Residents search for SASSA solutions

Lauren O’Connor-May

Brenda Stuurman battles to make ends meet because large sums of money are deducted from her child support grant monthly.

Ms Stuurman, 49, of Hyde Park is supposed to get R660 from the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) but most months she is only left with about R200 after fraudulent deductions by scammers.

Ms Stuurman’s story is not unique. According to Black Sash, a human rights advocacy organisation, at least a million people are being defrauded of grant payouts in the country.

“At a national level, as reported in Grant Grabs, a Special Assignment documentary – which we commissioned – the special advisor to the minister of social development indicated that at least a million people are affected by these deductions,” Elroy Paulus, the Black Sash’s media spokesperson said, adding that the interview had taken place in December 2014.

“The acceleration of deductions since then has been phenomenal.”

Sassa has condemned the scammers, saying that most of the stolen money is deducted by debit order.

“In some cases these fraudsters use the ‘proof of life’ modus-operandi by visiting beneficiaries’ homes, produce forged Sassa identification cards and inform their victims that they were doing inspections to confirm whether the card holder is still alive. They then ask for the Sassa card, identity documents and PIN numbers. Once in possession of these details they then use the internet and withdraw money from the accounts. In some cases, they use these details to initiate unauthorised monthly debit orders on the accounts,” Sassa said in a press release.

“Sassa in collaboration with the police and other law-enforcement agencies have started high-level investigations into these scams and very soon these criminals will be put behind bars.”

Ms Stuurman’s grant woes began more than a year ago when she visited a loan agency in Khayelitsha. Her neighbours, many of whom are grant beneficiaries too, were buzzing about the loans they had received from the company, so she decided to see for herself.

Ms Stuurman, who cannot confirm the name of the company and does not know whether they are accredited by the Financial Services Board, said the company granted her a loan and started taking monthly deductions from her Sassa card by debit order as recompense. But months after the loan was paid off, the deductions continued and now Ms Stuurman cannot get the debits stopped.

On Monday February 15, Ward 79 councillor Solomon Philander convened a meeting with residents to try to find a solution.

Mr Philander said: “As a ward councillor I received an increase in complaints regarding unauthorised deductions from Sassa grants. Although Sassa is not a function of local government, beneficiaries turn to their ward councillor to assist. On Tuesday February 2 every other person visiting my office had a query relating to Sassa. I, together with ward councillor for Ward 99 Maria Weavers and community development worker Monica Jacobs, walked over to the Portland Indoor Centre to hear directly what people were experiencing.

“On arrival we found furious people who were absolutely frustrated as they were not given a clear indication when they will be reimbursed. Some have walked back and forth to the centre for several days to be assisted as the capacity of staff was not sufficient to help all the people coming.”

Mr Philander said several issues came to the fore from the impromptu site visit. These were:

* Not enough card machines are available on the day to assist the volume of people;

* Beneficiaries have not been getting their full payments for months;

* Sassa cards were being swallowed at ATMs

* People were using *130*4444*120*44# to buy airtime and electricity; and

* People who don’t have a prepaid meter are also having monies deducted for electricity.

“Listening to the cry of the people was extremely sad, in understanding their experience, I immediately called for an urgent public meeting for Monday February 15, at the Portland Indoor Centre. I invited the office of Dr Waldie Terblanche, Sassa Western Cape regional manager, who responded positively.”

About 80 residents attended the meeting as well as Mr Paulus in his capacity as National Advocacy Manager for Black Sash and a representative from the Older Persons’ Forum.

Sassa’s provincial general manager, Henry Degra, and senior manager for payments and contract management, Busisiwe Letompa, told the meeting that a tender to Cash Paymaster Services (CPS) gave 10 million people access to the banking system. The system uses a SIM card, which was linked to the Sassa cards. Residents who either lost or gave away these SIM cards were vulnerable to fraud.

According to Sassa there are four deductions taking place on cards, namely for airtime, electricity, loans and for life policies. The only legal deduction is the life policy, Sassa said.

“Sassa can only take responsibility for people who did not give permission for deductions,” Mr Philander said. “They are aware that people who gave permission for deductions need help but unfortunately Sassa can only assist those who never gave permission.”

Mr Philander advised victims of illegal deductions to take the following steps:

* Get an affidavit confirming that they did not give permission for the deductions

* Complete a dispute resolution form at the local Sassa office

“People will be reimbursed within one to two months depending on the time the dispute was logged. Further investigations will follow and the necessary action will be taken against the perpetrators without fear or favour,” Mr Philander said.

Beneficiaries were also encouraged to change their PIN numbers and told to not disclose them to anyone.

“The current tender with CPS is in the termination phase and Sassa will take over payments in the 2017/18 financial year,” Mr Philander said.

Mr Paulus said: “There are approximately 16.8 million Sassa beneficiaries, and the grants are paid into their bank accounts each month by CPS on behalf of Sassa (around R9bn to R10 bn a month) – a total of 10.5 million bank accounts (since some beneficiaries get more than one grant – for example, for three children). The Black Sash was always of the view that all Sassa beneficiaries, because of the way in which the bank accounts are structured, are at risk. By inference then there are therefore thousands of people in the Western Cape – if not hundreds of thousands – from whom deductions are being made, without permission, and repeatedly so.”

Albert Fritz, MEC of Social Development, said: “It must always be borne in mind that social grant recipients are the poorest of the poor, and are people from the most vulnerable segments of our society. To have any money missing from their grants has serious implications for their day-to-day basic needs, such as food.”

For help, beneficiaries can call Sassa’s tollfree anti-fraud helpline number on 0800 701 701.