x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Discouraging the confidence men

Two stories of sophisticated fraud in one week are enough to make you think the only place your money is safe is under your mattress.

Hundreds of Dubai residents have been cheated out of a year's rent, police say, by a confidence trickster. Meanwhile, also in Dubai, the families of 53 children with physical or learning disabilities were shaken by the news that their specialised school had closed abruptly, just as the school year was starting; tens of thousands of dirhams paid in tuition fees are no longer to be found among the school's assets.

Two such stories in one week are enough to make you think that your money isn't safe anywhere, except maybe under your mattress.

The real-estate story has every appearance of outright fraud, but the school saga may be more complicated: the owner has decamped to Australia but denies any wrongdoing. Whatever the full facts may finally show in the two cases, they already have in common that they have led to demands, from many quarters, for more government regulation and vigilance to protect consumers - be they tenants, parents of students, or anyone else - from the risk of finding themselves in such situations.

However, if one steps back a little - which those victimised in these incidents can hardly be expected to do - another perspective is possible: no set of laws or regulations can ever protect us from everything. As in counterfeiting and computer viruses, every new safeguard merely provides a new incentive to clever villains.

"Confidence men" are so called precisely because they win the trust of the unsuspecting, and then abuse it. The man known as Haitham Al Kouatly - Sam the Sham - who has vanished with millions of dirhams, spent a full year baiting his trap, so that most of his victims thought they were renewing their leases, and were pleased to be doing so.

That nobody became suspicious enough, and that government authorities too heard no alarm bells, demonstrates how skilful the trickster was. Surely a man of such resource could also have made a lot of money in some legitimate way.

After every such crime or default or failure, regulatory agencies must of course review their processes and policies and look for ways to close the loophole that has been exploited. And individuals must always exercise due diligence, every time a payment of any type is made.

But the sad fact is that guarantees are only as good or as reliable as the people who make them, as the past week showed.