Nigeria: The Next Golf Hotbed?
I am usually very keen on sniffing out a fake lead. In my business, the number of “tire-kickers” far exceeds the ones who are genuinely serious about pursuing a golf course project. Of that number of tire-kickers, many will go to great lengths to play the part. Over the past seventeen years, I have experienced all sorts of stories to the point that I can usually tell a dead-end prospect from a simple one-sentence e-mail.
One particular e-mail last fall caught me hook, line, and sinker, though. With the golf industry in America in such a perilous state, many of us are seeking opportunities elsewhere and when a chance to do four golf course projects in Africa popped into my inbox, I jumped. It had all the markings of a big corporation touting major development seeking not just golf architects, but landscape architects, project consultants, and “design specialists” as well.
Two golf courses in Nigeria as well as one each in adjoining Benin and Togo were the offering for job-seeking designers whose United States well had run dry. I have to admit that locating Benin and Togo in an atlas would be part of my due diligence, but in due time. First, I had to call the number on the bottom of the message. His name was “Tony” and he was a gifted scammer.
As I mentioned earlier, I can tell from very little when there is no chance of reality, so when I made the initial contact, my antennae were up to full strength, despite my excitement at the prospect of becoming a man of international intrigue. At home that Friday afternoon, I dialed a Nigerian number and my new friend answered. You can just imagine what type of clarity would be associated with a cell phone in Nigeria. Coupled with a strange accent, the first few minutes and each subsequent re-dial were quite frustrating. Background noise on “Tony’s” end was very hectic to say the least. I imagined an open air market with my friend wandering through on the way to a late café spot in Lagos (if such scenes exist). It made sense due to the six hour time difference (I kept telling myself unaware of the voice in my head saying that is probably his typical hangout). It would take a while to understand why every time I would call; there was always a pause and a change in octave on the other end. I just thought it was poor reception.
Tony played the part very well. As all prospects (real or unreal), Tony also was unrealistic about time constraints. He was moving full-speed ahead and ready to go forward. That isn’t necessarily a red flag yet. At least he had a twenty-four month timetable in mind. Vastly underestimating the potential cost of the projects is also no need for alarm until at least the third or fourth contact. He had that going for him as well. I had difficulty between the heavy accent and constant dropped service following his requested scope of services, but muddled through enough to feel good about a follow-up. “By the way Richard, we will need you to get a special work permit as soon as possible so that we can expedite things if we move forward with you.” Ah, the red flag.
He explained that he would have his office people contact the local government office and they would forward the necessary paperwork. I was to prepare a design services proposal for all four courses. For the next few days, I tried valiantly to convince everyone how such a huge project like this could pop out of nowhere and why I was worthy of getting such a commission. Of course, I knew that they may not hire me, but the prospect was still very enticing. “Maybe I’ll even look up Benin on a map Monday morning”, I thought.
When Monday rolled around, I found an encouraging e-mail from Tony urging me not to hesitate with any questions I might have and a friendly nudge, “We need to maximize (sic) time on these projects” A few days later, a somewhat poorly official-looking e-mail arrived in my inbox. There was no official seal. The design of the header was not very-well laid out. I just figured that was the way they did it in third-world countries. It probably seemed a good way to be fiscally responsible at the time. The request for this “Category C” work permit required simple paperwork and an investment of $2,040.00 and an additional 25% if I required “fast-track” issuance. I am sure you won’t be surprised if I said “Tony” advised me to pursue the “quick” issuance, not the standard procedure.
At this point, the money was irrelevant. Scam or not, I never intended to spend any of my own money beyond printing costs and phone calls before I had a signed contract and money wired into my account. Then, and only then, would I only consider the prospect of forwarding money for something. Of course, time was of the essence for their “Director of Permits” as I was instructed to respond within forty-eight hours. I didn’t really need to inquire what would happen if I exceeded the time limit, because I wasn’t moving that quickly anyway.
As you can tell, the red flag got redder and redder. Although my excitement had waned a bit, I held out hope that this was for real. In the recesses of my mind, I knew it wasn’t. My last conversation with Tony was punctuated with his reference to my reference to the famous golf architect Alister MacKenzie on my website. Utterly flattered by his attention to detail and knowledge of the great Scot, I gave him some benefit of reality. Few other prospects (real or otherwise) ever referred to a golden-age architect. I was impressed, Sir Tony!
The next few conversations with Tony were pretty cut and dry. He was hiring a golf architect and wanted a proposal. He did not dwell on the permit, either (for that is what the truly gifted scammers do in their business). He did have another request for me and that was if I could bring my own shapers and project managers. So I made a call to a friend of mine in Phoenix who specialized in providing such specialists overseas. At this point, the small world of the golf course industry would prove to be our friend Tony’s undoing.
My friend told me he got an e-mail that week from a Golf Architect in California with the same request. He also happened to be a friend of mine who I wouldn’t hesitate to contact to see what he knew. But apparently I have some crazy personality disorder which requires me to take the long road to a transparent solution rather than a simple realization of the obvious because I decided to hold off on making that call…
Nigeria (Part Two): Do Your Due Diligence!
If I wasn’t going to cut through the obvious and call my friend out west to see what he knew, it was certainly time to diligently “due” my work if I was going to call Tony’s bluff. My first call went to the specific agency that sent me the permit information. I either got a busy signal or no answer. It seemed that each attempt rotated between the two choices, over and over again. This must be a very busy place. I then contacted the Nigerian Embassy in Washington D.C., the Nigerian Consulates in Atlanta and London, and a few other related government agencies in Nigeria. Each phone call was an act in frustration as dropped calls, no answers, and a maze of recorded instructions never had my choice: “Press 12 if you think you’ve got a scam going and are too stupid to give it up.” The difficulty in engaging any of these places gave more and more credence to the possible legitimacy of the work permit. I just assumed that the Nigerian phone system was a little “rough” and that even the locations outside of Nigeria consisted of people who weren’t as diligent with their time as I may have been. You know how government workers perform their duties.
I then found out about a golf course construction company building a golf course in Nigeria. Of course, I knew them as well. Their owner told me he would have some of his guys drive by the address where this phantom government agency with the work permit was headquartered later that week. They came up empty. I then made contact with an Irrigation Consultant who was actually planning to go meet with our developer friend and see one of his Nigeria sites in the next few weeks. How amazing that within days of not really even knowing anything about Nigeria in general, I have already made contacts with people on the ground there on a regular basis.
In addition to my phone maze, my internet research was sketchy at best. At least my hopeful subconscious thought so. In reality, there was absolute no reference to this particular work permit or the agency I was to contact. In fact, I learned that all work permits for any country outside of America originated from that country’s embassy within the United States. I also finally heard from the Nigerian Consulate who sternly warned me this was a scam and to run the other way. My subconscious fought with my conscious, telling it that these people didn’t really understand the whole development process. My conscious said I was an idiot and to get back to work. Subconscious won, though. Not that I was hopping a flight to Lagos, but I just wanted to see how far Tony would actually take this endeavor.
Our next phone call began with me vehemently expressing that “there would be no money for a permit of any sort until contracts were signed and monies were wired” into an account of mine. “Let’s see how he wiggles out of this one” I slyly smiled to myself. His response was predictable and frankly, stumped me: “Okay, that’s not a problem” was his calm, comforting answer.
Plan two was to challenge him on my findings with the Nigerian Consulate. “Tony, there are no work permits like you describe through the Nigerian Government. Why is that?” asked I. “My friend, as I told you before, this work permit is a special permit that allows one to do work as an expatriate in three countries simultaneously. It is a permit issued through a special government organization that represents a group of West African Countries” he calmly explained. Whoops, I forgot that he did mention that. I better do more research.
Continuous searches for this agency and its work permit uncovered very little concrete evidence of legitimacy. The organization did indeed exist and it seemed quite valid. Their website even mentions work permits, but not exactly the type of “Category C” permit Tony requested. In fact, their work permits are also in the less than one-hundred dollar range, hardly worth the effort on our friend’s part.
The next day’s conversation started out with a hearty, “Tony, is there something you want to tell me?” The jig was up and his reply was, “How much do you already know?” At this point, I could have blown the scam wide open, but I chose not to for whatever crazy reason. I backtracked and made him clarify his story again. He did and the only step for me to take was to forward him a proposal. I did.
But as I forwarded him my proposal (with no bank information), I spoke with the International Fraud Department of my home bank and they too were convinced of a phishing scam, advising me to retreat in the other direction. At this point I had advised the Nigerian Consulate, Embassy, and another government agency of the impending fraud and sent them all of my correspondence with Tony. Yet I still called Tony the next day. At this point, I had probably spent about a hundred dollars on long distance, but was continually drawn to him like a fly to a buzzing blue light at dusk in late July.
For Tony, our relationship was all about trust. Right out of the gate, he spoke of trust being the cornerstone of our impending bond. As altruistic as that may seem, I have a more basic philosophy. We agree on terms and sign a contract. You wire money into my account and I do the work. Repeat until contract is fulfilled. Trust is always underlying and if it is a basic contractual agreement between two veritable parties, nothing more needs to be said. Of course, there was one thing lacking from this bond – one veritable party. Why is it that the scammers always try to establish a baseline of trust? Don’t answer that.
Upon receipt of my proposal, Tony brought up some very legitimate points. I, as always willing to please, amended my proposal and forwarded it back to our friend’s little open-air café on the streets of Lagos. His response: “The amendment is a reflection of our discussion of yesterday and it is in perfect order.” At this point, all that was left was to forward him my wire transfer bank information so he could somehow slowly suck out all of my life savings and leave me penniless. Of course, my paranoia (scam or not) always leads me to create a shell account for just this purpose without any way to link to my other accounts or access anything online. It was time to call my friendly golf architect in California.
After exchanging pleasantries, we established we were both dealing with the same guy. We then exchanged all of our e-mail correspondence with our mutual friend. If I had any doubt it was a scam before (which I didn’t), those doubts were quickly squelched. The tenth time I was hit over the head with the “it’s a scam, dummy” two by four was finally the clincher. First of all, the work permit requested of us both were for different amounts of money and were from different government agencies. The name of Tony’s company conveyed to me was different than the one he referenced to the other architect. Tony’s primary phone number was the secondary number in California and the reverse was true for his primary number on my side.
But the kicker was the amazing coincidence that Tony’s company as described to my friend out west had an address that was the same as the government agency I was to send my work permit fees. End of game. Or for any same, rational person it should have been. For god’s sake, I was pretty busy with legitimate work at the time, but it was that damn blue light. I couldn’t look away. So I did what every irrational nutcase would do.
I called Tony and started fishing for information about his company. He politely sent me a link to a webpage describing the organization and also let me in on the actual money behind the venture – a large telecommunications company based in Africa. After all, he was just the developer hired by this company to put these projects together at break neck speed. I easily found out the telecommunications company was real, but anyone could just pick a large company and feign a relationship. His company website was simply one of those yellow pages-like websites for which we happen to get ten calls a week asking to update our information. The telemarketers tell us it is free. I’m sure it was free for Tony as well.
My final phone call to Tony went so well that he was willing to forward twice the amount of money into my account as my proposal requested. This is the type of client we all want to work for! All I had to do was forward that info. I never did. I just simply went back to my list of to-dos.
After contacting the American Society of Golf Course Architects to warn them of Tony and finalizing things with my bank’s International Fraud Division, I still had regret. The following week I was to give a talk at a golf conference in Phoenix and my golf architect friend from California was attending. If I wasn’t so cheap, check that, if I hadn’t already thrown a hundred bucks or so to the phone company, wouldn’t it have been great for us to dial up Tony together? He wouldn’t know how to react. I’d like to say that would be priceless, but I put a price on it and didn’t do it. Maybe Tony really did work for the phone company over there. If his job was to drum up business, they sure got me. Or was it simply my sick curiosity to see how far a liar and cheat will go in this world. Amazingly, farther than I always think.
So the story, I thought, ended there…
Nigeria: The Next Golf Hotbed? (Part Three: The Dangers of International Golf Development)
A few months later I got a curious e-mail from a golf course developer that went like this:
Dear Mr. Mandell,
I will like to introduce myself as the Project Consultant to (company name), a West African tourism company with investment from a major telecommunication company and a hospitality firm.
Few months ago, you were contacted by (Tony) on behalf of this organisation for (the golf project). But after the time frame given to him to come up with a qualified Architect to handle the project, he was found wanting. This prompted an investigation into his activities with regards to this project - for which he was appointed as a consultant to select the Architect/project management company. The report of the investigation shows that he was dishonest in his relations/dealings with you in that he asked for some kind of prepayment which was totally irrelevant/needed for anything whatsoever as relating to the golf course project.
After this discovery, he was relieved of his consultancy with the client. Hence, I write to inform you on the resolution of the client: Mr. (Tony) is no longer working for/on behalf of (Company). The projects for Nigeria, due to this dishonesty, has been suspended. The golf courses for Benin and Togo are now the priority. I have the responsibility to arrange a meeting between you and the client before Christmas, during which you will also visit the sites. You are to communicate the earliest time you can visit Togo for these meeting and sites visit if you are still interested. You are the preferred Architect for the job after due findings.
On this note I inform you that you can reach me at the earliest time possible to notify me on your opinion via phone in Togo which is the contact office and had nothing to do with Nigeria or Nigerians henceforth. We deeply regret this situation.
As I contemplated just deleting the e-mail, another e-mail came in with photos of the site in Lome, Benin adjacent to a prominent hotel. That was just enough for me to commence my fishing expedition (for what I do not know) in West Africa once again. I quickly composed my response:
Thank you for your e-mails regarding the projects and I do appreciate your interest in hiring me for your golf courses. Of course, I am still interested in your projects provided they are legitimate. My experience with Tony has certainly made me very concerned about the legitimacy of the projects, so I must know as much as possible about your organization as well as the projects and have full confidence as to their viability. What is the development plan for both projects, proposed timelines, construction budgets, what will be your market, what other elements will be included in each project (residential, hotel, etc.)? Do the projects and your organization have websites?
I also respectfully ask why you have put your confidence in me. What specific elements of my proposal and qualities of Richard Mandell Golf Architecture are deciding factors? What other golf architects have you considered and why have you chosen not to pursue them? If I am the person you would like to do work with and you know my fee structure already (which remains the same), then I would think you should be free to provide that information.
Provided I have full confidence that this project is real, I will be glad to visit the sites in the next few weeks. What I require, though, is that your organization provides travel expenses for myself and my associate as well as pays a modest fee for my time and to represent good faith in the viability of your projects. Provided all my questions are answered, I am confident that you will be satisfied with your choice to hire me once we meet in a few weeks and we can begin a successful relationship. I prefer that you call me this morning in my office to discuss the project further because I have already spent hundreds of dollars contacting (Tony). I look forward to speaking with you.
If these people were real, then my above requests should be responded to in a very swift and matter-of-factly manner. The guy was obviously in his office then and there because he just e-mailed photographs of one of the sites. Always the proactive ones, my office went about our own investigation to these answers and yes, that did require more phone calls to West Africa (I’d like to think of myself as an inquisitive sucker). I first thought of whom I would take to Africa with me and the only solution was a friend of mine who is, let’s just say, beyond Special Forces, and can provide me with the protection I needed. I wondered if he could bring weapons legally. I called him and he said he would look into it. I told him to hold off until I got a response. I was only half-joking.
My associate, Walt, somehow located the proposed site on Google Earth. This younger generation knows how to manipulate the internet for information very well, but the fact must be that Benin must be a very small place. Walt also located the hotel adjacent to the site. Of course, I called. After being re-routed numerous times, the person in charge was not aware of any golf course project adjacent to his establishment. Of course this “two by four to my head” was easily explainable. There are numerous cases where a neighbor may be planning a project that one may know nothing about. The simple answer to this new twist would be a response to my e-mail. It never came and that was the end as far as I was concerned…
A few months later, I got an e-mail from an industry colleague who works for a leading irrigation company about the upcoming Golf Industry Show in New Orleans. He ended his message with a curious little paragraph:
“Did you hear all that bad news about golf people being targeted and attacked over in Africa? Scary. Maybe it’s a good thing that the Nigeria job didn’t work out?”
Whoa, wait a minute! What? So he sent me a few threads. Here is what happened:
“One of our members (of the European Institute of Golf Course Architects) had a dreadful experience in Togo last month. He had been corresponding by email over the previous three months with a potential client from Ghana about (Tony’s company) developing golf courses in Togo and Ghana. He was invited to go to Lomé, Togo, at the end of December and on the day he arrived, he and his assistant were kidnapped. After four terrible days, thanks to the Italian Interpol, everything ended well but he has just heard that two people from the Dutch company Green House have just been kidnapped. So he has asked me to warn you about this possible trap.”
This was followed by another e-mail:
I have just heard that this also happened to another member (of the EICGA) earlier in December. He was also contacted by a man calling himself Tony and when he went to Togo to visit courses in Ghana and Benin he was attacked, robbed, and kidnapped but luckily he was released unharmed. This is obviously a very real threat, and still current, so please be very careful.
As entertaining as this series of stories may have been, the conclusion could have had tragic results. Luckily for my colleagues in Europe, harm was spared. But here is my message for all the liars, cheats, and scammers in the world: It seems that the world is rife with your kind, but at the end of the day you will be flushed out and disposed of. Do not underestimate honest, hard-working people, especially those in the golf industry. Maybe you should consider joining the ranks of legitimacy. I do hope that my extreme measures may have lead to some of my colleagues’ safety and maybe even aided in the capture of Tony and his friends. Apparently my obsessive behavior had some benefit. One other thing: If you are not a scammer but your golf course project idea is just a hopeful thought, let us know. Don’t embellish. We may still be apt to help you a bit.