The National - Victims of currency scam in Dubai s
Victims of currency scam in Dubai speak out to warn others
British woman accused of bouncing scores of cheques after promising top rates in fake financial transactions
Victims of a widespread financial scam said they lost tens of thousands of dirhams to a British woman in Dubai.
The scams included foreign money exchanges that were meant to avoid bank transaction charges, and investments in various small businesses.
The woman suspected of carrying out the fraud is from Burnley in England and is accused of assuming several aliases to avoid detection.
The woman, 32, was arrested in Dubai in December for bouncing a cheque but was released after agreeing to a legal payment plan.
Authorities in Dubai told The National that six police cases were submitted against her for bouncing cheques and failing to pay fees.
Dozens of residents, including airline pilots and cabin crew, fell victim to the alleged scams, which allowed the perpetrator to amass millions of dirhams.
The victims were targeted after they lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic and were forced to return home.
They have come forward to share their stories in the hope that others will be deterred from taking financial shortcuts.
“This woman contacted me to offer to assist in a money exchange through a Facebook group set up for cabin crew,” said Australian airline worker Kellie Tipene, 36, who handed over Dh30,000 to the woman after meeting her several times.
“We agreed via WhatsApp to meet outside her building, Cayan Tower in Dubai Marina, to make the exchange.
“She told me she was able to do a transfer as she knew about finance and could give a good rate with no fees.”
The woman promised an exchange of A$13,762.67 that Ms Tipene planned to use as a deposit for a family home.
Banks could only offer about A$11,700, with additional transaction charges of about Dh300.
Ms Tipene paid cash into the woman’s account, but the money never arrived in her Australian bank account.
Repeated messages and phone calls were followed by a series of excuses, before communication with the woman broke down.
Ms Tipene soon discovered she was one of almost 100 people who were caught out by the fraudster.
The group went to Al Barsha Police Station in April to make a formal complaint.
It is unfortunate we have seen an increase in the victims of fraud through online transactions during the pandemic.
UAE lawyer Barney Almazar
The scammer is thought to have been operating in the UAE under false identities for at least six years. Those included Imogen Smith and Dawn Smith.
Victims said the woman told them a convincing story, claiming a property sale in countries such as the UK and Belgium left her with a large amount of foreign currency to swap.
They were reluctant to report her to police because they feared prosecution for transferring money through a non-registered currency trader.
That changed when an online chat group asked victims to come forward, resulting in hundreds of replies in which people told of similar experiences.
The woman is believed to have accumulated as much as Dh4 million after a ledger of stolen money and the names of victims was left behind following a meeting and handed to The National.
The document detailed fake transactions ranging from Dh4,000 to Dh188,000.
The woman has been listed as the sole director of a private limited company in the UK since February, 2019.
Papers registered with Companies House show an address of Reading, Berkshire, for a sport, recreation and software publishing business under the woman’s real name.
The Standard Chartered bank fraud department is understood to have tracked suspicious social media posts and online financial transactions related to the claims.
Several people have been tied to the syndicate. Most are British and actively involved in allegedly illegal foreign exchange services, property rental, car hire, vehicle theft or bogus business and personal investment schemes.
Most transactions for bounced cheques were under the Dh200,000 threshold of criminality, so cases could be closed by paying fines of up to Dh10,000 online without having to visit a police station.
“It is unfortunate that we have seen an increase in the victims of fraud through online transactions during the pandemic,” said Barney Almazar, a director at the corporate-commercial department of Gulf Law.
“The common denominator here is the element of deception coupled with fraudulent means to convince the victim to surrender their money or property.”
Most of the alleged crimes fall under Article 399 of Federal Law No 3 of the penal code and carry punishments of fines and prison sentences.
“Fraudsters create the appearance of legitimacy to build a level of confidence or trust, usually imploring the use of bogus companies, emotional stories or excessive displays of wealth to lure unsuspecting victims,” Mr Almazar said.
“We always advise our clients to be extra vigilant in their transactions and conduct due diligence.
“People should verify the legitimacy of the entity they are transacting with and not rely on their website alone as this is self-serving.
“Search for third-party reviews and when making payments for big purchases, transact with sellers with escrow payment arrangements for your peace of mind.
“Sometimes, trying to save money can cost you a lot.”
The airline pilot conned out of Covid-19 funeral costs
Among the people duped by the alleged scam was GM, a Spanish pilot who urgently needed to send money home to pay for his father’s funeral in Madrid.
His father died after contracting coronavirus and, as his brother was recovering from cancer and unable to work, GM wanted a fast, easy transaction to maximise the amount of money he could send home to support his family.
“My father died two days before his 68th birthday so it has been a terrible time for me,” said GM, 37, who read a Facebook post from the woman that advertised euros for sale on an airline chat group.
“I needed to send euros home so I got in touch with her and assumed she was also crew, so I trusted her.”
The pilot, who has three children aged between 3 months and 4 years, agreed on an exchange rate to send Dh99,800 back home, thinking it would save him about Dh1,000 in bank fees.
The woman promised to transfer €25,000 to his bank account in Madrid.
She said a recent property sale left her with a surplus of euros and she needed dirhams to pay for healthcare costs related to her pregnancy.
“We agreed on a good rate but it certainly was not too good to be true,” the pilot said.
“Because of the virus I could not go home but wanted to support my family the best way I could.
“It was horrible being stuck here with the frustration of not being able to say goodbye to my dad, or hold his hand. On top of that, I was seeing my mother suffering alone.
“The woman met my wife and kids and was very playful with them. I could never expect her to turn out the way she did.
“I was sure she was pregnant, but looking back now it was all a lie to convince me she was harmless.”
The fake Airbnb property rental
The woman, operating under a different alias, tried to rent out her one-bedroom luxury flat in Cayan Tower.
The property was marketed on a fake Airbnb page, with several interested parties ready to hand over Dh40,000 for six months' rent.
One man went as far as moving out of his property after completing a bank transfer of Dh5,800 to secure the flat with a deposit.
When he turned up with a removal van loaded with furniture, he was told by the building’s security the rental was a scam and the flat was already occupied.
Luckily, his bank refused to make the transaction.
Several others fell for the same con. Most lost tens of thousands of dirhams in deposits.
The swimming teacher scam
In April 2016, Australian Alex Campbell answered an advertisement on Facebook for a swimming teacher.
He was offered a lucrative deal if he invested in a Float UAE business, a form of high-intensity exercise performed using floating mats in hotel pools across Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Mr Campbell, 51, met the woman in person and she convinced him to invest a Dh70,000 stake in her business in exchange for a full-time job as a swimming teacher.
He was given a security cheque signed by the woman as a deposit to reassure him his investment was protected.
After 12 weeks, Mr Campbell had still to be paid for his work.
When he tried to cash in the security cheque he was given, it bounced and he opened a civil case against the woman.
After paying a further Dh20,000 in legal fees, a court ruled in Mr Campbell’s favour and a travel ban was placed on the woman.
She was arrested when she tried to leave the country to travel to France to visit her boyfriend, a financial planner in Dubai, on December 24, 2019.
“On Christmas Day she called me from the Dubai court lock-up, distressed and asking for me to lift the case against her,” Mr Campbell said.
“She said If I dropped the charges she would work something out for me.
“I asked for a Dh20,000 downpayment and a legally binding payment plan.”
That payment plan was signed by a notary and a judge and the woman was released from prison on January 8.
She went on to scam scores of others in the months after her release.
“Her boyfriend Billy said he would send the money,” Mr Campbell said.
“Three days later I asked about the transfer and he said that he had made it to her legal counsel.”
Despite the woman being released from Al Awir prison after only a few days, Mr Campbell has still to be paid any of the money he is owed.
With interest, that amount now stands at Dh179,000.
Because of his loss, he has been forced to rent out his flat to make his mortgage payments.
He now lives in shared accommodation in Discovery Gardens.
At least 12 others are understood to have invested in the business and lost tens of thousands of dirhams.
The business investment con
British businessman Valy Ossman is the owner of Foodshack.ae, a fast-food restaurant in Jumeirah Lakes Towers.
Mr Ossman, who lives in Dubailand, said he was seeking investment to help open a second restaurant in Al Barari in June.
“I needed to get some funds from family and friends in the UK to be able to get the second restaurant open,” he said.
“I wanted money transferred quickly, about £42,000, which was around Dh188,000.
“It was not a huge amount for starting a business, but a big sum out of any business cashflow.”
When his family came forward to help, the next challenge was to transfer the money to the UAE in dirhams without losing out through heavy fees or a poor exchange rate.
Mr Ossman read a post on a British foreign resident social media page from a woman called Imogen Smith, who said she was looking to exchange currencies and invest in businesses.
The attractive offer allowed him to make a substantial saving on bank charges.
Ms Smith said her husband was back in the UK and she was pregnant and looking to raise funds so she could return home.
They met at his restaurant and arranged the transaction, with Mr Ossman sending £42,000 in three transactions from his Royal Bank of Scotland account to her Monzo account.
Two weeks later, the arranged transfer of funds had yet to be completed.
“My wife, who also met with ‘Imogen’, was telling me something was wrong but I was sure it would all be OK,” Mr Ossman said.
“At this point, I had suppliers on the new restaurant looking for the money that I owed them for the kitchen fit out.”
The money in dirhams was never transferred to his UAE account.
He reported the incident at Barsha Police Station, where officers said there were about 20 similar cases against the same woman.
Despite the number of reported incidents, police told Mr Ossman there was little they could do as there was no legal contract between the pair.
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