UAE residents' holiday dreams shattered after travel firm scams 'lucky draw winners', disappears

Hundreds of victims recounted their harrowing experiences, revealing collective losses exceeding a million dirhams

by

Mazhar Farooqui

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Victims outside the Al Reyami Building in Al Karama. Photos: Mazhar Farooqui
Victims outside the Al Reyami Building in Al Karama. Photos: Mazhar Farooqui

Published: Mon 22 Jan 2024, 3:41 PM

Last updated: Mon 22 Jan 2024, 11:36 PM

Dubai resident Sneha and her son were overjoyed after receiving a call from Apollo Times Travel telling them of a free gift they had won. Sneha, who had participated in a "lucky" draw at an event in Dubai Creek, eagerly anticipated claiming the prize.

To secure the promised gift, she had to visit Apollo's Karama office. Unfazed, Sneha pondered, "What do I have to lose?" As they arrived at the second-floor office in the Al Reyami Building, the family didn't expect to fall victim to an aggressive sales pitch, ultimately succumbing to a time-share package.

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The enticing offer, priced at Dh40,000, promised an all-expenses-paid trip to the US for eight family members. Lured by the platinum package, Sneha promptly signed up. Similar predatory tactics ensnared Sivanagaraja and his wife Sowmya, who, in October last year, invested Dh28,000 in a gold membership with the promise of a world tour.

Last Saturday, Sivanagaraja, Sneha, and numerous other UAE residents visited Apollo's office seeking answers about trips that never materialised. To their dismay, it was too late — the company had shut down, and its owners and staff had vanished without a trace.

Victims show contact, payment details
Victims show contact, payment details

Shocked and dazed, the victims recounted their harrowing experiences, revealing collective losses exceeding a million dirhams. Among them, Dipesh (Dh41,000), Mohit Rajpal (Dh28,000), Arup Dutta (Dh25,000), K Srinivasan (Dh20,000), Abhilash Nechimattahil (Dh16,000), Pooja Srikanth Palan (Dh15,100), Ambarasu Sivamani (Dh15,500), and Vikas Singh (Dh15,000), and Rajani Chandran (Dh9,000) form a growing list of victims who have come forward with their stories of financial deception.

Dipesh had been promised a trip to Europe, Palan to Singapore and Malaysia, Mohit to Australia, and Vikas to Europe. Sachin Kumar, as recently as January 7, paid Dh6,000 for trips to Georgia and Armenia.

Even Umrah hopefuls have not been spared. Mubarak Dastagir Gavandi told Khaleej Times he paid Dh14,000 for the pilgrimage to Makkah. “Of this Dh7,000 was in cash and Dh7,000 by credit card, which I swiped in their office on January 12. Who would have thought they would shut shop three days later and disappear,” he lamented.

Rajpal said the agents were very convincing and he didn’t suspect anything was amiss. "After arriving at their office, I witnessed groups of people gathered around tables with sales agents,” Rajan recalled. “The individual who greeted me insisted that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The room echoed with thunderous claps every few minutes, purportedly to mark the closure of a deal. I didn't want to miss out. It was only later that I discovered the clap sounds were artificially generated."

Victims said that each time they tried to book a trip, they were told the slots were unavailable and that they had to wait. Excuses ranged from the unavailability of hotels to a lack of advance notice. “Barring a dhow cruise dinner and a stay at a three-star hotel in Fujairah as part of the free gift, I got nothing," said a man who paid Dh10,000.

Dubai Police have recommended that victims pursue legal action in court. However, many are hesitant due to the prohibitive costs associated with legal proceedings. Das, who had opted for a gold package, expressed his concerns, stating, "Even if we secure a favourable verdict, the question remains: who will reimburse us, considering those accountable for this deception may have already absconded?"

Apollo Times and Travels, owned by Indian proprietors, allowed its commercial licence to expire on December 11, 2023. Intriguingly, one of the credit card payments has been billed to a bus rental company. Victims believe this could lead to clues about the real masterminds behind the scam.

Rampant scam

Timeshare scams have seen a surge in recent years. Last month, Shajrah-based Royal Palm closed its doors abruptly after employing a similar modus operandi to defraud numerous residents. Ganesh Rajan, who suffered a loss of Dh10,000, revealed that he is part of a WhatsApp Group comprising victims who individually lost up to Dh150,000.

In February 2023, Royal Regis Tours and Travels shut down, leaving hundreds counting their losses. The company had sold over half a million dirhams worth of holiday packages that never materialised. Prior to this, Arabian Times Travel & Tourism LLC (Arabian TTT) defrauded approximately 200 people in a similar fashion.

Modus operandi

The scams typically start with unexpected phone calls offering gift hampers, serving as a guise to initiate a high-pressure sales pitch for time-share packages. To claim the prize, victims are enticed to attend a short presentation at a hotel with their families. Unfortunately, these presentations often extend for hours, featuring 'selling' tactics that lead many residents to succumb to the companies' promises. These assurances include lifetime memberships promising access to premier resorts and hotels globally, complimentary gym memberships, concert tickets, and other perks. However, these pledges consistently prove empty, leaving residents with nothing but regret.

Instances have also surfaced where sales agents have opened lines of credit without the client's knowledge or consent or made them sign contracts under duress.

"I had hoped to be strolling along the cobbled streets of Paris right now," rued an unnamed victim of Apollo Times. "Instead, I find myself scrambling to recover my money, a far cry from the dream I was sold."

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