Babatunde Lawal Isiaka in a pilot's uniform, wearing a laynard neck strap with Emirates airlines’ name Image Credit: S

Dubai: The picture shows him dressed in a pilot’s uniform. A crisp white shirt, epaulets on the shoulders and a golden aviation badge pinned above his left shirt pocket. Should there be any doubt about his profession, Babatunde Lawal Isiaka, 36, also wears a laynard neck strap with Emirates airlines’ name emblazoned in its distinctive font and colour across the length of the cord.

For at least six years now, the Nigerian scammer has been masquerading as a pilot of the world’s top carrier. That’s nearly thrice as many years conman extraordinaire Frank Abagnale posed as a pilot for Pan Am in order to wangle free flights in the 1950s.

Abagnale’s exploits were depicted in Steven Spielberg’s award-winning blockbuster movie, Catch Me if You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

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Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from the 2002 blockbuster Catch Me If You Can based on the exploits of conman turned American security consultant Frank Abagnale.

However, unlike Abagnale, who flew across 25 countries after forging a pilot’s licence and securing a Pan Am uniform, Babatunde has been impersonating an Emirates pilot to peddle forged flight tickets and visas. He has also used his cover to impress people, many of whom he has later duped, according to a Gulf News investigation based on the testimonies of several of his victims spread across South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

Non-existent airline offers repatriation flights

Now Babatunde has come up with a new rip-off scheme. He is targeting aviation hopefuls worldwide with lucrative job opportunities in an airline which, like his pilot’s licence, doesn’t exist. “We are recruiting!” screams a poster of the purported Ghana-based ‘AN Airways’ promoted by Babatunde.

The bogus airline, which claims to have “joined forces with the Ghana government in the evacuation of Ghanaians from the United Kingdom” is inviting job applications for the post of air hostesses, flight attendants, operation manager, flight dispatcher and automation engineers, among others. Even as An Airways’ website remains under construction, pictures of Babatunde wearing a poor copy of an Emirates pilot’s uniform are being widely shared on twitter by handles like @mudzu_thabe

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The non-existent An Airways offering Covid-19 repatriation flight to Ghanaians stuck in the UK due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Emirates calls bluff

Emirates Airline has cautioned against the conman. “Emirates has been made aware of an individual who falsely claims to be one of its pilots running a recruitment campaign on behalf of another company,” an Emirates spokesperson said in an email statement in response to a Gulf News query on Sunday. “Emirates has never employed this individual and does not endorse these types of recruitment practices,” the statement said.

A Gulf News investigation, corroborated by a whistle blower, shows that the website of AN Airways has been created to raise money from potential investors and lure job enthusiasts into sharing their personal information so that they could be used for identity theft and other cybercrimes.

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Screengrab of a WhatsApp message sent by Babatunde in which he claims to work for a Dubai-based airline.

N.S., 27, who was hoping to apply for a flight attendant’s position last month, said she almost fell for the racket. “There were pictures of Babatunde in what appeared to be a pilot’s uniform. He had a UAE cellphone number and we exchanged messages on WhatsApp. He said he was a Captain at Emirates but was starting his own airline,” she said over the phone from Harare, Zimbabwe. “Thankfully, I was alerted by a friend.”

But not all women were as lucky; one of them is Babatunde’s ex- fiancé. The popular Nigerian fashion designer, who has her own label, remained convinced Babatunde was an Emirates pilot throughout their relationship between 2014-2107.

“He posed as an Emirates pilot for three years. I even went on visits to Dubai, supposedly to visit him at his work base. Honestly, I didn’t notice anything [amiss] really. He had an excuse that was reasonable for every out-of-place situation. He would say he was going for flight briefing with his line boss. He would also say he asked to be scheduled to have days off while I was in town [Dubai] because he didn’t want to leave me alone in the apartment possibly for days, considering that I had come all the way to be with him. He was very believable. He constantly wore the uniform. I mean all the time; had an ID card and hung out with other Nigerian pilots,” the woman said in an email statement to Gulf News.

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A copy of the fake UAE visa

“I used to drop him to the airport and could often hear the roar of airplane engines in the backdrop when I talked to him on the phone… I wish I knew better,” she said.

The woman eventually broke up with Babatunde.

“I discovered everything was a lie, our whole relationship, his identity,” said the designer who claims Babatunde defrauded her of “roughly about $100,000”.

“He borrowed money from me and stole directly from my accounts. He has tricked other women I have come across the same way, in Ghana and South Africa,” she alleged. The woman declined to be named, saying she “has worked really [hard] to get past him and the damage he [Babatunde] left in his wake.”

The woman has a child but said it was not from Babatunde. “He was never there, never been and never tried to be.”

Babatunde’s first wife Temitope Adeni, 35, said she parted ways with her husband in 2015 after she found out that he was dating other women. They married in 2010 and have two daughters aged 10 and eight. At that time Babatunde used to work for an oil company, she said. “We are not divorced but barely talk. The last time I spoke to him he said something about becoming a pilot,” Adeni told Gulf News in a telephone interview from her house in Lagos, Nigeria. She said she doesn’t remember if he mentioned any airline.

Bait, date cheat

But South African chemical engineer, C.H. who hails from the country’s Mpumalanga province, doesn’t have to jog her memory. The 34-year-old met Babatunde on a dating site in July 2018 while she was in Johannesburg. “He told me he was a Dubai-based pilot with Emirates and was in the city to pursue an 18-month course in aviation management at Mach1 Academy. I was impressed,” she recalled.

By the time C.H. snapped ties with him in January 2020, Babatunde owed her over R75,000 (Dh18,700). “He borrowed money on various pretexts,” she said.

A desperate WhatsApp message sent by Babatunde to C.H. asking for money reads: “As of today, my radio license and language proficiency has expired which means I can’t fly and it will cost me 3500 [South African Rands] so which means I will have to kill myself…” Babutunde owes Mach1 R250,000 (Dh62,500), the institute’s director told Gulf News on Wednesday.

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The bogus Emirates’ (Johannesburg-Dubai-Johannesburg) return ticket given by Babatunde to his girlfriend.

C.H. said she got most of her money back but there was still a fair bit left. “I took his iPad as collateral for which he filed a police complaint that was later later dropped. He also made me splurge R4000,000 (Dh100,000) on a pre-owned Mercedes Benz saloon, promising to pay the EMIs from his Dubai salary. I am still paying the mortgage.”

C.H. said Babatunde made excuses every time she asked for her money back. “First, he said he had to be physically present in Dubai to access his bank account. Then he claimed he cannot travel to the UAE due to a visa-related problem.”

C.H. said at one point Babatunde suggested she visits Dubai and gets the money from his associates. “He even got a UAE visit visa for me and also gave me an Emirates return ticket to Dubai.”

Gulf News has a copy of the ticket and visa. Both are fake.

“Emirates can confirm that the ticket is fake. It has come to our attention that this individual has misrepresented himself as an employee and using our brand for fraudulent activity. We take this matter very seriously, and will be officially filing a report with the relevant authorities. Emirates would like to reiterate that we would never engage with our customers or prospective employment candidates through insecure channels,” an Emirates spokesperson said on Thursday.

Babatunde’s response

Babatunde says that he has done nothing wrong and instead accuses one of his ex-girlfriends of defaming him. Asked about his picture in a pilot’s uniform, he said: “This was a private picture I took and it has nothing to do with Emirates.” He said he was using a UAE cellphone number because he visited Dubai last month to meet friends and his number “changed mistakenly”.

He also maintained that AN Airways was a legitimate airline. “AN Airways is a registered company in the republic of Ghana and in a process to get the necessary document to operate a commercial airline,” he said in an email to Gulf News on Monday.

A comment from Ghana’s civil aviation authority was not immediately available. Gulf News couldn’t get any proof to substantiate AN Airways’ claim that it operates repatriation flights for Ghanaians stranded in the UK.

“It’s sad that someone would exploit the pandemic,” said a twitter user.

A South African woman with three decades of experience in the aviation industry said she regrets introducing Babatunde to investors including an entrepreneur associated with an American airline.

“I met Babatunde at a friend’s party in Capetown in October 2019. He came across as a “quiet, unassuming boy”. I asked him what he did for a living. ‘Captain with Emirates’, he proudly said. I have worked in the aviation industry for the most part of my life. Something about him didn’t seem right but I couldn’t wrap my head around that. We exchanged phone numbers and would often message each other. He appeared excited about his new venture, so I put him in touch with some investors and industry insiders.

The woman, who requested anonymity, said she got suspicious about Babatunde during a casual WhatsApp chat. “I had just returned from a holiday trip to Rio De Janeiro when he messaged asking what I did there. I sent him a picture from my skydiving experience. He responded saying “he is scared of heights”. That got my antenna up. I mean how could you be a captain and be scared of heights. But I wanted to be doubly sure so I asked him to share a picture of him in uniform. He promptly obliged. The moment I saw the picture I realised he was a con artist. It was not the Emirates uniform. Also, a captain has four bar epaulettes. This man had three. It was a dead giveaway. When I pointed out the missing epaulette, he said, ‘Oh, I didn’t get the chance to put the fourth one’. I didn’t need any more proof. He knew I knew so he blocked my phone number.”

On Wednesday, Babatunde also blocked this Gulf News journalist.

Babatunde currently lives in Sandton in South Africa on a temporary study permit. He was pursuing an aviation course at Mach1 Academy in South Africa and owes it R250,000, (Dh62,500), the institute’s director told Gulf News on Wednesday.