Indonesian media recently seized on the story of a gang that forged letters from President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo to request financial support for his re-election bid in 2019. Such cases are nothing new. Back in 2009, scammers claiming to be acting on behalf of then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono managed to fleece Rp.20 billion (at that time equivalent to about $2 million) from the Sultan of Brunei.
A few weeks ago, Andi Gani Nene Wea, the president commissioner of state-owned construction and property firm Pembangunan Perumahan, received an unusual letter at his office. Featuring the presidential letterhead and written in English, the typed letter purported to be from Jokowi and urged the recipient to get in touch via email or WhatsApp. Although not explicitly mentioning money, the letter stated: “I would like to … solicit for your support.”
The signed letter included a non-vanity Indosat mobile phone number for a WhatsApp account, which featured a profile picture of Jokowi. There was also an email address, firstname.lastname@example.org. Irina is the president’s wife.
Suspicious, Andi checked the veracity of the letter with a friend at the State Palace. Sure enough, the document was declared a forgery. The State Secretariat on July 11 issued a statement calling on the public not to be fooled by hoax letters in the president’s name. Presidential spokesman Johan Budi warned the perpetrators would be tracked down.
Sure enough, Jakarta Police’s Cybercrime Division moved fast, arresting two African men and an Indonesian woman in connection with the scam.
Kaba Souleymane, 46, of Guinea, was described as the mastermind of the scheme and a specialist in international fraud. He was arrested on July 18 at the Aston Rasuna hotel in Kuningan, South Jakarta. The following day, police nabbed Daniel Douglas Divine, 31, of Liberia and his Indonesian wife Ria Situmorang, 26, at Green Lake Sunter Apartment in North Jakarta.
Jakarta Police’s Deputy Director of Criminal Investigations, Achmad Yusep Gunawan, said Souleymane had visited Indonesia expressly to engage in criminal activities. Upon arrival, he met with Divine, who has been living in Indonesia since 2014. Divine was assigned to print the letters and sought assistance from his wife for an Indonesian version of the fake letter. Ria was also tasked to come up with the list of names and addresses of intended recipients.
Police spokesman Argo Yuwono said the presidential logos for the letterhead had been downloaded from the internet and included an incorrect version of the nation’s Garuda logo. The gang had sent copies of the letter to leaders of at least 51 state-owned enterprises.
Officers seized evidence including eight mobile phones, two laptops, eight bank account savings books, ten ATM cards, copies of the fake letter, two passports, two sim cards and more than US$1,000 in cash. Police could not immediately confirm whether the scam netted any victims, but said they would check the suspects’ bank accounts.
Police are also investigating whether Divine was involved in previous fraud cases. They said he had been living in Indonesia on multi-visit visas, which he routinely extended by travelling to Malaysia once every three months.
The trio could face at least six years behind bars if convicted of forgery, fraud and violating the 2008 Law on Electronic Information and Transactions.
Money for Nothing
The phony begging letter from Jokowi is a variation on the old ‘419 scam,’ named after the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code covering fraud.
Such scams involve the victim transferring money in the expectation of gaining a huge payout that doesn’t exist.
A giveaway is the non-specific greeting at the start of the letter, such as: “Dear Sir/Madam, I know this letter may come to you as a surprise …”
There are also scam emails in which people claim to be connected to former leaders known to have amassed private fortunes, such as former president Suharto and the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Such emails invite you to share in millions of dollars in dormant accounts, but if you take the bait, you will be hit for endless fees that only cease when your common sense triumphs over blind greed.
While forging a letter in the president’s name is one method of fraud, more daring scammers have posed as the president’s staff. A syndicate of swindlers impersonated officials of former president Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party in a series of phone calls in order to solicit donations ahead of Indonesia’s 2009 elections.
Police said the gang, which operated for nine years, targeted officials in 32 countries and managed to obtain a Rp.20 billion (US$1.5 million) donation from the Sultan of Brunei. Under Indonesian law, political parties and candidates are not allowed to receive campaign donations from foreign governments or companies.
Numerous Indonesian officials and bankers were also conned by the same scammers but police said most of the victims were too embarrassed to come forward. Posing as members of the president’s inner circle, the gang promised projects and government funds in return for financial support. The crooks also offered to sell civil service positions and promotions. They even offered to sell promotions to police and public prosecutors, and immunity from prosecution.
The scam was exposed after an official complaint from Brunei. Police investigated and made 13 arrests. The money from Brunei was located, frozen and returned.
There are countless similar scams involving impersonations and falsified letters. Indonesia’s Investment Coordinating Board on July 5 warned that a letter issued to companies concerning the revocation of permits was false.
State rail company Kereta Api Indonesia (KAI) on July 21 warned the public to ignore fake offers of employment requiring the payment of fees. There is a common perception in Indonesia that entry to certain state-owned industries or agencies requires a personal connection or the payment of bribes. KAI emphasized that its recruitment process is free of charge, so any letters requesting funds for job interviews should be disregarded.
Whether it’s a flattering letter from the president, an email from a stranger seeking to unlock vast funds, or a job offer that requires a bribe, common sense should save you from becoming a scam victim.