When the deal is too good…
Despite frequent reports in the media of people being conned, others still fall for the same, if not even more ridiculous tricks. JOHN KOIGI reportsWhen German millionaire Foroughi Denawi met five men and struck a deal that would rake in a Sh200 million profit in 2001, he couldn't believe his good luck.
Denawi, a hotelier, would use his contacts in Europe to sell the gemstones sourced by the five from the Democratic Republic of Congo. His business associates had a safe deposit of 350 kilogrammes of gold at the Standard Chartered Bank on Moi Avenue, which would fetch a princely Sh234 million in Europe. After selling the gold, Denawi would deduct his share and then hand over the rest to his new-found partners.
But there was a slight hitch: Could Denawi first pay the customs fees and those charged by the Department of Mines and Geology before taking the 22-carat precious stones to Berlin? His associates initially asked for $8,000 (Sh624,000, at the time) as "customs charges”.
After setting the process in motion, Denawi returned to Germany. He had no reason to be suspicious. After all, hadn't he seen the gold secured at the bank? And he wasn't overly concerned that he didn't know much about his "suppliers". In fact, one of them had posed as an expert in transacting business with the Department of Mines and Geology.
But after Denawi arrived in Germany, his associates called with a request for more money. They said they needed an additional $20,000 (Sh1.56 million) to pay the clearing and forwarding agent and "extra customs charges". They asked him to send the money via Western Union.
Denawi felt that was a rather large sum, so he returned to Kenya to supervise the process. He parted with $15,000 (Sh1.7 million) plus another Sh1.248 million in miscellaneous expenses.
A day before his second return to Germany, the five asked Denawi to meet them at Standard Chartered Bank branch at 11am so that they could withdraw the gold together. They would transport it to a security company in Industrial Area, where it would remain overnight before being taken to the airport.
But when he arrived at the bank, he found the men had already taken the "gold" boxes and loaded them into a car. They told him they had been forced to withdraw the gold in his absence because he was 15 minutes late. After handing him the boxes, they bid him farewell, with a warning not to open the boxes because they had been sealed by officials from the Department of Mines and Geology.
When Denawi reached the security firm in Industrial Area, a colleague who had been serving as interpreter for him smelt a rat on seeing how casually the gold had been handled. He prevailed upon Denawi to open the boxes before taking them to the airport. They were filled with sand. That's when Denawi realised that his dream of quick wealth had been built on sand — literally. His business contacts had vanished into thin air, and he was Sh5 million poorer.
Although one may put Denawi's case to inexperience in dealing with Kenyans, it also shows remarkable gullibility for a person of his standing. It is hard to imagine that anyone can keep giving so much money to people he barely knows. Or is it that con artists are such smooth operators that they are able to pull a fast one even with the most unlikely story?
Take the case of a 26-year-old Kenyan, Fred Acheng, who claimed to be international arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi's son. When he walked into London's Grand Metropolitan hotel in August 1988, the doorman refused to buy his story that he was Khashoggi's son. But a confident Acheng, wearing traditional Arab head gear and oozing confidence, brushed him aside and demanded to see the boss, who happened to be one Allen Sheppard.
Like Khashoggi, Sheppard was a rich man, with a £5 billion hotel and drinks empire to his name. But he bought the lie hook, line and sinker. Apologising profusely to "bin Khashoggi", he ordered that a red carpet be rolled out for him, and the staff were compelled to pander to the man's every whim. Acheng hopped from Metropolitan to Hyde Park and Mayfair hotels (all in Sheppard's stable), running up a £13,000 bill in only nine days. But his five-star lifestyle came to an end when police knocked at the door of his £500-a night suite. He was later jailed for four years.
It turned out that Acheng was a hotel porter earning £100 a week. In the nine days he masqueraded as Khashoggi's son, he ran up a bill that was more than his salary for two years.
It seems that the marble decor, valet service and exquisite cuisine at hotels entice con men (and women) into spinning yarns just for the fun of it — for as long as it lasts.
That is how previously unknown Dibra Amelia George captured the imagination of Kenyans in 2001 with her swank and banter from the comfort of the Presidential Suite at the Grand Regency hotel in Nairobi. Dibra, the self-proclaimed Queen of Sheba, turned out to be a student from a small Caribbean island. It is incomprehensible how she hid her real identity and ran up a Sh2 million bill at the hotel while touting a Sh15 billion investment plan for Kenya.
When her yarn about royalty started showing signs of strain, George suddenly fell ill and was admitted to the Aga Khan Hospital. She was subsequently arrested and charged with obtaining services by false pretences. Then she fled the country in unclear circumstances. How she was able to pose as a dignitary without the Government's knowledge is incomprehensible.
But it seems that lax authorities make Kenya the ideal destination for tricksters. In April 1999, two youthful Koreans wanted in their country for kidnapping and extortion set up base in Nairobi's Mountain View estate. On one occasion, they robbed a fellow countryman of five luxury buses, four saloon cars and Sh18 million in cash.
The two would lure their compatriots to Kenya pretending to be linkmen between Korean investors and Kenyan authorities, and rob them. Their victims knew little about Kenya and could not communicate effectively in either English or Kiswahili. After several months, the two was deported following a public outcry.
Asked why he robbed banks, top gangster Willie Sutton replied: "Because that is where the money is." Perhaps that is the logic used by an unidentified super con man, who targeted banks in 2000. The man was arrested after defrauding five banks of Sh92.8 million. Apparently well versed in banking procedures, he knew that transactions between big companies and banks are rarely conducted in cash, but via note papers. So why not acquire some note papers and get down to business?
In December 1998, the master forger opened an account at Trust Bank and deposited Sh2 million. Later that month, he forged a Kenya Tea Development Authority note paper and instructed Stanbic Bank to issue two bankers' cheques, one for Sh48 million and the other for Sh31.5 million.
On February 26, 1999, the finance manager at Imperial Bank received a telephone call purportedly from the director of Surgipharm Pharmaceutical Company in Nairobi asking him to transfer Sh3 million from the bank to the company's Mombasa branch. Thereafter, the bank manager received a letter confirming the telephone conversation. By the time it was discovered to be fake, the deal had gone through and the fraudster had withdrawn Sh2.7 million — using a forged passport! Other banks that fell prey to his schemes were Imperial Bank, Commercial Bank of Africa and NIC Bank. Upon his arrest after a two-year cat-and-mouse game with the police, he had swiped Sh45.2 million.
And then there were the Posta robbers of Eastleigh, who were discovered only after they had stolen nearly nearly Sh1 billion. In April 2002, hundreds of cheques, bank statements and letters of correspondence were seized by detectives from a house in Eastleigh. The cheques alone were worth Sh9.5 million. The thugs would use duplicate keys to open mail boxes at the General Post Office and City Square at night and steal cheques, credit cards and letters ordering money transfers.
They would divert the funds to their accounts or instruct their victims to transfer money to their own accounts in Britain, Dubai, Germany, Japan, Kenya, Switzerland, US and Uganda. The letters included those from well-known secondary schools in Nairobi.
While public institutions seem to be particularly easy targets for con games, few beat the one that targeted City Hall, which is reputed for its laxity. In 1997, a cunning Nairobi businessman pocketed Sh70 million for chalk disguised as chlorine for treating water.
Some of the schemes are harebrained. One Jobson Jorum Mwangi tried to convince Alico Kenya (now known as CFC Life) that he was dead and asked the company to pay his wife Sh2.5 million, the amount for which he was insured. Mwangi's relatives said he had died in a road accident along Jogoo road on April 15, 1992. Mwangi's wife swore that he had died, and there were even a few crocodile tears, a grave and flowers for good measure. But Alico sensed something amiss and set investigators on his trail. When they visited the "widow" at a new residential address, they found a recent photograph of the so-called deceased and his wife.
The couple was arrested and charged.
But when a gang went around Murang'a town in March 1997, selling building sand disguised as demerara sugar, which rural folk deem to be more economical than the white sugar, no one was arrested. The sand was packed in 50-kg gunny bags, complete with the labels of a local sugar factory.
You might ask: With cases of tricksters so often reported, don't others ever learn? One person who did learn is Kayamba Afrika leader, Juma Odemba, who was conned of Sh20,000 he gave an acquaintance who told him she was seriously sick. "Never give out anything you are not prepared to lose," he advises.
Don’t believe everything you see or hear
Coming up with con tricks calls for a certain degree of intelligence. But it is not just intelligence that drives fraudsters. There is the opportunity and motivation. "Most fraudsters are between 35 and 44-years-old,” says Francis Nyambisa, a forensics expert at Hawk Eye Privatetechnologies, a private detective firm based in Nairobi.
"And they must have worked somewhere for at least three years."
He says the opportunity for fraud arises due to access, skill and time, while the motivational factors include need, justification and stimulation. The most common types of fraud are cheque, loan, advance fee, overdraft, collusive trade and credit card fraud. Nyambisa says a fraudster has a fertile mind, is inventive and has a deceitful mind. "He is also a glib, fluent talker and a great actor."
But, adds the detective who has been in the field for over 20 years, few major frauds happen without prior indication. "The key to stopping fraud is to be alert to the indicators and to take appropriate action when there is evidence that a fraud is in the process."
These include anonymous letters, lifestyle changes, untaken leave and irrational or inconsistent behaviour. But why, you might ask, do people fall the tricks? The most apparent reason is the desire for quick wealth. Most people are enticed by the thought of making a quick buck.
And if they don't have work for it, the better. They will sign up for non-existent jobs abroad and pay the mandatory "form application fees" with out question, buy land on the strength of promises by a sweet-talking con or host an impersonator because she has an open cheque for Sh15 billion.
Gullibility is also another reason why people fall for contricks. Heeding the saying “If a deal is too, good think twice” separates those who are financially prudent from victims of fraudsters. When negotiating a deal, it often pays to be a bit wary: Don’t believe everything you see or hear.