By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamians face being "hit very hard in the pocket" from an "alarming increase" in potentially fraudulent transactions, a local money transfer business warned yesterday.
Harvey Morris, Omni Financial Group's chief executive, told Tribune Business that he worried consumers will start to question "the integrity of the money transfer system" after being scammed of their "hard-earned dollars".
Despite being no fault of Omni's and other providers, Mr Morris said Bahamas residents appeared to be increasingly falling for simple frauds perpetrated online and via social media, while failing to question the person requesting them to send money.
He explained that this had prompted Omni to issue a 'Consumer Fraud Alert' to its customers on February 13, 2018, warning them to beware when unknown persons contact them to wire money or cash a cheque on their behalf.
"Omni wishes to advise its customers and the general public that there has been an alarming increase in the incidences of potentially fraudulent transactions against consumers in the Bahamas," the notice, obtained by Tribune Business, warns.
"Clients have attempted to use our money transfer services to send money for the following popular scams." Omni identified these as including 'the fake loan or grant scam', where a purported loan company contacts a consumer to offer money once they send funds to cover 'fees', 'service costs' and 'taxes' in advance.
Emphasising that legitimate lending companies never contacted consumers in this way, the money transfer business said demands for 'advance payments' were an immediate 'red flag' that should alert Bahamians.
"Don't fall for it," the advisory warned. "In cases like this, you do not get a loan or grant; you simply lose the money you send them." Omni also warned of 'the person in need' fraud, where scammers - often using hacked e-mails - claimed to be a friend, someone the consumer knows, or a even a police officer or attorney accompanying a family member.
"They then try to convince you to send money to bail your relative out of jail, pay a fine or cover emergency car repair expenses or medical bills," Omni warned.
Christina Sands, Omni's general operations manager, told Tribune Business the company witnessed a surge in suspicious transactions during the October-December 2017 period in the run-up to Christmas.
Describing the nature of many attempted scams as "so crazy", she said the "aggressive trend" had slowed down in 2018 after Omni's system flagged the questionable transactions and spoke to the clients involved in a bid to prevent them becoming potential fraud victims.
With the sums involved ranging from $500 to $1,000 per transaction, Ms Sands warned that Bahamians and residents were going to be "hit very hard" unless they became attuned to the risks and started to ask more questions.
She also questioned whether the perpetrators viewed this nation as "gullible", given the obvious warning signs that many schemes gave off, with many Bahamians seemingly finding it so easy to say 'yes'.
"There was an alarming increase in these types of transactions; fraudulent transactions," Ms Sands told Tribune Business. "I would definitely say it was from around October-December. It's slowed down a little bit, but we saw an aggressive trend.
"Luckily our system stopped these transactions for further review. When they go to high-risk jurisdictions, they're frequently layered in terms of the transaction and size of transaction. We're able to look at them and determine if any structuring is going on, or if there's a potential fraud or suspicious transaction."
"What we find is that it's so crazy beyond what we discussed on that alert," Ms Sands told Tribune Business. "A gentleman said he was sending some money for an investment. I said: 'What type of investment, and what type of return do you expect to get?'
"He said he was told that if he made a minimum investment under $2,000, it would be turned into $40,000. This was based on someone reaching out to him through social media and saying you can use a money transfer business, and if you send money to us in a certain period of time, we will turn it into this for you."
Ms Sands said another common concern was clients increasing the amount, and frequency, of monies wired to somebody they claimed to have "met in church when they came to visit Nassau or the Bahamas".
"We see an increase in how many times they send to the person or attempt to send to the person," she added. "They send $300 at first, and next time increase it to $800. That's where we see the evidence of this kind of thing.
"We also see where a person says: 'I have a purchase for you, and if you send me this amount of money I will send you this box'. In other cases, they tell people they've got a possible inheritance in the millions of dollars."
Ms Sands said the scams appeared to "proliferate" or originate from several African countries, with the likes of Nigeria, Ghana, Togo and Benin to the fore. She added that some scammers would appear to be based in the US, or American citizens, "but from the names we see it appears these people are from Africa."
"I see a lot of clients wanting to send money to Nigeria," Ms Sands told Tribune Business, recalling one incident involving a woman who was "sending money to her 'boss' in Nigeria. I could hear him shouting at her on the phone, telling her this is why she was told to go where they don't ask questions. That's not the first time I've heard people instructing the client".
With money tight and unemployment still relatively high following the 2008-2009 recession's aftermath, too many Bahamians and residents appear to be forgetting the saying that 'if it sounds too good to be true it probably is'.
In a bid to obtain extra income, Omni executives said few were asking enough questions of those unknown persons contacting them via the Internet and social media 'out of the blue', offering sweet deals.
"I had this conversation with some of my co-workers this morning: Do you think these people look at the Bahamas and think we're gullible," Ms Sands told Tribune Business. 'It's so easy for some persons to say 'Yes, I wish to send this money to this person hoping to get some money back in return'.
"The other say, someone said they were going to purchase online and send money to this person. It was going to the US originally, and then the other person said they needed to send it to Nigeria. We asked why they were doing it, and this person said they wanted to get what they'd purchased online. They were being asked to send more and more money."
Ms Sands said scammers masquerading as celebrities or local politicians frequently proved hard for Bahamians and residents to resist, adding: "They're consumers not engaging the persons speaking to them, and are freely giving them information.
"It's a quick hit, and it's going to hit their [consumer] pockets very hard. Some clients even approach us saying: 'We know this person. I understand that you want to try and protect me, but I know this person'. I appreciate the question, but I'm OK with the transaction'. We're not going to say the client is a liar."
Ms Sands urged Bahamians to "not engage" with unknown persons who contacted them in relation to money. "If somebody reaches out to you saying they're a lost cousin, friend and you've never met them, why send money to them," she added.
"This is sending your hard-earned dollars to somebody you've never met and probably will never meet.... If you see it happening to your friend and relative tell them 'no'. Do not give out personal information, do not engage and do not communicate. You just want people to use their common sense."