Belgian air freight forwarders have been the victims of a fraud scheme, costing them hundreds of thousands of euros. A similar plot seems to have been foiled in neighboring Amsterdam. The scheme has reinforced the importance of a dedicated complaints center set up by the umbrella organization, Forward Belgium.
According to Olivier Schoenmaeckers, Managing Director of Forward Belgium, mala fide traders have squeezed themselves between Indian and Pakistan-based exporters of onions and mangoes and the freight forwarders in question.
“The latter were then contacted to organize the logistics process, the costs for which are initially covered through forwarders’ credits. The bookings followed in rapid order. When the final invoice was presented, the contracting parties had vanished.”
The flows themselves were legitimate and were imported through various European airports. Mr Schoenmaeckers adds that the said traders acted in a very professional way. “They approached the duped companies personally, through very smartly-dressed ‘representatives’, producing genuine-looking business cards and having local names.”
Data on the companies looked impeccable at first glance. “After some more in-depth scrutinizing, their balances looked more suspicious. The fraudsters apparently took over some small companies, ‘empty-shell’ or in dire straits, of which the balances were falsified.”
Among the victims are SME companies as well as multinational players, so it appears. As for their names, Mr Schoenmaeckers’s lips are sealed. He explains the apparent carelessness in the companies by the fact that many young new entrants may lack the skills to separate the wheat from the chaff. “And we all know that sales teams are very eager to gain as much business as possible.”
Reluctance to share data
The sometimes ‘esoteric’ atmosphere within the freight forwarding industry, expressed by a reluctance to share data, has always been an enemy to the transparency needed to set off alarm bells.
Yet, the problem is not new, as Forward Belgium set up a complaints center to monitor the problem a few years ago. “It’s a missed opportunity,” says its MD. “Now, some people are coming forward with past experiences that they did not want to share at the time.”
Forward Belgium is now collecting all the complaints so that legal action can be prepared. Mr Schoenmaeckers says that he, himself, has no idea of the sum of the total loss. “I only know that, as far as the first company to complain is concerned, we’re talking about more than 500,000 euros.”
Whether or not the losses can be reclaimed through insurance policies, remains to be seen, Mr Schoenmaeckers says cautiously. “It will depend on the type of policy they have. Some companies have a credit insurance.”
Close monitoring in Amsterdam
In Amsterdam, too, two companies were approached a month ago, says Air Cargo Netherland’s Managing Director, Maarten van As. “The modus operandi was identical. Perishables, onions and mangoes again, and a huge time pressure. The companies were also visited personally. Two years ago, some forwarders were already the victim of fraud, which cost them a lot of money.”
Mr van As says that it is not clear what the revenue model for the conmen would be. He admits that this case is quite extraordinary and may have exposed some gaps in the security set-up. “We have always focused on explosives or thefts in hi-tech.”
Last Thursday, ACN sat together with the forwarders’ organization, Fenex, and another meeting is planned, this time including the state police force, Koninklijke Marechaussee. “We are monitoring this very closely and ask our members to stay alert,” says ACN’s Managing Director.
Marcel Schoeters in Brussels
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