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India-UAE flights: Expats duped by fake travel approvals

abhishek@khaleejtimes.com Filed on July 27, 2021 | Last updated on July 28, 2021 at 12.19 am

Photo (for illustrative purposes): Reuters

Screenshot 1: A bogus website claiming to be that of the UAE Embassy in Delhi is one of the first hits that appear on Google search.

Screenshot 2: Correspondence with the fraudsters pretending to be Embassy officials.

The UAE Embassy in India has warned desperate travellers about fraudsters looking to make a quick buck.

If you are a UAE resident stuck in India and desperate to return to your place of work, then watch out for fake flight approval letters being peddled by scamsters posing as UAE Embassy authorities.

The warning comes from a UAE Embassy official in New Delhi after Khaleej Times contacted his office as part of an investigation to find out how conmen were using a phony website (https://www.uaeembassy.in/) to tout approval letters to unsuspecting UAE residents.

The bogus portal went offline not long after Khaleej Times reported it to the relevant UAE authorities. But while it was live until the evening of July 26, it reportedly looked so convincing that those anxious to return to their jobs or be reunited with their families fell for it hook, line and sinker.

The official url of the UAE Embassy in New Delhi is https://www.mofaic.gov.ae/en/missions/new-delhi. However, those who came across the fake website after a Google search for “UAE embassy in India” (see Screenshot 1) noted that the latter clearly looked the part.

Meanwhile, those running the forged site continued to respond to emails and carry out transactions until the time of publishing this story on Tuesday. They did so while impersonating UAE diplomats, as Khaleej Times found out in a confirmation letter this journalist received (see Screenshot 2).

Hundreds of UAE residents currently stranded in India have been desperately exploring ways to get back to the country since flights were suspended on April 24.

Dubai-based healthcare professional Linsy Monse, 40, told Khaleej Times that she paid Rs8,000 (approx. Dh394) for what she believed was an approval letter from the UAE government for her teenage daughter to fly back to Dubai.

The letter had a non-existent “UAE’s Ministry of Interior and Naturalization & Immigration Department (sic)” header gleaming at the top. At the bottom was a purported signature by the Director of Dubai’s General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs (GDRFA), along with the authority's hotlines 8005111 and 04-3139999 listed as contact numbers.

A simple Internet search confirmed that these numbers do not, in fact, belong to the unrelated Dubai watchdog body Al Ameen as claimed on the fake letter — but Monse said it was too little, too late.

“I had my doubts only after receiving the letter but, sadly, I had already paid the money and there was no way I was going to get it back,” said Monse, a Dubai resident for two decades, after realising that the letter of approval in her inbox was good enough for a flight to nowhere.

Earlier, when she wrote an email to what she thought was the UAE Embassy in New Delhi in the hopes of getting an approval for her fully vaccinated daughter to fly back, she said she got a response from the “Ambassador’s office” within an hour.

For a mother choked by thoughts of potentially meeting her daughter again after months, it didn’t matter that one email directed her to contact an “agent” on WhatsApp, while a second, written in laboured English (both of which Khaleej Times has seen), warned her to pay the “approval letter fees” within 24 hours.

“All I was thinking about at the time was an end to weeks of separation from my daughter. Who would have thought it was not to be?” rued Monse, who feels she is just one of the scores of victims to have coughed up hundreds of dirhams to fraudsters posing as diplomatic officers with the UAE Embassy.

Investigation launched after more cases emerge

According to sources close to the matter, V. Muraleedharan, Union Minister of State for External Affairs & Parliamentary Affairs of India, has now launched an inquiry after more cases emerged.

UAE residents Naveen Balan, son of former Kerala minister A. K Balan, and his wife Namitha Venugopal were asked to pay Rs16,000 (approx. Dh789) for two ‘approval letters’ they thought they were going to receive from the UAE Embassy in New Delhi.

Stranded in Kerala for weeks due to ongoing travel restrictions and desperate to return to the UAE, they reached out to the swindlers thinking they were seeking help from real Embassy officials. They were asked to pay the money for the two letters before they reported the incident to the cyber crime cell of the state police, according to a local media report.

Another UAE resident who fell for the scam said the fake Embassy website and its contact details looked “too official to be fake”.

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“I was led to the website after a Google search threw up its link at the very top. Even the email address looked genuine, although there were telltale signs — like an email asking for an agent to be contacted on WhatsApp for payment. I wish I had done my due diligence,” said the engineer based in Sharjah, who paid just over Dh1,500 for approval letters for his family of four that he has since discovered are fake.

This is not the first time, says Embassy official

This is not the first time the UAE Embassy in the Indian capital has fallen prey to such operators, a source at the mission told Khaleej Times on Monday evening.

“India’s Covid response in recent weeks has been hugely effective against fresh cases and we are hopeful that regular commercial flights from the country to UAE will resume soon. But those UAE residents currently waiting to return from India will have to patiently continue following the government’s directives and protocols until then. And they must know that the UAE Embassy in India cannot and will not issue any special approval letter to fly out of India to the UAE,” the officer clarified.

India-UAE flights: The latest

Flights from India to the UAE will remain suspended until at least August 2, national carrier Etihad Airways said on Monday. The airline's customer service representatives informed passengers of the update on its official social media account. It further added that the date may be extended, depending on directives by UAE authorities.

It has been three months since passenger entry from India to the UAE was suspended. A 10-day suspension of inbound travel from India was first announced by the UAE’s National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA) and the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) on April 24.

Only eight categories of travellers are allowed to enter the UAE from countries where passenger entry is suspended. However, there are certain Covid safety rules and protocols in place to facilitate their entry.

For instance, UAE Golden (10-year) and Silver Visa (5-year) holders cannot just book a ticket online and fly. They have to produce relevant documents to the airline office concerned.

If all the documents meet the eligibility criteria, they are then vetted by the relevant UAE authorities and approvals are sought. Only after that can they board a plane and fly.

(With inputs from Juidin Bernarrd)

author

Abhishek Sengupta

Abhishek is the head of multimedia at Khaleej Times and has worked in radio and television channels before joining UAE's first English daily. Semi-skilled in breaking news and storytelling for visual and print media, he feels he is more comfortable talking than writing. A food and travel enthusiast, he is always busy making itineraries when not producing videos for Khaleej Times.





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