Hundreds of Kenyans are losing millions of shillings to con artists passing themselves off as car dealers.
Investigations by the Sunday Nation show that the conmen, through a well-planned scheme sometimes involving advertisements in daily newspapers, are taking full advantage of Kenyans’ penchant for short-cuts in conducting business transactions.
With the traditional carjacking method getting ever more dangerous, conmen are evolving new tactics of stealing from potential car buyers, leaving law enforcers to play catch-up with their new tricks.
“These are not your typical gun-toting, bhang-smoking thieves,” said Mr Munga Nyale, the head of Flying Squad, the police unit in charge of fighting serious armed robberies and motor vehicle theft.
The conmen’s stock-in-trade is simple yet highly effective: a phone, a well furnished office, cutting of newspaper classified adverts and a large dose of courage to go through with the process.Often clad in expensive suits, and driving sleek cars, the conmen are exploiting Kenyans’ ignorance or outright disregard for the right procedures in car sale transactions.
Mr Timothy Njoroge Mwaura’s story could easily be the experience of thousands of Kenyans who have fallen prey to the smooth-talking con artists.
On the afternoon of August 26, 2010, as the country prepared for the promulgation of the new Constitution the next day, Mr Mwaura was meeting a potential buyer of his Toyota Probox at a hotel in Mlolongo, Athi River.The previous day he had received a call from a potential buyer from Nanyuki.
This was after he advertised his car in the classifieds section of a local daily. The woman he met did not betray any suspicion of being wayward.“She was beautiful, very polished and carried an expensive handbag. She told me she was a businesswoman and I concluded that she must have been a successful one,” Mr Mwaura said.
Little did he know that the executive appearance was a mask for a master con who had probably honed her skills by defrauding tens of other victims.They had chosen Mlolongo as their meeting place because it was close to his place of work. What transpired next would sound comical were it not for the dire consequences that followed.
After going through the routine checks of the engine, the tyres and so forth, the woman requested to test drive the car. First, she drove the car a short distance and stopped.
In retrospect, Mr Mwaura reckons he would have easily avoided the heartbreak that was to follow had he followed his intuition. “I realised she was very tense, but I did not think much of it then,” he said.
She then switched off the engine, went round it to conduct more checks, and then got back on the wheels. This time she drove outside the hotel compound.
“I signalled her to stop so we could go for the test together but she said she was not going far,” he remembers. After about 50 metres, she stopped briefly before resuming her test.
Thinking back Mr Mwaura said the “little” halting test drives were meant to check whether the car had any alarm systems. Well, unfortunately for him and fortunately for her, it did not.
“She was well out of sight when I called her and she told me she was looking for a convenient spot to turn.” After 15 minutes he called her again and she said she had been arrested by police for driving without a licence.
“That is when it dawned on me that I might be in trouble.” Mr Mwaura rushed to Mlolongo police station but could not get immediate help. He called the woman one more time and this time the phone was off. He had lost his car in broad daylight.
His hopes sank even lower after he realised he had left the log book in an envelope on the back seat. Thoroughly depressed, he reported the theft at the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), a move that was to prove critical in his vehicle’s recovery a year later.
Mr Mwaura is just one of the victims of the many new “safe” methods car thieves are using these days. In April police issued a public alert for the leader of a six-man gang that had stolen tens of cars from the public in a similar manner.
John Ndorongo Kamua is wanted in relation to at least 15 complaints filed against him by car dealers whose cars he is said to have sold without their consent in Nairobi and Mombasa.
According to police, the man has been luring buyers by placing advertisements in local dailies inviting vehicle owners to lease cars to his organisation for at least Sh55,000 a month. He later prepared fake documents and sold the cars.
Toyota saloons are the major targets for a number of reasons. One, they are easy to dispose of due to high demand. The large number of vehicles of the same make and colour also makes them difficult to trace once stolen.
Most of the small cars, especially the Probox and Succeed types, are mainly sold upcountry where demand is high, since they can easily be converted to serve multiple purposes, including being turned into matatus, according to Mr Nyale.
For Mr Shem Orenge, the director of Sabeen Motor Bazaar in Kilimani, Mr Mwaura’s story was almost routine. “We are used to these incidents now,” he said when he heard the story.
In his nearly seven years in business, Mr Orenge has had to comfort several would-be customers whose dreams of owning a car have been crudely wrecked by con artists who have purported to sell them cars in his bazaar.
Indeed the bazaars are popular targets for the conmen. Whenever they visit, their aim is twofold: to get the car details, such as the number plate, and its selling price.
With that information, they proceed to KRA where a routine search gives them details contained in the original logbook. They then prepare a fake logbook and advertise the sale in the newspapers.
They wait for the calls to come in from would-be buyers and once they identify a promising one, they normally offer a substantially lower price than the one being asked at the bazaar.
“They tell potential buyers that they are the car owners but have handed it over to the bazaar to be sold,” said Mr Orenge. Proof of ownership is the fake logbook.
Often, these conmen rent temporary offices in town where they conduct their business. “The offices are usually well furnished and the sellers well dressed to give an impression of well-to-do individuals,” said Mr Nyale.
Keen to make a saving, the unsuspecting potential buyers will inevitably fall into the trap of the fake owner. “The deal is then secretly concluded behind our backs,” said Mr Orenge.
Most of these transactions involve cash and no witnesses.
With the transaction done, the “buyers” are instructed to collect their cars from the bazaars. As the client steps out of the door, the con artists discard their SIM cards, lock their offices and disappear.
Mr Orenge said he recently had to deal with such an incident involving an elderly man. “The conmen sold him a lorry we had here for Sh1.5 million yet we were selling it for Sh2.2 million. Obviously it looked like a good deal.”
He attributes the thriving business to the gullible nature of Kenyans. “Kenyans hardly take time to check the validity of the documents they are given by the so-called traders. People trust strangers too much for their own good,” he said.
But for some victims, it is sometimes difficult to resist the silver tongues of these con artists as Judy, a marketing manager at a local bank, told us. She shared her story on the background for personal reasons.
The mother of two became a victim of a suave conman operating out of the airport. Like most victims, she identified a car through the newspapers and called the number.
She was told the car was at a bazaar in Langata. “The man told me he was selling the car at Sh720,000 but the bazaar was offering it at Sh780,000 as the final price.”
Naturally she went for the lower price. But the seller became insistent. “He told me he wanted to conclude the deal quickly since he wanted to leave for Mombasa for the holidays and he needed the money to pay for some cars he had imported.”
She wanted to use the car for the holidays and therefore decided to seal the deal quickly by paying cash. When he met the man at the airport, she had no reason to doubt him.
“He was expensively dressed and even had plane tickets to Mombasa. He had several high-value phones and an expensive briefcase. By all accounts he was a successful businessman,” she said.
After the transaction was done, the seller gave her Sh20, 000 to fill up the tank and give the rest to the bazaar as their cut for the transaction.
“Imagine my shock when I arrived at the bazaar only to be informed that I had been conned,” she said.
Mr Orenge says their best efforts to curb con games have failed. “They are usually a step ahead of everyone,” he said, recalling how they lost Sh700,000 to a conman two years ago.
After identifying a car, the potential customer made a deposit of Sh200,000, promising to clear the balance the next day. They agreed to meet at a bank to complete the transaction.
At the bank, he met the buyer and the man said he had already bought a banker’s cheque in the dealer’s name. They left together to the bazaar where the man took possession of the car after presenting the cheque.
To his shock, officers from the anti-banking fraud called him five days later inquiring why he had deposited a forged cheque. So what could have happened?
The conman, in collusion with a bank employee, had made a fake cheque. Mr Orenge suspects that the “buyer” never had the money in the first place. “I found him collecting the cheque. So I am not sure whether he deposited the money or not,” he said.
The timing of the bank transaction was key; it took place on a Friday afternoon, which is favoured by most conmen according to Mr Nyale. “Before the transaction is cleared, these people will have disappeared into thin air,” he said.
Car hire firms have also been on the receiving end of the con artists. A particularly notorious one was a Mr Wambua who used to operate from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
“He would alight, say from a trip in Mombasa, expensively dressed and ask for a 4×4 vehicle to hire. He would remain in communication for a few days then nothing would be heard of him again,” Mr Nyale said.
Often, the detective said, the thieves disable the vehicles’ tracking devices on their own or with the assistance of professionals in their employ.
Other conmen, said Mr Nyale, pose as major importers of vehicles, especially the 4x4s. “Once you give them money to import for you, they close their offices and disappear,” said Mr Nyale.
To curb the thefts, Mr Nyale suggested that KRA should make it mandatory for fingerprints and copies of IDs of all those asking for vehicle searches. “We have to close the loopholes which these people are exploiting,” he said.