NAT 200428 FOOD SCAM8-1588227687929
Scammed Indian exporters recounting their ordeal in a Zoom video conference with Gulf News Image Credit: Mazhar Farooqui

Dubai: More than Dh4 million worth of bananas, tomatoes, grapes, pomegranates, coconuts and chillies have been stolen in an audacious scam in Dubai, with scores of Indian exporters being caught in the cross hairs of the brazen theft.

FRUIT LOOT Image Credit: Seyyed Latta

Following a familiar script, con artists opened an office in Dubai before placing bulk orders -- this time on behalf of the fraudulent OPC Foodstuff Trading, operating from Deira.

The exporters were paid 25-30 per cent upfront via Telex Transfers. The balance was to be paid within one to three weeks of delivery. The money never arrived. Instead, OPC Foodstuff suddenly downed shutters last month and its entire staff, including Pakistani owner Mohammad Farooq, cannot be traced, say victims. Their phone numbers remain switched off.

NAT 200428 FOOD SCAM78-1588227685982
Workers in India sorting green chillies ordered by the fraudulent OPC Foodstuff

The scam has revived memories of last year’s Dh15.38 million theft in which 250 containers carrying 6,000 tonnes of rice similarly disappeared in Dubai.

The 18 exporters, mostly new entrants, reckon the ill-gotten fruits have been sold to third parties at throwaway prices.

Victim recounts anguish

“Our lives have been shattered overnight,” rued Poornima Patil, owner of Maharashtra-based PVIP Exports that shipped 7,400 boxes of pomegranates and grapes worth $181,480 (Dh666,580). “I invested 20 years of my savings into this deal. When it was not enough, I mortgaged my house and jewellery and borrowed from money lenders. I don’t know what I am going to do,” she lamented during a Zoom video conferencing with Gulf News.

18 exporters were hit by the fruit scam
50 is the number of fruit containers that were shippped to Dubai by the exporters
Dh666,580 is what one firm, PVIP Exports, lost to the scammers
201,5860 is the approximate number of bananas that have been stolen

Mithun Pardesi of Trinetram Corporation who pegged his losses at $93,058 is equally devastated. His firm supplied more than 14,000 boxes of green chillies besides tonnes of pomegranates, lemons and tomatoes. “The scam has left me broke. I am struggling and have no money left to meet daily expenses, let alone consider legal recourse,” said the 32-year-old from Thane Maharashtra.

P.M. Sangli of Dubai-based Pranita Sangli General Trading, one of the few firms hit locally, said they had started business barely a year ago. “A setback of $46,000 could spell doom for a fledgling company like ours,” he said. He lodged a complaint with Dubai Police last week. He supplied coconut husks against a post-dated cheque which bounced on March 20.

NAT 200428 FOOD SCAM COMBO PIC-1588227680166
PVIP Exports from Maharashtra, India, is the worst hit. it delivered 7,400 boxes of pomegranates and grapes Image Credit: Supplied

Like him, the exporters shipped the containers to Jebel Ali Port where the consignments were received by OPC employees against bill of lading copies. “In the beginning, they were prompt in payments. In hindsight, I realise it was an elaborate ploy to gain our trust,” said a representative of Siddhi Trading (Maharashtra) which supplied bananas.

Total haul

The total haul includes 288 tonnes of bananas, 147 tonnes of grapes and pomegranates, 129 tonnes of coconuts, 90 tonnes of green chillies, 87 tonnes of pomegranates, 32 tonnnes of tomatoes, 31 tonnes of ginger and nearly seven tonnes of lemons.

Exporters said their combined losses have crossed Dh4 million. Many feared the numbers could rise as new victims come forward.

NAT 200428 FOOD SCAM COMBO PIC2-1588227682088
Dubai based Pranita Sangli General Trading supplied coconuts worth Dh71,000

It’s not that the exporters didn’t do their due diligence.

Pardesi said he flew down to the UAE, visited OPC’s office in Deira and met their staff to make sure he was dealing with a legitimate organisation. “There was nothing amiss. Their papers were in order and their managers who identified themselves as Dilip Doshi and Majed Jalal looked the part,” he said.

Seeking justice

The aggrieved exporters have now written to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and sought his intervention into the matter. “We want justice and hope that authorities in Dubai will also look into this crime and bring the culprits to book, said one of them.

The Indian Consulate in Dubai has repeatedly urged Indian exporters to exercise caution and not fall victim to scams. Their most recent warning came last month after Gulf News reported about the first arrest in the rice scam uncovered in July 2019.

NAT 200428 FOOD SCAM67-1588227683986
Pomegranate cartons being loaded in a container before being exported to OPC Foodstuff. Nearly 138 tonnes of pomegranates were shipped to the company by Indian exporters

With its abrupt closure, OPC Foodstuff joins an ever growing list of 200 trading companies which have similarly shut down over the past four years. Each of them were started by con artists with the specific purpose to dupe. Among them are Triumph Fortune General Trading (Dh25 million, 2019) Al Rawnaq Al Thahbhi (Dh15.37 million, 2019), Marine Bunker Shipping (Dh20 million, 2018), Avon Line Electronics (Dh25 million, 2018) Black Star Electronics (Dh20 million, 2017), SR Global (Dh35 million, 2016) Explore Far East Marina (Dh30 million, 2016), Reliancee Group (Dh20 million, 2016) and Brazza Trading (Dh10 million, 2016).

Between them they have wiped out billions of dirhams from the market, affecting thousands of lives in the process. In October 2019, a Gulf News investigation blew the lid off Ajman-based foodstuff companies H&MZ Global Worldwide, Saya International FZE and Soha Arif Foodstuff which cheated exporters worldwide. The firms were run by two Pakistani brothers, one of whom had faked his death.