There’s a whole industry devoted to making money by exploiting corporate vanity through promotional activities, listings and awards.
The ASEAN Travel Mart 2017 was supposed to be a grand event, bringing together tourism industry professionals at Jakarta’s Bung Karno Stadium. Potential exhibitors were invited to purchase stall space to promote their businesses to “200 hosted buyers” and “5,000 visitors”. There was only one problem: it was all fake.
At least 34 companies from Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam are known to have paid for participation in the spurious expo scheduled for February 22 and 23. The event was promoted through a Facebook page and two now-defunct websites: www.sampoernaevents.com and www.aseantravelmart.com. The sites were poorly designed and replete with poor English grammar.
“ASEAN Travel Mart is one of the leading tourism event for B2B meeting in Jakarta. The main target of the exhibition is the dynamic promotion of the Indonesia tourism all over the world, in order to make Indonesia one of the most important international business place for the leaders of the international tourism industry,” went one spiel, sparse on plurals.
The site’s footer was also a giveaway that something was amiss, declaring: “All Right Reserved.” Definitely not “all right” judging by the grammar. More convincing was the list of “sponsors” including Emirates, Visa, Uber and some top hotel chains.
For the record, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) does not host an annual “travel mart”. It does host the ASEAN Tourism Forum, most recently held in Singapore. In 2013, there was a Japan-ASEAN Travel Mart. As for Sampoerna Events, it was just cashing in on a famous name. Sampoerna is one of Indonesia’s biggest cigarette-makers, purchased in 2005 by tobacco giant Philip Morris, while Sampoerna Strategic Group is a private investment firm.
Companies invited to participate in the bogus expo paid fees ranging from Rp.8 million to Rp.21 million, netting the scammers at least Rp.400 million (US$30,000). Most of the victims were from Bali, Bandung, Yogyakarta, Solo and Bogor, while some had travelled from Vietnam and Malaysia.
When the exhibitors arrived in Jakarta, they discovered the venue was under renovation. Many had booked and paid for accommodation through the organizers, only to be informed at the hotel that their reservations were unpaid. Others became suspicious when the organizers took down the websites and stopped answering calls.
The three masterminds of the scam remain at large. They went under the names of Simon Leung, Ernawati and Joshua alias Rian. They operated Sampoerna Events from an office rented for three months on Jalan Kemang Raya 1 in South Jakarta.
The office was run by a marketing manager, Ikhsan Wahyu, who was recruited via WhatsApp in November of 2016. He met only four times with his boss Joshua, while he spoke to Simon Leung only through Skype and WhatsApp. He communicated with Ernawati via telephone. He did not think anything was suspicious until February 17, when he was no longer able to contact his superiors.
Eighteen representatives of the victims on February 21 reported the matter to the Indonesian Tourism Industry Board (GIPI), which then helped them make a report to police. GIPI chairman Didien Junaedy said the fraud was well organized and professional. He said organizers of tourism-related events should in the future provide notification to GIPI, so it can then endorse valid events on its website.
Selling exhibit space at phony travel expos is not uncommon. Last year, scammers sent out a registration form, inviting companies to participate in an event called “The Wonderful Indonesia Expo 2016 – The Europe Travel Agencies Business Meeting and Exhibition” to be held from September 8 to 10 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
Companies were invited to join with the Tourism Ministry and regency-level governments to promote and explore marketing cooperation for tourist destinations with European travel agents. The cost of participation ranged from Rp.135 million to Rp.155 million (US$10,000 to US$11,600).
Some newspapers and websites reported on the Wonderful Indonesia Expo and even quoted Tourism Minister Arief Yahya as endorsing the event. But on August 29, 2016, the Tourism Ministry issued a statement declaring the exhibition a fake. It warned all stakeholders to beware of unofficial letters from swindlers misusing the names of ministerial officials.
If you are thinking of signing up for a trade show, call the venue first and check that it really is going to happen. Even then, scammers may have booked the venue without paying for it, so beware of first-time shows and double-check the organizer’s contact details.
Another scam involves contacting companies by telephone, mail or email and asking them to confirm their information for a business directory. If you provide the requested data, you will soon receive a huge invoice for the listing of your firm in an online or bogus business directory. If you refuse to pay, the scammers may use recordings of their phone calls, possibly doctored, to prove that someone at your company agreed to the charge. Some companies eventually end up paying just to put a stop to incessant demands and mounting “late fees”.
Not all business directories are scams, of course, but you should check the publisher’s record before consenting to being listed and make sure you know the exact charge.
A company called Fair Guide mailed out a form that requested confirmation of business details for an online trade directory. The fine print in the form resulted in companies then being billed for US$1,500 for a three-year listing.
An Indonesian variation of this scam involves a phone call from someone claiming to represent the Yellow Pages business telephone directory. They offer businesses a “special price” for a quarter-page advertisement in the next phone book. The call is usually made on a Friday and the scammer will tell you that if you don’t take advantage of the opportunity today, you will miss out because the phone book will soon be going to designers and then printers.
A more elaborate way of milking money out of companies is by hosting an awards ceremony, genuine or otherwise. There are awards in all sorts of categories: best marketing logo, best corporate social responsibility project for empowerment of women, most trusted debit card and more. One group operating from England even offers knighthoods.
If there are no fees, that’s a good indication you won’t be scammed. But when organizers charge registration, nomination and attendance fees amounting to thousands of dollars, you have to weigh up whether you really need spend so much on putting a chunk of glass and metal in the trophy cabinet. Some companies and government agencies insist that spending big on awards is a smart investment, as it improves their public image and prestige, while ceremonies are ideal for networking.
Ultimately, the best publicity for any company is word of mouth from satisfied customers – something that can’t be purchased by buying online likes, reviews or awards.