear takes over me as I grasp the possible consequences.

I immediately start running toward the coach, Pam trailing behind me, to get Wayne. When I first approached the ATM, there was message on the screen saying something about calling a number if your card wasn’t returned.  Perhaps Wayne can call that number to get the card.   Wayne returns to the ATM with me and calls the number on the screen with his mobile phone.  The service person indicates it will take him about a half hour to get here.

Wayne, ever the professional, calmly waits.  I’m pacing and feeling bad about holding up the tour group’s departure.  Pam is subdued.  We surmise from the message on the screen and the con man’s actions that he has learned my pin number and may return to retrieve the card and use it.

After waiting and thinking about five minutes, I decide I should just cancel the debit card.  Fortunately, Pam has a debit card from the same institution, and I get the number to call from it.  Wayne makes the international call on his phone, and hands it to me as it rings.  I give the woman on the other end the information, and she cancels the card.  I also take her up on the offer to send me a replacement card. Before we leave to go back to the coach, Wayne calls the ATM service person and cancels our service request.

On the coach, I feel relieved, but I also feel depressed, a victim.  I mentally blame and berate myself.  Why was I so stupid? I’m an intelligent woman who should know better than to fall for a con.  I hate myself for being so foolish.  I want to curl up in a hole and be invisible.

The subsequent week is so interesting that I don’t think much about the scam.  We visit Zululand, Swaziland, Kruger National Park, Blyde River Canyon, Johannesburg and many other places.  We stay in outstanding lodgings.  I thoroughly enjoy myself and learn so much.

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Blyde River Canyon, the third deepest canyon in the world, cuts through the Drakensberg Mountain Range, one of the seven major mountain ranges in Africa. 

In downtimes in our hotel rooms, I remember the experience and feel shame warm my face and anger turn my stomach.  I analyze what went wrong, why I fell for such a scam. 

  • The con man was friendly, articulate and well-groomed, a person I could like.
  • The scam was a set-up.  A teenage youth was lounging on the street a short distance from the ATM when I got there.  He probably alerted the head scammer and the “ATM customers,” who supposedly were waiting to use the ATM, that I was a good prospect for a potential job for them.  All the “customers” had left when I returned with Wayne.
  • The perpetrator’s actions were direct, not hesitant, and smooth.  He looked me in the eye.
  • Most significantly, the scammer appealed to my sense of responsibility for holding up other people.  I didn’t want my actions to hurt others.  I had said no to the scammer’s first call. 
  • Once the scammer had me in front of the ATM, the language change on the ATM screen confused me, and the scammer worked very quickly.

Most importantly, I realize I somehow have to come to terms with what has happened.  I don’t want to stay a victim with all the feelings and actions that often motivate a victim’s subsequent life.

We return home the following Sunday. The next day, I’m in my office catching up with deskwork.  I call the audio teller for my bank account to ensure that an expected automatic deposit has been made to my checking account.  What I hear is a listing of withdrawals and withdrawal fees that I have not made.  I immediately go online to my account.  I discover seven withdrawals totaling about $1500 were made at South African banks from my checking account after I canceled my debit card.  A small withdrawal was also made from a savings account.

Right away I contact my banking institution and tell my story to the fraud manager.  From her online records, she agrees I indeed canceled my ATM card and notes the withdrawals and fees that occurred after I did it.  She tells me she will check with insurance and get back to me.

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Checking withdrawals and fees made at South African ATMs by the scammer after I canceled my debit card.  A small amount was also withdrawn from my checking account.


For once I don’t have to follow up on an administrative issue.  Two and a half weeks later, I fill out an insurance form, have it notarized and return it to the helpful fraud manager.  She immediately credits my accounts for the amounts that were fraudulently withdrawn.  Case resolved.

Or is it?  I know I won’t be right with this event until I can forgive the con man, whatever that means.  I don’t want him to continue to do this to unwary tourists nor to lead others in unlawful acts.  But I can’t prosecute him even if he is caught and charged.  As Wayne tells us, he picked a tourist–me–because he knew I couldn’t return to testify against him. 

In the ensuing days whenever I recall the event and feel the warmth of shame and anger creep up my neck into my face and burn my stomach, I consciously remember the perpetrator’s round, smiling face and in my mind say something to the effect, “I want the best for you in life, but I don’t want you to continue to scam people.”  Does talking to myself work?  For me, yes.  After a few months, the warmth, churning and bad feelings are gone when I remember the incident.

Prior to writing this article, I wonder if detailing the scam on Gather will rekindle the victim feelings in me.  They do not.  Instead, the memory of the trip as a whole is so pleasant that against my editorial judgment, I can’t resist inserting amateurish trip photos I took with a single-use camera that have no relevance to the subject of the article.  I want to alert others to be wary of this kind of a scam.  But in the end, my trip to South Africa was so filled with beauty and learning and happy experiences, I’d prefer to emphasize that part. The photos better represent my lasting feelings for my South African experience.

Previous articles in this African travel series:

Zulu Night published March 5, 2006

The Kingdom of Swaziland
published March 29, 2006 

Safari–Watching Lions Mate
published July 11, 2006

Safari–Charged by an Elephant
published August 5, 2006


About the Author ()

I am a retired environmental, health and safety manager who has done some work in communications. I have a knowledge of and passion for sustainability issues. In temperament I am a peculiar mix of stable soul and free spirit.

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