Brian Easton: Fun times trying to claim 'prize money' from travel firm with no employees

Brian Easton had supposedly won a prize with travel agent Embrace Holiday.
Brian Easton had supposedly won a prize with travel agent Embrace Holiday.

In June, a brochure arrived in the letterbox advertising a Malaysian travel agent, Embrace Holiday, celebrating, it said, their 10th birthday. It looked professional enough, and announced a "complimentary lottery". I scratched the card and discovered I had won a second prize of US$170,000 (about $220,000). Uh! Oh! Something for nothing.

I contacted them. Justin of the Claims & Events Department, an affable fellow, verified I was a winner and said he would contact the company's sponsors Marcus and Nicole, a Hong Kong financial services firm.

It transpired that things had gone a little wrong. The intention had been that while the brochure would go out to a wide range of people the winning scratchies were only to go out to clients of MN. Apparently one had been put in my envelope by mistake. Uh! Oh! A rigged lottery.

Even so, the ever eager Justin Skyped MN and they agreed, reluctantly they said, that legally I had won a prize, and in any case both firms' reputations mattered so I should get the payout. However, MN was anxious that its clients should not hear of my luck and asked me to sign a confidentiality agreement. Uh! Oh?

I said that I never signed agreements without consulting a lawyer. Justin, the epitome of naivety, asked why that was necessary. Uh! Oh!

My lawyer friend said it would do no harm if I signed; I emailed the image. They have never returned it countersigned. Uh? Oh?

The next step involved contacting Lee Dickson, the operations manager of MN, but he proved to be too busy . Only the assistant operations manager, a Vince Lin, contacted me. Uh! Oh! The news was that it was necessary, as a part of the money laundering surveillance system of Hong Kong, to obtain a letter of authorisation from the court, which could be used for authentication in New Zealand too. The process required a deposit of 4.3 per cent of the amount of the transaction. US$7310. Uh! Oh!

Hong Kong is a major Asian (nay, world) financial centre. It would not be if every financial transaction that could be money laundering required a 4.3 per cent deposit.

MN went on that the requirement was that each party to the transaction would have to put up half the deposit. That would mean a contribution from me of US$3655. UH! OH!

I wrote explaining the letter of authorisation had no standing in a New Zealand court unless I was independently represented in the Hong Kong court. Might I contact a New Zealand lawyer in Hong Kong to represent me? Vince responded that if I did I would break the confidentiality agreement, quite missing my point that under it MN could give permission. He finished with warm regards but, with underlying menace, giving a deadline for a response without a lawyer. Uh!! Oh!!

Neither Vince nor Justin knew, but may have guessed, I checked on the web. Embrace Holiday displayed itself as a conventional travel agent;but not a single person was mentioned. Same thing when I checked the brochure.

I immediately observed the omission of personnel in the Marcus and Nicole website. For a financial services firm, which claimed to provide advice on complex operations such as mergers and acquisitions, this is very unusual. Such firms thrive on reputation, listing their top staff (and their board) and some of their successes. In fact, most of the website was platitudes.

I Googled "letters of authorisation" in Hong Kong. The web is strangely silent except for a British lawyer advising in 2010 that they were part of a scam.

A site at reported that was established in May 2013 (not 2003). It said it had no online reputation and gave it a score of 39 per cent for trust. Scam Adviser's assessment for Marcus and Nicole was similar. MN's owner is, it thinks, based in Malaysia. There is nary a hint of any connection with Hong Kong. Despite claiming to be a company established in 2005, the website was set up in May 2013 too.

Like everyone else on the net I get all sorts of offers which are too good to be true. I don't usually follow them up; what intrigued me about this one was the posted brochure. The whole operation was more elaborate and expensive than most which have passed me by.

I do not expect my US$170,000, even if I am "legally" entitled to it. I had a lot of fun not getting it, and even more spending it in my mind.

Footnote: All they required for identification was my driver's licence number. I have since learned that a friend involved in an intra-family domestic transfer was required by the bank to show his driver's licence, his passport and a bill to establish he lived at the address he claimed, a far higher standard for money laundering protection than the "prize" required.

Brian Easton is an economist and columnist for the Listener.

- NZ Herald

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