Dubai: Scammers con merchants out of tonnes of avocados, beef, onions

Victims — some of whom had to close their shops because of the losses — say the heists were executed with such meticulous planning and finesse that they didn’t see any red flags

by

Mazhar Farooqui

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Published: Wed 26 Jul 2023, 1:17 PM

Last updated: Mon 30 Oct 2023, 9:48 AM

Late last year, Johnny Smith closed applications for the 150 packaging helper positions he advertised for on LinkedIn.

The unsuspecting recruits hired for Max Star Trading LLC had served their purpose: Pack, weigh and load millions of dirhams worth of stolen goods into containers that have since disappeared, along with Smith and the entire staff of the Dubai-based company. That’s because Johnny Smith wasn’t a real person. Nor were Ahmed Ali, Javed Malik, Rana Khaleel and Yaswant. The names were just some of the many aliases used by the conmen.

Adopting a familiar modus operandi, the fraudsters contacted dozens of UAE and overseas firms, offering to buy everything from foodstuff and electronics to industrial equipment and construction material.

The initial orders were small and readily settled in cash. Once trust was gained, Max Star then made bulk purchases via post-dated cheques. All of them turned out to be duds.

When their cheques began to bounce, the traders rushed to Max Star's office in UBL Building on the Khalid Bin Waleed Road. It was too late. A visit to their warehouse also drew a blank. The goods had been either sold to third parties for cash or moved elsewhere.

Not a lone case

Max Star is not the only such company preying on unsuspecting traders. Two other dodgy firms, Seven Emirates Spices and Ultimate General Trading, have also shut shop after pulling a similar scam — the former as recently as last month.

Only this time, the loot haul is bigger: Avocados worth half a million dirhams from Colombia, Ethiopia and Tanzania; cherries worth nearly Dh92,000 from Turkey; onions worth Dh210,000 from India; coconut husks worth Dh62,000 from Indonesia; palm oil worth Dh78,000 from Malaysia… It’s a long list and it keeps getting longer as more victims come forward.

Many UAE-based companies have been left reeling by the scam. Among them are Sharjah’s Globus Overseas who were conned out of Pakistani beef shipments worth Dh45,000; Abu Dhabi’s New Al Katef Electronic (printers worth Dh15,000); and Dubai’s PBS International (flexi bags worth Dh150,000).

Some, like Dubai-based Al Bizra General Trading, have been conned twice in a matter of days. The company’s Sri Lankan owner Imran Marikar told Khaleej Times they lost 500 litres of palm oil and 1,500kg of tea worth nearly Dh62,000 to Ultimate General Trading, besides two metric tonnes of cardamom worth Dh108,000 to Max Star.

Shahina of Penpal Trading lost disposable bags worth Dh37,000 to Seven Emirates Spices. “I had barely started business,” she told Khaleej Times on Monday.

Victims recount anguish

Unable to bear losses, at least one company is winding up. “I see no other way,” said Kaleab Getaneh of Ethiopia’s Ethio Fresh Export that shipped 22 tonnes of Hass avocados.

“I thought we could support smallholder farmers, but now we have to close down,” Getaneh told Khaleej Times from Addis Ababa. He was sent screenshots of wire transfers as proof of payment. It was a sham. The transactions were never completed.

Another victim, Daissy Amarillo from Columbia, said: “I am not going to deny that these have been very difficult days behind our business… There are many peasants from our country and cheating is a very frustrating situation.”

Her company, ASI Representacuines LTDA, exported 7,200kg of avocados worth Dh227,000. Ashraf Issac of Omros Food in Dar es Salam, Tanzania, who also sent a shipment of avocados, pegged his losses at nearly Dh60,000. “I am aghast. I feel wrecked,” he said.

Dubai businesswoman Lata Sachdev of PBS International is no less distraught.

In 2018, the Indian expatriate donated a part of her liver to save her husband’s life. Since then, she has been running the house as well as the business. “The scam has hurt us badly. We lost Dh150,000,” said the 50-year-old. She has started legal proceedings against the runaway firm that operated from the Bushaquer buillding near the GGICO Metro Station in Al Garhoud.

Lata has also recounted her ordeal in a series of heartfelt LinkedIn posts, urging traders to stop accepting post-dated cheques to avoid being cheated.

Meticulous planning

Victims said the heists were executed with such meticulous planning and finesse that they didn’t see any red flags.

“Both Ultimate and Max Star were legitimate companies with valid trade licences, proper offices, staff and warehouses. How could we have possibly known that everything was a charade?” rued Marikar.

“Ultimate asked for 300 tins of palm oil and gave us a current-dated cheque for the full amount as soon as we delivered the goods to their Al Qusais warehouse. We were happy. The following day, they collected another 200 tins of palm oil and 300 tonnes of loose tea from our warehouse in Al Kabaisi and gave us two more cheques,” he recalled.

In the mistaken belief that all cheques were for the same day, Marikar dispatched the new orders. He also deposited the cheques, hoping the payments would soon be reflected in his bank account.

No money ever came. What came instead was an SMS notification from the bank that said the cheques had been returned due to insufficient funds.

“I immediately rang up Ultimate’s office,” said Marikar. “I was assured that I would be reimbursed in cash as the company’s owner Sachin Sharma had to rush to India to attend his brother’s funeral."

As it turns out, many local traders were sold the same story. Those abroad were tricked into shipping goods after being sent bogus wire transfer receipts.

Kaleab Getaneh said he was impressed when Ultimate paid him 50 per cent of the total invoice ($4,500) within days of receiving a shipment of avocados.

“They won our trust with the smaller invoice but betrayed it with the bigger ones,” said Getaneh, sharing a copy of purported wire transfer receipts.

The same ploy was used against Naresh Patel of Shiv Industries in Gujarat, who shipped 29 tonnes of onions.

All cellphone numbers associated with Max Star and Ultimate are switched off and none of their owners or staff can be traced. The websites of the companies have ceased to exist.

In a related development, four Vietnamese companies face the prospect of losing five containers of spices and cashew nuts worth $517,000 that they’d shipped to Dubai.

Vietnamese media, citing the Vietnam Pepper Association, said the containers were sent to a foodstuff company, but were claimed by unidentified parties at Jebel Ali Dubai Port without paying the Vietnamese companies.

Earlier, an exporter from Vietnam lost a container of pepper worth more than Dh400,000 to a fraudulent firm that operated from Business Bay.

The victim managed to register a criminal case through a law firm. An arrest warrant is now out against the key suspect who has a verified Instagram account with a tagline that reads, “I never dreamed about success. I worked for it.”

Lawyer Jihad El Haddad of Al Jazera Advocate said the man approached their client using a fake identity. “We found him out,” said El Haddad.

But traders hit by Ultimate, Seven Emirates Spices, and Max Star are still groping in the dark. “There has been no headway,” said Marikar.

El Haddad said scam victims often don’t know how to present a case before the prosecution. “If you do it the way we have, you could initiate criminal proceedings."

The Indian Consulate in Dubai has repeatedly urged exporters from India to exercise caution and not fall victim to such scams. Of late, there has been a spate of heists along similar lines. Last year, two other companies — Spicy Dine Public Kitchen and MEP Gulf Electromechanical Works — suddenly pulled down their shutters after buying anything they could get their hands using post-dated dud cheques.

Between them, they scooted away with an estimated Dh20 million worth of goods. Many of their victims have had their lives torn apart.

Mustafa Kusgoz from Turkey’s Kugoz Agriculture — which supplied 3,300kg of cherries to Ultimate — also faces an uncertain future. In a text message, he said: “They stole my bread. They broke my home. I am breaking up with my wife.”

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