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.
She 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 the woman, 32, 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 became targets after they lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic and were forced to return home.
“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 to give Ms Tipene A$13,762.67, while banks could only offer her about A$11,700, with additional transaction charges of about Dh300, for her Dh30,000. Ms Tipene planned to use the money as a deposit for a family home.
Ms Tipene paid cash into the woman’s account, but the money never arrived in her Australian bank account.
She 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.
The scammer is thought to have been operating in the UAE under false identities for at least six years. These included "Imogen Smith" and "Dawn Smith".
Victims said she 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 after a meeting and handed to The National.
The document detailed fake transactions ranging from Dh4,000 to Dh188,000.
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.
"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.
“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.
“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 G M, a Spanish pilot who urgently needed to send money home to pay for his father’s funeral in Madrid.
"My father died two days before his 68th birthday so it has been a terrible time for me," said G M, 37, who read a Facebook post from the woman 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 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.
“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," G M said.
“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.
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.
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 of working, Mr Campbell had still not been paid.
When he tried to cash in the security cheque he was given, it bounced, and he opened a civil case.
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 down payment 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.
Mr Campbell has still to be paid any of the money he is owed. With interest, that amount now stands at Dh179,000.
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.
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.
They met at his restaurant and arranged the transaction, with Mr Ossman sending £42,000 in three transactions.
The money was never transferred to his UAE account.
He reported the incident at Al Barsha Police Station, where officers said there were about 20 similar cases against the same woman.