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A photo of a purported HDC unit in Arima provided by a con artist to a T&T Defence Force member, who was eventually scammed of $24,000. Right, a document between the two parties.

Carisa Lee

With children, a wife and a stable career, one member of the T&T Defence Force saw his next step as living in a house he could call his own.

So when the opportunity to own a Housing Development Corporation (HDC) home came knocking at door of his parents’ house, where he currently resides, he answered.

“Somebody I know come and they put the man on to me … he was so convincing and the person was backing up everything he was saying,” the man, who asked not to be named, said.

In early September, the man was scammed of $24,000 by someone called Thomas who posed as an HDC manager processing the application.

“He told me he could provide me with a single unit at the price of 400,000 thousand dollars and the down payment would be 20,000 and the lawyer fees 4,000,” the TTDF member explained.

The unit, he said, is located in Arima and he and his family were blown away by the early presentation of documentation for their prospective home.

“He send pictures everything,” the man said, admitting they never physically went to the house’s location.

Earlier this week, the HDC warned citizens about scammers as the corporation announced dozens of people had been defrauded of some $48,000 in the last month.

HDC managing director Brent Lyons told Guardian Media he was very concerned housing applicants were being ripped off during the COVID-19 pandemic, adding one victim had paid $18,000 in cash to a fraudster. Lyons said the fraudsters had an elaborate scam and had been taking photos of single units, townhouses and apartments from the HDC’s website, most of which are in advanced stages of construction and using them to convince their unsuspecting victims that their files were being processed.

The victim Guardian Media spoke to yesterday said he was aware of such scammers but noted that the documents the man he came only to know as Thomas presented to him seemed legitimate.

“They so convincing and how they coming at you, anybody would get catch,” he said.

He said he got three documents from Thomas; a letter of approval with the HDC’s letterhead and letters with Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) and Trinidad and Tobago Electricity Commission (T&TEC) signage on them.

“I was told not to take pictures of it, I would be given a copy but I still take it upon myself and take the pictures,” he said.

The scam victim said Thomas also sent messages with updates of when the key distribution process would begin. The first date was on September 14 but that date then moved to September 17 and 28 and finally to October 1.

The final message he received from the fraudster on September 30 read, “Good evening applicants, unfortunately, we’re unable to deliver packages at this time I’m trying my best to help every person putting my job on the line.”

He said he first realised something was wrong when he had to meet the man called Thomas at HDC’s headquarters in Port-of-Spain but instead was told to meet with his assistant, a woman named Lisa. However, the man said he realised something was amiss when Lisa appeared to be wearing a disguise.

“When you go to meet the assistant, the assistant was dressed in a hijab with a mask covering her face,” he said.

The TTDF member said since then, when he calls the number he normally used to communicate with Thomas, it rings but no one answers. He said someone answered another number he had but told him he had the wrong contact. When he sends messages via WhatsApp to the numbers they also remain undelivered.

What makes the victim’s situation worse is that he borrowed the $24,000 from his grandmother to make the initial payment.

“I swallow my pride,” he said.

The victim said he was scammed by a network and noted he’s not the only one.

Some of his colleagues were also approached and they paid out more before realising something was wrong.

“It have a series of messages where people get through before and dates when they supposed to give out keys,” he explained.

However, he said he reached out to Guardian Media after seeing other reports on the matter earlier this week because he now wants to ensure no one else becomes a victim.

“Even though how desperate you might be, don’t fall for it,” he continued.

In tears, the man had one message for Mr Thomas.

“You get through,” he mumbled.

He said he has since made a report to the T&T Police’s Service’s Fraud Squad.

Guardian Media reached out to HDC’s corporate communications manager Dike Noel for an update on the situation yesterday but he directed us to the TTPS’ Fraud Squad for an update on the status of their investigations.

Noel also encouraged citizens who may have been victims or almost been victims of such scams to go directly to the police.