Sthembile awoke in the middle of the night to calls from strangers, who had dialed her via Facebook Messenger. Using their grocery store receipts, which had her name printed on them, the strangers — two men — found her on Facebook.
Sthembile is a cashier at grocer wholesale in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. It’s one of Zimbabwe’s largest grocery store chains. There, she spends her day swiping debit cards or collecting cash as hundreds of shoppers stream past her counter. She likely wouldn’t recognize a single customer on the street, but each shopper has something to remember her by: “Our very names are printed at the bottom,” she said. “Imagine strangers walking all over Zimbabwe with my name printed on the receipt in their wallet?”
When she hung up, the men proceeded to text her, asking for weekend dates. Her husband, who has a history of depression, exploded into a rage and walked out of the bedroom without explanation, she said. “By the morning, he wanted a divorce.”
Registers across Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Zambia print out the full name of a cashier at the bottom of each customer receipt — a flowery, customer service-oriented message:
“Served by Sthembile, good day.”
For many female cashiers, their names on receipts is an unguarded open-data trove for men to seek them out on social media and pressure them into offline dates — or, worse, to blackmail.
Jane, a fellow cashier with Sthembile, also has firsthand experience with this.
“Some creepy male stalkers purposely walk to checkout counters where we’re stationed to harvest names data from electronic receipts and later approach us via Facebook.”
Sthembile isn’t the only one whose marriage collapsed because of this unwanted attention, according to Jane. “Two women opened up to me that male shoppers got hold of their names from retail slips, studied their Facebook friends lists, and asked them out via Messenger, pretending to be high school friends,” she told us. The husbands, upon discovering the messages, believed that their wives were being unfaithful. “One husband drove 500 kilometers on Christmas Day to dump his wife at her parents’ home,” she said.
Even worse, the harassment invites abuse from the women’s partners.
“I know several cashiers who were assaulted by husbands and boyfriends,” said Angela Bana, who runs Women Square, a counseling shelter for victims of domestic violence in Harare.
Multinational retail supermarkets in Zimbabwe like OK, Choppies, and PicknPay did not respond to requests for comment, but Skywave Supermarkets — a minor player of grocery sellers in eastern Zimbabwe — told us via their sales manager, Wallace Moyo, “We are proud as Skywave that we don’t print cashier names on checkout slips. It’s outdated and unnecessary.”
Tichaona Jongwe, a tech rights activist, finds it disturbing that some retail corporations in Zimbabwe still maintain the practice. “This is a clear case of corporate, modern retail technology in poor countries violating the privacy of women workers and potentially placing their data into the hands of stalkers,” she said.
Some retail supermarkets in neighboring countries like Mozambique and some smaller upstart stores within Zimbabwe have largely abandoned this practice, likely because of paper printing expenses rather than out of concern for their female employees.
The Brazilian-owned Casa China supermarket chain, one of the largest grocery store chains in Mozambique, no longer prints cashiers’ full names on receipts after a workers union alerted the store to harassment incidents in 2017.
“It’s first a cost-cutting measure, to be honest,” said Jaia Dorso, Mozambique operations manager for Casa China Supermarkets. “But after a few incidents on female cashiers, we agreed with the union that it’s more private to just list cashiers’ names as code numbers [instead].”
‘Retail stores technologists whom we talk to don’t even believe this is an important issue compared to urgent matters like electricity or declining retail profits in Zimbabwe.`
The women won’t risk petitioning their employers or trade unions for change either; formal jobs are scarce in Zimbabwe, and they fear speaking up could cost them their livelihoods.
“Our trade union bosses and worker representatives enjoy cozy relationships with retail supermarket owners,” said Sthembile. “It’s not so easy to suggest that computer terminals be reformed and [risk] being fired.”
When Sthembile went to the police to file a report against her stalkers, she said the junior officers manning the desks were unsure how to classify the offense. “The police were clueless if manipulative digital-stalking is a crime in Zimbabwe or how to [find their] phone numbers.”
Zimbabwe police did not respond to questions about whether a specialized data crimes unit exists in their ranks to protect victims of digital stalkers. The police do have what is called a “Victim Friendly Unit,” which specializes in cases of abuse directed at women and children, but Paul Nyathi, a police spokesperson, said that they haven’t received any reports from female cashiers.
“So far, we have not received exact complaints from retail cashiers,” he said. “It could be that they don’t know the next legal move or suffer the stigma of opening up about such abuse from stalkers who harvest names from store receipts.”
In Zimbabwe, especially on its nascent social media scene, it’s a dodgy badge of honor for a man to hoard or steal sensitive/private photographs of a woman and later spill them into the public square as a way of silencing a woman. Female cashiers whose names are already printed publicly on retail electronic receipts printouts are double game for male stalkers.
“Some sick men, after lifting my name from an electronic cashier receipt, sought me on Instagram. I rebuffed. Then they created a digitally manipulated photo of me walking in lock with a secret lover. Luckily my bo; he is media-savvy, he understood the creeps,” says Auxilia, a female cashier who was almost ruined by the cyber name-harvesting too.
Zimbabwean men call this online blackmail of women “V-11,” a colloquial internet term referring to the digital practice of silencing a woman, adds Sthembile. It means suddenly releasing a trove of damaging pictures or data online about a woman when she excels in her career or when she refuses sexual proposals from strangers.
“Retail stores who continue to print names of cashiers on receipts are arming men with open data trove to sexually stalk women on and offline,” said Bana. “Businesses ought to hide cashiers’ names.”
Audrey Simango is a freelance tech journalist working across Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Zambia. Her work appears in Newsweek, The Africa Report, The Body, and The New Internationalist.