Nautilus and the Chamber of Shipping are working together to highlight growing concerns over ‘scam’ employment agencies seeking to defraud seafarers with offers of work.
The past year has seen a rising tide of cases in which crew members have been conned out of cash by bogus companies promising well-paid jobs — often with reputable shipping companies.
Cunard, Carisbrooke, Sealion, Zodiac and Vroon are just some of the operators who have been affected by the scammers, who use not only the names of genuine companies but also their logos and other material.
‘The most common type of fraud appears to be that in which emails are sent to seafarers purporting to be from owners or agencies offering employment,’ said Tim Springett, head of employment and legal at the Chamber.
‘The sting in the tail is when the seafarer is asked to provide money upfront for visas or immigration papers,’ he added. ‘When they send the fees to the bogus visa-handling company, that is the last they see of their money or hear about the supposed job.’
Similar scams have sought to defraud seafarers by asking for ‘agency’ or ‘registration’ fees, payments for medical examinations or passport processing and even money for airfares to join a ship.
While the fraudsters often seem to target seafarers from eastern Europe or Asia, seafarers from traditional maritime nations have been affected. And the problem is of particular relevance to the UK, because many of the scams have been conducted using fictitious addresses in countries such as the UK in an attempt to appear legitimate.
One case highlighted by Nautilus involved an Indonesian officer who contacted Nautilus/ ITF inspector Tommy Molloy when a company claiming to be based in the UK offered him a position onboard a passengership as second officer on a ‘tax free’ salary of £4,500 a month and generous paid leave arrangements.
However, the offer came with strings — asking the officer to be ‘responsible for the full payment covering their traveling paper [sic] to United Kingdom and Traveling Agent Charges and others’.
Fortunately, Mr Molloy was able to advise the officer not to pay the £230 being demanded by the company. The Union passed details of the case to two government departments, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and — because there are UK visa implications — the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC), requesting they investigate.
Nautilus also persuaded a UK government body to investigate a suspicious yacht crewing agency following a complaint from a member. The Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate (EAS) said it could find no evidence that Sealink was a genuine agency, and stressed that it is illegal to charge job seekers fees for assisting them in finding work.
In another scam, seafarers who applied for legitimate jobs were sent a fake email reporting to be from the ‘Management of British Embassy in United Kingdom’ asking them to organise visas on behalf of the recruiting company and to pay between £300 and £700 to process the application.
‘There’s no end to the ingenuity of the scammers,’ said Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson. ‘However, they are preying on vulnerable seafarers — many of them from developing nations — and rely on the fact that many seafarers are desperate for jobs and will even borrow money to send them the fees.’
While some of the cases have been investigated by the UK authorities, both Nautilus and the Chamber of Shipping are concerned that little effective action is taken against the scammers. ‘Many of them hide behind post box addresses and operate across a number of countries, which makes law enforcement and jurisdiction a real challenge — even if the will is there in the first place,’ Mr Dickinson pointed out.
One example of this was exposed by the International Transport Workers’ Federation — a company called Caledonian Offshore, which used a post office box address in Canada when it was actually based in Panama. The ITF also highlighted the Al- Najat scheme, which was based in the United Arab Emirates and defrauded thousands of victims through levying a ‘medical fee’.
There are hopes that the Maritime Labour Convention — which sets out clear requirements over the operation of private seafarer recruitment and placement agencies — may help to combat such abuses.
But in the meantime, Nautilus and the Chamber are both urging their members to submit evidence of ‘seafarer scams’ so that the scale of the problem can be exposed and the authorities pressed to take more effective action.
Beware of the scams
Nautilus has advised members to beware of ‘warning signals’ that are often associated with employment scams:
- requests for the advance payment of fees for work on ships — something that is prohibited under international conventions.
- companies using box numbers and mobile numbers rather than landline contact.
- instructions to pay fees through Western Union or other money transfer services.
- email messages with poor English emails purporting to come from state agencies seeking visa or work permit payments that do not come from a government email account.