A look into the operations of vehicle number plate thieves

Tuesday September 10 2019

By Nicholas Sengoba

I had always heard of people losing number plates to thieves who would then ask for a ‘ransom’ before returning them to the owners. I wondered to myself how all this new crime worked out and why it was gaining popularity among thieves. Like all things with human beings, most times you get to understand things better when they land at your door step or very near you.
It happened to a good friend of mine who woke up one morning and found both plates of his vehicle missing. A thief visited and exited in the dead of the night by climbing over the wall fence. He left a shabby note written on a ripped piece of paper from an exercise book with a ‘bill’ of 300,000 and a phone contact, 0703946928. My friend was furious and swore that he would not go to pay the ‘bill.’ He would go through the rather costly process of getting new plates. I saw this as opportunity to get to understand this world of number plate thieves and boy, it was interesting.
When I called 0703946928, he did not pick but returned the call seven hours later. He was arrogant and boisterous. I asked him where I could find ‘my’ number plate to which he had the boldness to answer ‘which one? I took very many, last night!’ Then we got down to business, he sarcastically told me to leave the issue of returning the plate to him and do my bit, which was simply to send the Shs300,000 to his mobile money account (MMA.) He would then direct me to where the plates were kept very safely.
I checked the owner of the MMA, but it was not registered which I called and told him. He told me not to be silly (it sounds very terrible in Luganda) because the whole day people had been sending money on the phone and receiving their plates! I went mute for an hour. Later the fellow calls to give me another number 0756706022 on which to send the money. This one was also not registered, the same applied to 0706219975. He fumed when I told him so and more obscenities followed. He also cautioned me not to be clever because he knew I was baiting him to reveal his network. He said others had tried this trick by asking security agencies to track the numbers to no avail. He bragged, ‘that is why I am still here and going nowhere!’
His next call a few hours later was to inform me that he had now registered both phones. The MMA on 0703946928 was now in the name of Samuel Namugera! Now I was cornered and had no excuse, but to send. I decided to play hard to get and went mute once again. Our man then called to ask if the amount that he had received was from my pocket. I told him it wasn’t because Shs300,000 was too much since it was an unplanned expense! Would he be willing to come down a bit? We spent the next two days haggling until we came down to Shs100,000, which ‘if not deposited within an hour, the phone would go off for good and thus the trail to ‘my’ number plates would be lost for good.’
An hour, two and more passed. Our man got back to me, saying he was being kind to me because the two of us were ‘children from the womb of Nambi’ (Baganda) so he would be merciful. He also claimed that he liked the fact that I was very polite unlike (mentions a certain tribe) that are difficult to deal with because they are so arrogant and rude. When number plate thief noticed I was not moving, he came back with a terse sweetener, ‘send Shs50,000 and take your number plate!?
To cut the long story short, I did not pay him a coin and my friend is almost getting his duplicate plates through the long expensive right channel. This involves getting a police report, putting an advert in a newspaper announcing the loss of number plates, paying for the plates, etc. This type of crime and others leave us with questions about the whole tedious process and purpose of registering our phones for ‘proper identity and security reasons.’
How come people are still using mobile phones to commission crime yet all numbers are supposed to be traceable to holders of national identity cards? How is it that the police cannot listen into the phone conversations of these criminals yet as we saw in the case of the kidnap and murder of Susan Magara, the perpetrators managed to do so? In fact, as claimed by the relatives, the kidnappers were not happy about them speaking to the President and the police which point they made clear whenever it happened?
When I told this tale to a friend, he gave me a more bizarre side that gives some light to why these thieves have the nerve to steal the spotlight without a bother. When her sister reported a similar theft to a nearby police post, she was advised to negotiate with the thieves ‘properly,’ otherwise she would end up wasting a lot of time and money for nothing!
Since the motto of the Uganda Police Force is to ‘protect and serve,’ in this case, one would assume they were protecting the sweat and time of the victim and serving them with realistic advice.
Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues. nicholassengoba@yahoo.com.