DUBAI // The man at the centre of a multi-million dirham illegal subletting scam was renting the same Dubai apartments to multiple tenants.
It was a rude welcome to the emirate for those starting new jobs in the city and others who had moved from other parts of the UAE.
"When I realised that I had paid one year's rent in advance, I couldn't collect the keys and the same flat was rented to others I felt like I was electrocuted, I couldn't stop shaking," said CB, a sales manager.
She has since found that the man identified in passport copies to the police as Haitham Al Kouatly rented her one-bedroom apartment to 10 other people, all of whom paid in single cheque sums ranging between Dh60,000 to Dh70,000.
"We have lost our money and have no place to stay, unlike the others who at least have somewhere to live for now," she said.
"We have been robbed in the middle of Dubai and nobody seems to care.
"I'm not a trusting person but I trusted this man because he was recommended by friends."
In 2010, Al Kouatly told real estate agents that, as chief executive of Shamyana Entertainment, he needed to rent apartments for 500 employees. He then illegally sublet the homes in The Greens, Burj Downtown, Jumeirah Beach Residence and other areas after telling tenants he was the owner.
He accepted one-cheque payments in the name of Shamyana Entertainment and paid utility bills, including Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa) charges.
For the past two years landlords who owned the apartments received their rents and tenants were happy to recommend him to friends.
However, since June this year he called tenants offering an early renewal, including a month's free rent, if they paid in one cheque.
Police believe he fled the UAE leaving landlords without thousands in rent money and tenants facing eviction.
More than 350 tenants, including at least 130 who have recently renewed their contracts, now face losing their homes after they paid cheques to a company that the Real Estate Regulatory Agency was not licensed to sublet homes.
Several people, like CB, were shown the same apartment. Each person was promised the keys and utility details on September 1. However, Al Kouatly blamed delays in handing over keys or forwarding Dewa registration on lax workers, refurbishing work in the apartment and even personal tragedies.
Dubai police said they would issue an international arrest warrant and investigating officers have since shut down Shamyana Entertainment's Tecom office.
CB says she was among the first to ask the police to register a complaint, but due to confusion about jurisdiction it was taken down a day after Al Kouatly is said to have fled.
"The authorities told me, 'Why are you worried? You have a contract - go stay in the flat.' They told me to go to the municipality. I tried to explain it is a big scam and hundreds were affected. He left that night."
Another tenant who rented the same apartment for Dh63,000 is now staying with friends until he sorts out his finances.
"He always gave me plausible answers," said DP.
"Granted I may have trusted him too much but I feel very isolated and don't know which way to turn. People say it's our fault because we didn't push him for proof of ownership but real estate agencies worked with him - they believed him too.
"People feel helpless, many are heavily in debt to the bank. It's a scary situation."
Others called on authorities to set up a dedicated force to handle complaints.
"We feel we are being given the runaround," said David Kosterno, a tenant who had rented from Al Kouatly since 2009 and last paid him a Dh50,000 cheque in August that his landlord has not received.
"I wish Dubai would take our cases seriously. We need the police and other authorities to help us and not send us in circles. It's my wife's mother's funeral in the US, but instead of grieving we are dealing with this."