The Sunday Mail
PILFERING staffers have been the proverbial monkey on Zimbabwe United Passenger Company (Zupco)’s case ever since it was brought back to life.
Last year, the mass public transport operator jettisoned over 100 conductors who were illegally pocketing bus fare paid by the commuting public.
It quickly switched to a smart and convenient electronic system — using a tap-and-go card — that was ostensibly foolproof and designed to eliminate the possibility of sticky-fingered conductors laying their hands on cash.
But where there is a will, there is always a way.
Some of the Zupco employees discovered a loophole in the system, which they used to siphon “millions of dollars” and line their own pockets.
The Sunday Mail Society has uncovered that some of the parastatal’s staffers were conniving to under-declare their daily returns after corrupting the electronic payment system.
The fraudulent scheme included drivers, conductors and cashiers.
Several employees from the parastatal have been fired or arrested.
Investigations are underway following irregularities unearthed by an internal audit.
“It is true. Many conductors have since been relieved of their duties because of this shocking scandal. Investigations are ongoing as we try to establish the chain involved,” said Zupco’s acting chief executive officer Mr Evaristo Madangwa.
He could not, however, be drawn into disclosing the number of employees that have already been dismissed.
Most of the crimes were committed in Harare.
Some of the affected buses were reportedly serially cashing half or much less than their daily set targets.
“We do not have figures of the potential revenue that we have been prejudiced. However, indications are that we might have lost millions of dollars since the introduction of the cashless system last year. The final audit results will give us a clear indication,” revealed Mr Madangwa.
Our mole indicated that one of the bus crews being investigated under-declared their revenue by more than $4 000 on five separate occasions in a single month.
How the fraud works
The tap machine has a SIM card in it that keeps records of transactions conducted throughout the day by a particular bus or kombi.
However, when the SIM card is removed, the machine within the vehicle automatically loses memory.
This means the bus crew can declare any figure they wish at the depot.
This, in turn, was creating a perfect conduit for the fraudsters to convert money that would have been paid in the form of cash to personal use.
For instance, if commuters paid $2 000 using the e-payment system and $2 000 cash, the bus crew could declare $500 cash then claim the rest was paid via tap cards.
Working in cahoots, some cashiers are alleged to have not “applied effort” to cross-check the figures and reconcile them with cash-in records from the main machine(s) at the depot.
The e-ticket has a double-entry system, which means transactions recorded within the bus are also sent to the main server at the depot.
Others simply replaced the SIM card with other SIM cards so that the machine losses network.
This automatically forced customers to use cash that the bus crew would in turn sell to illegal forex dealers at a higher percentage. There are also reports of conductors that used the tap card SIM on their private mobile phones to gain free access to internet services.
An internal audit at the firm, however, busted the scheme.
“It might not only be the bus crews involved in this fraud. There is a possibility that our cashiers also had a hand in it,” notes Mr Madangwa.
Harare Institute of Technology director of technology, licensing and commercialisation centre Dr Talon Garikayi — the manufacturers of the Zupco tap machines — told The Sunday Mail Society that more than 150 tap machines had been tampered with.
“Reports pertaining to the tampering of the machines have been coming. Zupco has requested us to come up with more secure machines that do not have easily accessible SIM cards,” said Dr Garikayi.
One of the staffers at the company explained how the scheme was hatched.
“ . . . we discovered that if you open and remove the SIM card from the tap machine, it loses records and ceases to connect with the depot. We have been making a killing all along but all is not well after authorities called for an audit,” said the employee on condition of anonymity.
Tatenda, a former conductor of a private-owned commuter omnibus, said they have known about the scandal for a while.
“I have several friends who work there as conductors.
“They started manipulating the system soon after it was introduced. I have also applied for employment with Zupco but I am yet to be considered,” he said.
But the pilfering employees could not have budgeted for the calamity that might soon befall them if Zupco follows through plans to upgrade to much more sophisticated do-it-yourself (DIY) machines.
It would mean more than 3 000 workers would lose their jobs.
“We have also discovered that other conductors would lie that they do not have a tap machine or that it is not functional just to get cash from commuters, so the new system eliminates the conductor completely,” said Mr Madangwa.
Zupco is angling to become 100 percent cashless as part of measures to deal with the cash conversion crisis.
Work on the modified machines has since been completed.
“The pilot installation programme has begun. At least one bus on eight routes that include Chitungwiza, Domboshava, Mufakose, Norton, Vainona will have the new machine as part of the trial run.
“By end of the year, all Zupco buses and those under its franchise will be operating with the new system.
It will be permanently fixed on the bus and the passenger needs no conductor to assist them,” adds Dr Garikayi.
The new tap machine is said to be more secure and is synchronised with the computer room, making it easy to track movements, the number of passengers, amount tapped and authenticity of each passenger card.
“The public should not panic. This is just an upgrade. The old tap cards will remain valid and can be used on the new system,” assured Mr Madangwa.
There will be a transitional phase through which a few buses will continue to use the cash system to allow commuters time to acquire the tap cards.