9 mins read
“First and worse of all fraud is to cheat oneself”
A convoy of two cars drove into Surulere. It had my parents, one of my siblings and my wife – who was heavily pregnant with our second child at the time. Destination? To inspect the new property I was going to pay rent for.
They were excited to see it, partly driven by their doubts about my chances of getting a property that would fit my long list of criteria and also driven by my continuous rant about how nice the house was and the neighborhood.
Curiosity they say killed the cat!
Somehow in my haste to lead the family to the street, I beat the traffic light at the stadium interchange and pronto I was detained by members of the Nigerian police force cladded in traffic uniforms. Two ladies and one green-eyed man in his mid-forties. I pleaded and tried to make them see reasons why I missed the lights as it changed from amber to red, but they could sense my impatience and jumped into the car. They showed direction as I maneuvered the car off the road into a layby where discussions started in earnest.
My triumphant entry into Lagos was becoming more difficult by the day and turning into a never ending nightmare. I was suddenly regretting my transfer to Lagos and all the hurdles that was determined to frustrate my integration into the Lagos life.
After a few exchange of words mostly from my end, we agreed on a token for their efforts and they set me on my way.
It cost me only a few minutes, some inconvenient driving/parking, a few words and a lot of pleading.
With the benefit of hindsight, this was probably the first red flag!
At this time, I was yet to meet “Engr Frank” in person. Our conversations had always been on mobile phones. He answered every call and exercised an incredible level of patience with my complaint about every house I inspected until I settled for this one.
But my visits were always facilitated by him along with his contact whom I had grown fond of. After our month long search, he was no longer the shy dude. He appeared helpful and was always willing to go to the next house. His attitude earned him a generous tip after every inspection.
When my entourage inspected this house, they agreed with me, it was indeed a rare house to find. It looked even prettier after it had been carefully cleaned and all the construction debris removed.
The visit this time didn’t last 10mins. For a house that good, indecision was never an issue.
Now it was time to negotiate with “Engr Frank”. He had advised that no conversation about money should be held until I found the house I was convinced met my criteria.
As I drove out of the property, I dialed “Engr Frank”, I started off thanking him for his patience and all the trouble we both had to go through to find this house.
I asked how much the rent was going for and he answered saying NGN900,000.00/annum only.
That was slightly above my target, but there was nothing I wouldn’t do for this house. I wasn’t going to let this one slip. I had to move quickly.
He also quickly mentioned that he was asking for a two-year rent upfront. The Lagos State House of Assembly had passed a law prohibiting a two year upfront rent payment and I blurted this obvious fact in protest.
He obliged asking for a year and a half only. Then I sensed I could probably get a few thousands off the rent as well. I proposed NGN800,000/annum. He fell silent for a moment and then agreed to NGN850,000/annum.
It felt like a good deal and I asked how we would do the transaction and when I would get the key to the flat. Typically, at this point I am extremely careful with all my guards up looking for slip ups.
He suggested that I do an instant money transfer quickly and then he would ask his contact to bring the keys to me the same day!
I didn’t need to ponder much, I simply told him I would rather write a cheque and get a receipt.
“Engr Frank” didn’t push much. I then asked if I could meet with the Landlord before I made any payment.
He then answers in the affirmative that I was already speaking to the Landlord and that he has been building houses long before I was in the university and this was one of the many properties he developed for rent.
He then suffocated me with details of the number of houses he owned in different parts of Lagos and how his fortunes in the construction industry in Nigeria had gone south.
We agreed to meet the next day at his office, somewhere in Oshodi. I would have to come with a cheque leaflet duly signed in exchange for the rental agreements and the house keys.
It sounded fair enough.
But I had been spooked a bit at this point. So I called a friend of mine who was a close ally for many years. We grew up together in the same neighborhood as teenagers and I was convinced he had an awful lot of experience in closing out these sorts of transactions. We shared our first name.
He agreed to meet me up the next morning and then ride together to meet with “Engr Frank” .
We arrived at a shopping plaza in Oshodi to meet my contact who was always on hand to help. But today he didn’t look very pleased. I thought perhaps because he had to work on a Sunday. I tried to be friendly, but he kept a straight face. I minded my business quickly. He had done his bit, let me do mine, I thought.
We parked my car in the parking lot and walked behind him to “Engr. Frank’s” office. I was finally going to meet the great Engineer Frank, the man whose mobile number was boldly written on the banner, that for many months after our encounter, hung loosely on the road fence within the line of sight of drivers as they maneuvered through the Ojodu axis.
I tried to imagine what he would look like. A tall hunk with afro? Or a fat blob with a gap tooth? This thought in my head kept me busy as I walked through the plaza into what looked like a shop front.
Here was my second red flag!
When our contact stopped at the shop, he asked us to go in.
Now let me describe this little shithole.
The supposed office was a shop- a proper shop, for displaying market wares. The first scent that hit me was that of fresh paint. Freshly applied paint still in its drying stage.
“Strange” I thought.
The textured paint looked hurriedly done and it sparsely covered the surface of the wall. Something in construction that you would call “one coat” paint application
This stall/shop had two directly linked compartments and as we approached the first, a man dressed poorly in thread bare lace material sat upright from a bench. The back of his lace, I noticed, bore evidence of his many hours on similar wooden benches just as this one.
He could be nothing but a watchman or at best a layabout. He was unshaven and smelled like skunk.
Now my head was already buzzing with alarms ringing off my head repeatedly. But I would like to see how this ends. My suspicion had grown so big, it weighed me down as I was ushered into the main office where a diminutive man dressed in a shirt neatly tucked into his drab trouser pants stood from behind a desk empty safe for the centre spread of a newspaper.
He was polite and asked that we take our seat. He looked somewhat surprised to see I had company. He hadn’t prepared for a second guest. They fetched my friend a seat and I vacated mine for him so he would sit directly in front of Engr. Frank.
He was nothing like what I had imagined. He was a short man, dark skinned and quite lean for a successful engineer. He carried his supposed pride on his square shoulders like a badge. I could see that he wanted so hard to look the part of a successful engineer who owned hordes of houses in Lagos.
The surprise wasn’t quite done for Mr. Frank. When we both introduced ourselves as Akin (which was our real names- we are namesakes by the way), he suddenly wasn’t sure which of the Akins he had been conversing with on the phone all the while.
My friend didn’t have a friendly face. He carried a snarl on his face like a prize and this I was grateful for on the day.
This made “Engr. Frank” uncomfortable. I could tell as he tried to lock gaze with either of us.
A cursory look at the office and all there was in that small space was a chair behind a wooden desk and freshly painted walls that had no artwork, plaques or certificate plaques on it. It was as bland as black coffee. In one corner stood a three tier metal file cabinet. I could have sworn it was empty. I would soon find out.
And then we started conversing, he tried unsuccessfully to let us into his construction world, talking about houses he had built over the years and giving updates on some of the ones I had inspected. He claimed some Chinese paid for one and another Oil and Gas executive bought one off him just last week.
I tried to show that I was impressed with his success stories by offering an exaggerated smile with a glimpse of my two front teeth. It probably encouraged him to spew more stories.
My friend asked the pertinent and pressing questions and when it looked like he was pressing too hard, I would interject with the enthusiasm of a fool. I would do anything to avoid it getting nasty.
The conversation ended with us agreeing to pay for the house while he would hand us the key. I told him I didn’t come with the cheque leaflet on the advice of my friend (lest he got violent), but that I would have to go to the bank the next day (Monday) to make the withdrawal.
He asked that we pay some cash to his contact for his efforts. This I acknowledged and told him I would do the needful once we have settled the one for the house itself.
The last and biggest red flag popped up when I asked him to write his account details. He called out to one of his goons and asked that they get him a booklet. I looked deliberately at the file cabinet, grateful that it returned a cold stare in acknowledgment of my suspicion.
One of his goons returned with an exercise book, the sort used by primary school students. I suddenly felt sorry for myself. Was it desperation that pushed me into the open arms of this fraudster?
He pushed the book to me asking that I write while he called out his account details. I asked him politely to do the honors as I nudged the book closer to his end of the table.
He scribbled his account number on the first page of the exercise book followed by the bank name and his full name.
His handwriting was nothing but awful! No educated man should ever read such a disdainful writing.
I have read handwritten quotations written by bricklayers and artisans that were certainly not as bad as this one. It was nothing to write home about.
This was a stark illiterate sitting across the table and here I was like a prey waiting to be devoured.
When we got into my car after the encounter, we both agreed it was a scam and I was lucky to have insisted on a no-deal until I met with him.
But I wasn’t quite satisfied with the way this had gone. My eyes were still set on the house. That house was too good to let go.
So I asked my friend to accompany me to the street to see the house again, but without the knowledge of Engr Frank. Afterall , every time we inspected the house, it had to be with his goon.
But this time, I would show him the house from a safe distance while he enquired about the status of the property.
He got out of the car while I watched as he was ushered into the property after knocking the gate. I couldn’t risk anyone identifying my car.
Five minutes turned into 15minutes and he called my mobile phone asking me to approach the house. I was skeptical about this. But I drove the car to the entrance of the property to meet a middle aged man and a few casual labor.
As I stepped out of the car to the warm handshake of the middle aged man, I noticed one of the boys cleaning the house on my very first visit to the property. I tried to make small talk with him then after it appeared that he was winking at me.
First, the middle aged man declared that he owned the house and it was only just renovated. He hadn’t assigned anyone to put the house on the property market. At that time,he had also received money from all the new occupants. There was no vacant flat at the property.
My heart sank to its lowest ebb. I wasn’t sure if I was excited that I hadn’t lost money or sad that I had lost the house.
A mix of confusion and relief.
Engr Frank was nothing but a fraud! A big one.
I marveled at his well-orchestrated plan to string me along by winning my confidence and waiting until I found a property too good to be true.
As they say, if it is too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.
Each occupant had parted away with 1.2million naira as rent for the property. Here I was thinking I had haggled a good bargain.
Then the “winker” approached me, saying he was winking at me the very first day repeatedly to let me know that they were fraudsters. Wow!
Winking…….really? ……I need to go over to a school for signs!
How did they allow them into the property in the first place? I enquired.
He replied that his supervisor was paid a token to look the other way and that the supervisor was sacked after we left the day before, after they reported him to the “real” landlord.
Apparently, we were not the only ones on his “hook”.
With our tails between our legs like a frightened dog, we bade the landlord goodbye and went about thankfully with our cash safely tucked in the bank. Winking! Lol
That search ended there and then.
If you got this far, you are truly a fan! Thanks for reading to the end.