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Police scammers

How to recognise police impersonation scams and what to do about them

Dressing up as a police officer has long been an act for male strippers. It’s a bit of fun and no one would mistake them for real law enforcement officers. But impersonating a police officer for financial gain is a serious issue. Extortion scams using stolen identities of police officers are, unfortunately, rife in South Africa. Sergeant Heinreich Bester of the Boksburg North SAPS has been the target of an online police impersonation scam for the past four years. Alleged rape and sexual harassment are common “charges” which the scammer claims will “go away” on payment of a substantial sum of money.

There has been increasing awareness of online scams in recent years, particularly since the working-from-home craze of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are much more alert to “phishing”, i.e., email scams, SMSes claiming we have won a competition we never entered, Nigerian princes who want to give us their fortune, etc. But there has also been a concerning rise in police impersonation scams, which has had less publicity and therefore victims are less likely to be on their guard. Furthermore, most law-abiding citizens have a healthy respect for the police and an understandable fear of being arrested. Criminals posing as police officers play on this fear and use intimidation to extort money from innocent individuals. But it is not difficult to recognise these scams if you know what to look for.

Warning signs of a police impersonation scam

One of the strengths of our Constitution is that it rectifies the abuses of the past, in pre-democratic South Africa. No one can be detained without charge, and the police have strict procedures to follow in making an arrest. Arrestees have rights too. According to the SAPS website, “A person may be arrested either on the strength of a warrant of arrest or when a police officer witnesses a person committing an offence or has probable cause to believe that a person was involved in the commission of a crime.” Furthermore, “You have the right to be informed of the charges on which you are being arrested.” And, “Once arrested you are required to tell the police your home address. A police officer may not request any further information from you including in respect of your activities or organisations you are involved with.”

If the police officer acts in a way that is not logically consistent with the expected conduct of a law enforcement officer, be suspicious. Don’t let fear cloud your judgement. Warning signs include:

  1. Unsolicited contact: Be wary if you receive a sudden call or message from someone claiming to be a police officer, especially if you were not expecting any legal issues.
  2. Threats and intimidation: Scammers often use fear tactics, such as threatening arrest or legal action, to pressure their victims into complying with their demands.
  3. Request for money: A legitimate police officer should never ask for money to resolve a legal matter. If the caller insists on immediate payment to “make the problem go away”, it’s a red flag. 
  4. Suspicious communication channels: If the call is not from a landline, be wary.  Officers will rarely use platforms such as WhatsApp to inform you of an arrest. Profile photos on WhatsApp are easily stolen from social media. This happened to Sergeant Bester in Boksburg. Be cautious even if the call is from a cell phone – impersonators will list their own numbers on TrueCaller to give themselves “authenticity”.

What to do if you are scammed

The actions you take in the wake of a scam will determine the outcome and may save you money and distress and protect someone else from the same fate. If you suspect the “police officer” is not authentic:

  1. Stay calm: Scammers rely on panic and fear to manipulate their victims.
  2. Verify caller identity: Legitimate law enforcement will provide their details and allow you to verify their identity. Ask for their name, their rank, their force number (consisting of eight digits) and the location of the police station where they are based. 
  3. Contact the police: If you suspect the call is a scam, contact the police station the scammer claims to come from to verify whether there is a legitimate warrant out for your arrest and/or whether the supposed official works there. 
  4. Do not pay them anything.
  5. If you have responded to a request for payment, ignore any further requests and do not acknowledge any subsequent communication.
  6. Block their numbers and change important passwords.
  7. Consider changing your cell number as the scammers might attempt to embroil you in other scams.
  8. Report the matter to SAPS. Impersonating a police officer is a criminal offence.

Do you think you may have committed an offence?

It is very unlikely you have committed a crime completely unwittingly. Our law is robust enough that innocent actions are rarely likely to be unintentional criminal offences. If you know you have done nothing unlawful, do not let the scammer intimidate you. Warrants of arrest are only issued by a court after having heard charges against you. SAPS can only go to court to apply for an arrest warrant if they cannot find you. 

If the charge is serious and SAPS wanted to arrest you, they probably would have done so immediately without a warrant. And you would be all too aware of what you had done.

Section 40(1)(b) of the Criminal Procedure Act allows a police officer to arrest a suspect without a warrant when they reasonably suspect the individual of committing a schedule 1 offence. If you are charged with assault or rape, the police will come arrest you immediately. 

Prevention is better than cure

This article is intended to provide information and raise awareness about this malicious type of scam. These tips should ensure you don’t fall victim to an impersonator and you can protect your family from the distress and anguish that accompany a brush with the law, whether real or fake.

  1. Be informed: Educate yourself and share the information in this article with your family and friends. Awareness is the first line of defence.
  2. Stay vigilant: If something feels wrong, trust your instincts and seek advice from trusted sources and legal representatives.
  3. Protect your personal information: Check your digital footprint to understand where you are vulnerable. Most of us share personal information online without really thinking about how it might be misappropriated. Consider how scammers might access your details and learn about your habits and take steps to protect your personal information. As we’ve said in many other contexts, be careful what you put online. That Instagram post that feels “here today and gone tomorrow” is in fact here forever.
  4. Examine yourself. If you are engaged in activities that are not in themselves unlawful but which you choose to hide from your significant other or your family, you expose yourself to the risk of blackmail. This may or may not be in the form of a police impersonation scam, but whatever form it takes, it will be unpleasant. Don’t take that risk. Be honest with those who matter to you, or sooner or later someone will exploit your weakness.

SD Law can help

If you are a victim of a police impersonation scam, you should report it, regardless of any embarrassment you feel at having been duped. It is a crime. If you repeatedly experience inappropriate intrusions into your personal life, it may also count as harassment. The law is there to protect you. You may be able to secure a Harassment Protection Order. If you need professional assistance to determine if the behaviour you are experiencing is harassment, SD Law can help. We know how distressing harassment of any description can be. Contact Simon on 086 099 5146 or email for a confidential discussion.

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The information on this website is provided to assist the reader with a general understanding of the law. While we believe the information to be factually accurate, and have taken care in our preparation of these pages, these articles cannot and do not take individual circumstances into account and are not a substitute for personal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that concerns you, please consult a qualified attorney. Simon Dippenaar & Associates takes no responsibility for any action you may take as a result of reading the information contained herein (or the consequences thereof), in the absence of professional legal advice.

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