Chioma Okezie Okeh
Anyone changing foreign currencies, especially dollars, to naira on the streets of Lagos has to be extra vigilant. In the past few weeks, there has been a recurrence of unsavoury incidents involving customers who are shortchanged by dubious moneychangers. What’s worse, bureau de change operators admit such hit-and-run fraudsters have infiltrated their ranks.
One of the victims, Fumilola was taken to the cleaners on February 7, 2020, when she changed 150 dollars to naira at Allen Roundabout in Ikeja. She shared her story with Saturday Sun: “I went there in the company of a friend, Tunde. The moneychangers gave me a rate of one dollar to N350. I insisted they should add something for me. They refused and we went to the next person; we kept moving from one to another until we found a group who agreed to change 150 dollars to N52, 800.
“They initially gave me N52, 000 and asked us to wait while one of them goes to their office to bring the balance. I counted the one they gave me and discovered that it was N51, 500. I drew his attention to it. He took the money from me, counted it and it was complete. He was still counting when his colleague arrived with the balance of N800 and added it to the bundle. I watched them count this money. This was why we did not bother to count the notes again. We took the money and left.”
She, however, discovered that N10, 000 was missing, just a few minutes later, while trying to pay into a bank a stone throw away. “We ran back to the place of transaction. They were gone. Others who saw us earlier transacting with them started laughing at us.”
To cut a long story short, she was swindled of N10, 000. How she was gypped remained inexplicable to her. She felt it involved the use of supernatural power. “Because we were attentive throughout the transaction,” she insisted.
Another victim, who lost N19, 000 in the same Allen circuit, could not figure out how it happened till date. She spoke to Saturday Sun on the condition of anonymity.
Her story: “I went there to change $300 dollars at the time the exchange rate was N370 for a dollar. Rates fluctuate, so operators will hardly give you an exact quote. I hoped to get a better deal, I requested for N375 and many of them refused, insisting that it was the general price.
“I was excited when two persons, both of them northerners, agreed to my rate. They told me they’d make up for the difference from their pocket because they wanted me to become their customer. The total amount was N112, 500. I was given N112, 000 in N1000 notes, while he beckoned his colleagues to lend him N500 as he busily counted the notes. The money he gave me was N111, 000 instead of N112, 500. I drew his attention to the difference and he requested to count it all over again. At that stage, two other men joined us. One of them gave him N500 that he requested. After counting, he told me that I was right. He seemingly added N1500 to the bundle and handed it back to me. Because he was courteous––and because I had counted the money earlier––I simply accepted the wad of notes and put it in my bag.”
She soon realised her mistake. “When I got to the market, I realized that N19, 000 was missing. I went back to the same spot but only saw those moneychangers who declined my rate. When I told them my plight, they laughed. You have been defrauded, they told me and stressed that there was no need to report the matter because I had no proof.” After a careful review, she arrived at the conclusion that what happened to her was not ordinary. “I counted the money and it was complete,” she insisted.
Lady Janet is a pharmacist who operates a chain of pharmacy stores in Ikeja. Her more recent experience in the hands of the fraudsters was similar to the earlier ones. According to her, “I was driving along Allen Avenue and I pulled up by some men at the roadside who invariably were moneychangers, to ask for direction to where I was going. After describing where I was going, they asked if I have dollars to change and coincidentally I had some $500 in my bag and I offered to sell to them. Instead of buying at N350 to a dollar, they were pricing at N320 and I made move to go but they prevailed on me and offered to buy at N350.
“So, I counted my $500 and gave to them but by the time they did the counting they said they couldn’t buy at N350 again and returned my money and out of anger I took my money and drove off. On my way, something just said I should count my money and reconfirm. Lo and behold, it was less $150. I turned back but before I got there they had disappeared.”
These are just examples from a growing list of complaints about unexplained swindling by suspected touts who pretend to be bureau de change operators.
Concerns over growing cases
Alhaji Husseni Ala, one of the executives of the association of operators of Bureau de Change in the Allen Avenue axis spoke extensively to Saturday Sun.
Ahaji Ala confirmed that such cases are common at the Allen roundabout axis and the airport areas. Several cases had been reported to the police, he affirmed.
“Less than a week after these fraudsters are arrested, you will see them back on the streets. We are tired. We hope that the security agencies will do more because those people are spoiling business for us,” he lamented.
According to him, most of the fraudsters stand by the roadside, usually in front of Alade market by Allen roundabout.
Another operator, Alhaji Sani Bamidele, an indigene of Osun, also confirmed that the problem exists. “Initially, it was common at FAAN compound where we have our shops until we decided to chase them away by monitoring every transaction,” he said.
Mallam Hassan, a bureau de change operator along Egbeda road, was also alarmed by the spate of the incident in the last few weeks. “I believe that there is more to it than just deceiving and stealing your money. I have never seen where they were caught. Since you confirmed the transaction before parting with your money, no one will believe your story no matter the amount that the person lost,” he observed.
How the trick is played
Alhaji Bamidele, despite his long years in the business is mystified by how the fraudulent operators cheat customers. “I cannot really explain how they do it, whether it is scam or juju, although I don’t believe in juju,” he said.
AIhaji Ala insisted that there is nothing like juju and if such does exist, then it is less than 5 per cent. He has an idea of how the scam works: “It’s just a case of smart roadside operators that will smartly remove the money without your knowledge”, he said.
He sketched the modus operandi: “What they do is to wait for customers who normally overprice. For instance, you came there to change $100 and about three persons on the street told you that the exchange rate is N350. You still insist that it could be given at a much higher rate, maybe N360; at that point the dubious touts will approach you and agree to give you such an offer with the excuse that they want to make you their customer.
“They will initially give you N35, 500 and hold on to N500 pretending that it is complete. After counting the money, the customer will realize the difference and draw his attention to it. He will pretend as if he is looking for N500 and call on another member to lend him N500. They will gather and to further confuse you, will ask to recount the money. You will observe him counting the money, then suddenly one of them, pretending to be friendly, will try to distract you by pleading with you to give him the N500 for lunch. The moment your attention is divided, he will quickly remove several notes from the bundle and hand over the bundle to you, adding the initial missing N500. And because you have counted initially, you will assume that it is still the same amount of money that you counted that is given back to you. They will keep chatting with you, while one of them will insist that you give them some money. They do that to distract you until you leave the environment. This is how they do it and they have defrauded so many people.”
Who is to blame?
Bureau de change operators are sharply divided over which ethnic group perpetrates the crime. Hassan refuted claims that only operators from the southern part of Nigeria engage in such a dubious act.
Ala countered diplomatically: “I will like you to note that those involved in such acts are not Hausa, neither are they legitimate operators. We are legitimate businessmen for ages and if you investigate properly, you will realize that 80 per cent of those involved in that scam are Lagos touts who have infiltrated the business. I can assure you that a Hausa man even if he stands by the roadside hustling for customers will never defraud you.”
Bamidele tried to be objective: “Most of my boys who are out there scouting for customers are mostly Igbo and Yoruba. I started about 20 years ago and my customers can attest to the fact that we do clean business. There are criminals everywhere, if you are not careful, you will surely fall into their trap. But the record is there: of those arrested, northerners are more in number.”
Protection against fraudsters
The best immunity against fraudsters posing as moneychangers is to avoid those standing by the roadside. That is the advice from Alhaji Ala.
“Those who want to change any type of foreign currency or even sell gold should walk into an office or bank for the transaction. There is a general exchange rate, even at the black market; you can even find the rate online. Even if you want to change $100, the same attention will be given to the person.”
Legitimate moneychangers, he insisted, “will take you either to the bank or their offices.” He explained further: “No one is going to ask you to pay extra money for sitting down or enjoying the air-conditioner. Dealing with those who have offices is safer because you can easily return and report to the person, and I tell you, no one with an office would want to destroy his business.”
Bamidele also advised Nigerians to shun roadside moneychangers.
“Even if they manage to convince you to deal with them, insist on entering their office,” he said.
A source at Area F Police Command, Ikeja, Lagos pointed out why such reported cases are usually problematic even for the police, even when a suspect is identified: Because of lack of evidence, said the source. “We are careful not to arrest innocent persons whose names were dropped by rivals,” he said.
Difficulties arise because “most of the victims will end up telling you that they confirmed the transaction before the currency was handed over to them,” he stated.