By Kiundu Waweru
Patrick, a car hire operator in Nairobi, was frantic with worry. He was calling his client for the umpteenth time. And when he picked the phone, he asked him to calm down. He assured Patrick his car was in safe hands and someone would bring it to him soon.
Minutes turned into hours as he waited for him to return the hired vehicle at his Westlands offices. When Patrick called him again, his client, sounding polite, asked him to go pick the car at a particular location in the city. The Toyota Surf in the background was used to ferry bhang to Mombasa. Photo: Omondi Onyango
The Toyota Surf in the background was used to ferry bhang to Mombasa. Photo: Omondi Onyango
Patrick went to the location as directed and sure enough, he found his car.
"I approached the man behind the wheel whom I assumed must be the one who was supposed to bring back the car.
"I told him I had come for my car," he recalls. "He looked at me incredulously and said, ‘what? This car is mine, I just bought it from the owner!"
Patrick was dumbstruck. This car belonged to his car hire company. He explained he had hired it from someone else to use it in his car hire business.
"I called the rightful owner immediately to enquire if he had sold it," he said. The owner, who had rented it to Patrick, confirmed he hadn’t sold it.
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After the initial shock and confrontation, Patrick and the man who had just bought the stolen vehicle realised that the seller had faked the original owner’s documents. They also realised he had used fake identification documents to hire the vehicle.
Patrick’s experience reflects on the emerging crime that has affected the car hire industry where operators are defrauded of their vehicles, which are later sold to unsuspecting buyers.
The operators are usually confronted by rich looking, charming and smooth talking customers who come with fake identification documents. They pay without much bargaining.
After gaining the car hire operators’ trust, they confidently drive the cars from the car park promising to return them as agreed. At times they may hire the vehicle for a day and then return it as a way of winning the confidence of the operator.
"This man was recommended to me by another loyal client. To me he seemed honourable and after signing the agreement, he paid to use the car for two days. After the two days, he brought back the car as agreed," recalls Patrick. He says a relationship was born where the client would lease the car for several days and he would always bring it back.
"The first days they take the car, these criminals go to the Registration Department, and say they want to search if the vehicle is genuine. This way they acquire the information on the registered owner and armed with this information, they rush to River Road, and forge the logbook and identity card," says a police officer who has been investigating these cases.
The Flying Squad boss, Julius Sunkuli, says: "We are aware of these cases and they are many. Investigations are underway. It is important for the car hire operators to realise that most clients are not genuine. They hire the vehicles, acquire fake logbooks from River Road and sell the cars to innocent citizens."
Patrick is not the only victim. Wago Wago Safaris in down town Nairobi shied away from hiring cars to locals after it suffered once. Ms Regina Wambui, a safari operator with the company, says one can’t be sure they are dealing with honest people.
She says they stopped hiring to locals after losing a saloon car to a client who seemed trustworthy. Criminals hire cars to commit crimes like trafficking drugs or kidnapping. Photos: File/Standard
Criminals hire cars to commit crimes like trafficking drugs or kidnapping. Photos: File/Standard
"Even after paying the full amount for a weekend, the client also left Sh100,000 as deposit. But that was the last we saw of the vehicle," she recalls.
Ms Ann Wainana who operates a car hire business in Westlands also admits she has fallen victim to the confidence tricksters.
"Mid last year, I lost a new Toyota Mark II to a man who came on a Saturday evening in distress, saying he needed the car to go pick his ailing mother from Murang’a and bring her to Kenyatta National Hospital," she recalls.
"He needed the car for two days and he paid upfront. The following day I called him to enquire if he had repaired a slow puncture. Appearing to be in high spirits, he said everything was perfect though four days later, he had not returned the car."
Ann says she would talk with the man for hours on end as he assured her the vehicle was safe.
"Eventually, he told me to forgive him for he had been carjacked while with my car. He then switched off the phone," she rues.
Ann recalls how a while back she met him on the streets.
"I called him by the name he had given me and on looking at me, he flashed out his phone and pretended to be talking on the phone as he vanished in the crowd," she says.
She says that he was later arrested and charged in court. However, he is now out on bond and occasionally he is seen walking unperturbed in Westlands.
"After these cases, we fitted our cars with car tracking devices which we use to track the vehicles from a PC, laptop or mobile phone for 24 hours. But still, the crimes still persists," she laments.
Theft of the cars is not the only danger car hire operators have to face. At times the operators unknowingly hire their vehicles to criminals who use them to commit serious crimes.
Ann says that another of her car was found in a police station, held on a kidnapping case.
She recalls how she had hired out a Toyota 110 to a client who said he was going to Thika for a wedding.
"At midnight, I thought of checking the whereabouts of the car. It was headed for Voi. I called the company that fitted the tracking device and the car was locked," she says.
Criminals’ best choice
She says some criminals ferry drugs like bhang using the hired vehicles. The criminals contract unsuspecting drivers and pay them about Sh5,000 to drive the car to say, Mombasa.
With many companies now relying on the tracking devices, the hired cars, especially posh ones, are being used to traffic drugs.
In august, police at Ndii, Machakos, intercepted a posh vehicle transporting 10 bags of bhang. Machakos OCPD, Herbert Khaemba said: "The drug traffickers use posh vehicles to conceal their intentions but we have now discovered their tricks and we’re alert."
The police spokesperson, Eric Kiraithe says: "Car hire crimes are rampant and to deal with this, we came up with a team that will develop a draft that will seek to protect car owners who stand to lose in case of car thefts, and also limit against the car hire vehicles being used in committing crimes."
Kiraithe says this could involve the amendment of the Traffic Act or an introduction of a new law. But he says the draft is not yet ready.
"Meanwhile, we are carrying out surveillance and several cases are in court," he says.
Sunkuli says: "Car hire operators should know the people they lend the vehicles to because not everyone is genuine. And for the public, if you want to buy a car please involve the police to ascertain if the documents are genuine because to a layman, the logbooks and identity cards minted from River Road look real."