Thursday, 11 October 2007

E-mail scares #2: This week's crime waves

Along with medical warnings, crime scares are the most common e-mail hoaxes and urban legends distributed in South Africa.

Just this week, the very day after the storm warning had done the e-rounds, a new hoax and an old urban legend resurfaced, one via e-mail and one from good old-fashioned paranoia.

The latest e-mail hoax is the 'Change room rape' urban legend. According to an e-mail doing the rounds, nine women have been locked in shopping mall change rooms, robbed, raped and left naked. All the attacks supposedly took place in the Johannesburg area, with one at South Gate Mall, five at Sandton City and two each at Cresta and The Glenn. The hoax e-mail is puproprted to have been sent by an "Inspector Ian Roberts, SAPS Public Information Officer", and carries two typical pieces of urban legend advice:

* women must be vigilant over the festive season;

* they must "take a lady friend or a family member with" to change rooms.

The scare is reminiscent of the shopping mall abduction legends of the 1980s,which warned blonde women against going into change rooms in clothing stores at various malls.
As happened 20 years ago, the police dismissed the story as a hoax. According to a report by Media24 on 10 October 2007, headlined 'Changeroom rape' a hoax, Eugene Opperman of the Gauteng SAPS Communication Service confirmed in a statement that "no such incidents mentioned in the attached message have been reported to the SAPS". The report continued:

The e-mail alleges that women have been locked in change rooms, robbed of their possessions and their clothes and then raped.

"The thief tosses the clothing into a shopping bag, and slips back into the mall. It usually takes an hour or two for the woman to work up the nerve to leave the restroom in the nude, giving the criminal ample time to make his get away. The woman is eventually left naked and humiliated in a mall full of strangers," reads the e-mail.

Opperman said that "the author of the document bearing the fictitious name of 'Ian Roberts' is not a member of the South African Police Service (SAPS) and is indeed unknown to the SAPS."

Opperman also cautioned South Africans to be vigilant of hoax e-mails, adding, "there is no postal address or any contact numbers in the e-mail. That should already make any reader very suspicious. In fact, any e-mail doing the rounds about 'warnings' should be checked for contact details."

Opperman advises that people who receive such messages should visit "well-known websites that specialise in the identification and correction of hoax messages and urban legends" before passing them on.

Captain Opperman is an old friend of "Legends from a Small Country", and has helped debunk a string of crime urban legends over the years. It is unfortunate that his colleagues in Pretoria do not have the benefit of his wisdom

On the very same day, they confirmed that they were keeping a watch on eight houses that were supposedly "marked"by criminals.

Before going into detail, here is the background to the urban legend of the Colour-coded crimes, as described in a posting to a web site called SACanada Forums, which provides chat boards for expat South Africans. This version was allegedly published in a community newspaper, Hillcrest/Kloof Residents, in KZN province, but the correspondent started off apologising that "I don't have the actual copy with me, but will try to remember as best as I can":

Local Police issued a security warning to all Highway Residents recently to be on the look out for markings outside their homes by criminals as follows:

Criminals will mark your property by using the following colours:

RED: Your house is armed AND the home owners have firearms. Criminals will encounter big resistance if they break in, so they will use weapons to gain entry to your home.
GREEN: Your house has an alarm system, but it will be easier than gaining entry into a "Red"colour coded home.
WHITE: Easy picking. No alarm and no household weapons in the home and criminals can rob at random without resistance.

These people are marking your homes by placing plastic bags, sticks and any form of object with the respective colours listed above.

Police have urged residents to keep checking the outer section of their homes by the gates or verges to make sure there are no "coloured"objects outside.

What a sad state of affairs!

This version was lacking only the obligatory red Coke can, which is the symbol of fear in Johannesburg suburbs. However, a more seasoned observer of our psyche quickly responded to the claim with a sound dose of common sense:

That colour-coding story has been going round for ages and it is a complete urban myth designed to send people into hysterics at the sight of litter on the pavement. The real crooks simply watch your house, or have someone do it for them, to establish your routine. The more 'decent' crook will try to break in when no one is home. The average vicious monster doesn't mind when he breaks in to reclaim what is rightfully his because he enjoys sporting with the inhabitants.

On different days of the week I have on my pavement variously:
- A brown beer bottle;
- A white Checkers packet;
- Cold drink tins of various shades;
- A simba chip packet;
- A used condom;
- A mielie cob;
- Dog poop

What diabolic plot is some fiend hatching against my person and property?

Its highly unlikely criminals would resort to the colour coding in this day and age when everyone has cell phones (I saw a 10 year old street urchin answer his the other day), not to mention that a skabanga that has done his 'hard work' of watching your house would never convey the situation to his competitors. It just doesn't make sense. I hope the source of the article is not actually the police. That would lead me to believe they are fearmongering to distract the public from the Service's incompetence in dealing with crime, or they are completely ignorant and stupid. I hope that its just some irresponsible reporting.

Frankly, I think the tale was hatched to terrify us into picking up litter.

That last line is something of an urban legend in its own right. This is classic symptom of the suburban psyche in crisis, inventing explanations that help make sense of what is happening in an unstable environment. In this case, both the perceived lack of municipal services and of crime prevention are combined into an urban legend that then pushes the boundaries of our sense of vulnerability.

Of course, many will argue that this is no myth. Indeed, the first response to the above debunking on the SACanada Forum included descriptions of farm murders and cash-in-transit robberies, with detailed modus operandi, such as this snippet:

Carte Blanche did a programme on Cash in Transit robberies and an crime expert said:"'This is organised. This is well planned. This is well executed. They know exactly what they are going to do. They use signs along the road to mark distances, to mark time...'
Inverted cold drink bottles, white splashes of paint and clumps of grass tied together are some of the markings used.
Jean-Pierre: 'They know where cell-phones don't work, where they don't have a signal. That is the type of thing they know. That is the amount of planning that goes into a robbery.'"

All that proves is that cash-in transit robbers use elaborate systems to plan their attacks and getaways - and has no bearing whatsoever on the claim that suburban criminals are colour-coding homes to be helpful to other criminals. But there's more:

What happens is for example, the guy who works in the garden next door, is in debt, and he sees your big screen tv etc, your jewelery and your new 4x4. He also knows your habits so he informs the gang of your assets and "sells" it to them for a part of the value.

Because he knows the area and your movement, he maps out the easiest and safest route into your house, and uses sticks, stones, softdrink cans and pieces of plastic to lead them there. He uses different colours to show whether you're armed, a lady living alone etc. They even "write" the best time to attack in the signs

The hit squad comes later and use it as we'll use a map as they don't know the area and are there to do a job and get out fast

It's used a lot more outside town and mostly for social purposes, you'll see the white flag flying at an house will mean it's a shebeen, and look carefully at the plastic bags in trees with it's carry handles both neatly around a branch, there's no way the wind could have done it.

The last paragraph contains a mixture of urban legend and truth - when shebeens were illegal, they often used creative ways to mark their presence. However, the last statement is more closely related to the urban legends about drug dealers' homes or turf being marked by shoes dangling from telephone lines. Other participants in the debate came up with experiences that may have been true and even shocking, but whose relationship to the colour-coded crimes were simply spurious.

The spiritual home of thecolour-coded crime urban legend, literally and figuratively, is Lukas Swart's web site, called Afrika Tekens and attributed to AKSKA, or Afrika Kriminele Sosiale Kode Analiste (African Criminal Social Code Analysts). Swart tracks farm and other attacks, but also attributes underlying meanings to types of attacks and codes used prior to attacks. He describes these codes as a modern version of a secret language used throughout Africa over the centuries, using sticks, stones and branches.

When Pretoria News reported the latest version of this legend on 10 October 2007, the AKSKA web site reported it, along with the comment: Om hierdie sosiale tekens te verwyder kan uiters gevaarlik wees. Eers word dit kleiner en wanneer ons dit steeds verwyder kan dit veroorsaak dat die vrou van die huis verkrag word sodat die mense kan leer om die tekens uit te los. ("To remove these social signs can be extremely dangerous. First they are reduced in size (by the criminals) and, if they are still removed, it can result in the woman of the house being raped so that people can learn to leave the signs well alone.")

Talk about giving an urban legend wings! The obvious flaw in the argument is that it confuses the roles of those who plant the signs and those who perpetrate the crimes. Aside from which, it does not tally with the way armed robberies tend to occur in these suburbs, in that they tend to be either opportunistic, or they are preceded by homes being physically monitored by criminals. To do all the hard work, and then leave the instructions for other criminals to find and act upon, is simply not logical.

The final argument for the story is that, despite thousands of housebreakers having been arrested, questioned and convicted, the police do not have a single confirmed example of this modus operandi being used in the suburbs of South African cities.

On that note, the wonderful new version of the tale appeared on page 4 of the Pretoria News on 10 October 2007, under the headline, Crooks show their colours with coded clues. It included these gems:

Police will keep a beady eye on at least eight houses in Pretoria North after they were allegedly "marked" by criminals.

It is believed that house robbers use certain colours to mark targets to inform their accomplices that a house has been identified and what to expect when breaking into the house.

But many people still regard this as an urban legend.

Police spokesperson Inspector Paul Ramaloko on Tuesday said a resident in Jan van Riebeeck Avenue saw pieces of white polystyrene placed in front of his gate during the morning.

Upon closer inspection, he saw that seven other houses in the same street had similar objects placed outside their gates.

He contacted the Pretoria North police and informed his neighbours about these objects as he had heard that criminals marked targets this way.

"Police went to investigate. All the marked houses have big dogs and high fences, so we suspect the criminals intend coming back later and poison the dogs to gain easy access.

"However, now that we are aware of this, police will constantly patrol the area as a crime prevention measure," Ramaloko said.
Just in case the police had fallen for an urban legend, the Pretoria News went in search of another expert, and found Richard Brussow of the National Hijack Prevention Academy. Following the Lukas Swart model, he said the "marking" of properties began with farms. This way attackers would know what to expect when they attacked the premises. This "message system" was now finding its way into towns and cities.

He explained it in great detail, fleshing out the details of the classic urban legend that had been left out of the above versions:

"It has become more and more difficult for criminals to break into houses due to alarms, fences and security systems; therefore they are marking potential targets," he said.

Objects could include red rope, white stones, plastic bags tied to trees, grass knotted in a bundle, pieces of metal or plastic, flattened milk bottles or Creme Soda and Coke cans.

Brussow said each colour had a meaning. A red object, like a Coke can, indicated to robbers to "prepare to use armed force, they may encounter resistance from inside".

White said this meant it was an easy target, green signalled "go ahead, all clear, no one home". Blue indicated that somebody inside, such as a domestic worker who had been bribed or threatened, would assist the culprits. He urged people to remove rubbish and anything "suspicious" as soon as possible.
But wait, then you will be provoking the criminals, won't you? Or is Brussow part of that great conspiracy to clear our streets of litter?
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Jaxon Rice said...

Thanks for explaining the color coded urband legend in such detail. It's a classic, and as far as I can tell it's a uniquely South African one too.

When I mentioned the 'litter' theory the other day I was being sarcastic - I had no idea that people actually believed this!

AR said...

Don't know if its just co-incidence, but we found a piece of white polystyrene outside our house last week and removed it. Seemed to be strategically placed between the gate and the wall. Found a smaller peice of polystyrene again this morning. Also seemed to be suspiciously wedged next to the water meter. We had an armed robbery at home a month ago and a car was stolen from the house across us last week. Are the colour coded markings really an urban legend ?

Unknown said...

The colour code "legend" is not a legend, but those in the crime circles used by burglars as a "language" to mark homes as "safe" or not safe to burglar.


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