Police arrest three kidnappers by tracking hostage’s phone

The South African Police Service’s (Saps) Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation — Hawks — have tracked down and arrested three kidnappers with the help of a victim’s cellphone.

The Saps released a statement saying the Hawks tracked a hostage’s phone to the Woodstock area in Cape Town.

“It is reported that on 14 June 2024, at about 19:00 hours, the Hawks Serious Organised Crime Investigation team received information regarding a kidnapping,” it said.

“Upon receiving the information, analysis was made and linking the information to suspicious banking activities and transfer patterns by the suspects to various banks.”

This, in turn, led the Hawks team to track the victim’s cellphone, which was active in Woodstock.

Upon tracking the location and entering the premises, officers found the hostage tied up in the main bedroom and rescued them.

They were taken to a hospital for examination.

The Saps said the tracking also led to the arrest of two suspects who tried to flee the scene on 14 June. The team arrested a third suspect the following day after further investigation.

The suspects will appear in the Cape Town Regional Court on 18 June 2024, facing charges of kidnapping and extortion.

Police can track a cellphone’s location with the help of mobile network operators.

Mobile carriers record which towers a device connects to and its associated signal strength. Police officers can use the information to triangulate the device’s location in real-time.

The South African Police Service has also obtained permission to use various surveillance devices.

In May 2023, justice minister Ronald Lamola gazetted a five-year exemption from the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provisions of Communication-related Information Act (RICA).

This enables authorities to use various surveillance devices that would otherwise be illegal.

Police can legally buy and use signal interception devices to collect details about any cellular device in a given area.

South Africa’s former justice ministers had consistently withheld approval for using such devices.

They include International Mobile Subscriber Identifier (IMSI) catchers, which are also known as “grabbers”.

These devices masquerade as standard cellular towers while harvesting data from every mobile device that connects to them.

Police could then theoretically map the data gathered to identify users, as RICA mandates telecommunications service providers to collect customers’ identifying information.

The Saps can use hardware keystroke recorders, wiretaps, eavesdropping microphones, night vision and thermal imaging equipment, miniature video and audio recorders, and location tracking devices, in addition to IMSI-catchers.

Wahl Bartmann, Fidelity Group CEO

“Express kidnapping” surge in South Africa

Insurers and private security firm Fidelity have warned of a surge of “express kidnappings” in South Africa.

According to the CEO of insurance broker OLEA South Africa, Richard Hood, express kidnapping happens when criminal groups kidnap and threaten people and then force them to withdraw cash from ATMs or open their banking apps to EFT funds.

“The kidnapping often ends when the victim can no longer withdraw money. But not always,” said Hood.

He added that this type of kidnapping has grown exponentially in South Africa, with cases increasing by around 30% over the past decade.

Fidelity CEO Wahl Bartmann also warned of express kidnappings.

He explained that when people hear the word kidnapping, they think of high-profile business people being abducted for large ransoms.

Bartmann said this was no longer the case and that the “ordinary man on the street” is also a target for criminals.

“An increasingly prevalent trend in recent times is ‘express kidnappings’, where motorists are hijacked and driven in their own vehicle or another vehicle to an ATM and forced to withdraw cash,” he said.

“They are then also robbed of valuables before being left at an isolated location.”

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Police arrest three kidnappers by tracking hostage’s phone