Phurpa Lhamo

As 27 retrieved vehicles remain parked in front of the Punakha district court, vehicle owners and the buyers who fell victim to a scam are worried about loan repayments.

Almost all of the vehicle owners have loans, which they had been paying with the income from hiring out the vehicles. No one is sure whether the vehicles will ultimately be returned.

Will the buyers be reimbursed the money paid to the suspects? Will a maintenance fee for the vehicles be returned? These are just some of the questions.

One of the vehicle owners, Kinley Dorji, said that after his vehicle was taken by one of the suspects in July, he received about 45 days’ worth of the hiring charge. Without the vehicle, he currently has no source of income. “I haven’t made the loan payment for this month.”

Since the case was first reported on September 22, Punakha police have retrieved 27 vehicles and completed the investigation. The police have detained five suspects: one man and four women.

Twenty-four cases were filed against the five suspects. The cases were forwarded to the Office of Attorney General (OAG) on October 25.

Another vehicle owner, Tshering Tobgay, said that his Bolero pickup truck was in terrible condition and would require maintenance.

He added that many owners had trusted the suspects, as they claimed that the vehicles would be used for delivering goods for de-suups.

Among the many buyers who fell victim to the scam, Jit Bahadur Powdel Chhetri, availed a Nu 500,000 loan to buy a single cabin Bolero pickup. The vehicle, bought for his son to transport goods in Dagana, was seized after the case was reported to Punakha police.

He said that without an income now, he wasn’t sure how he would pay the monthly installment of Nu 9,900.

Trusting and verifying  legal documents

Out of the 27 vehicle owners scammed, one has the vehicle’s ownership transferred to a third party as part of the scam.

A vehicle owner, Phurba, said that when his vehicle, which was hired by one of the suspects, wasn’t returned as agreed, he suspected something wrong and visited the Road Safety and Transport Authority of Bhutan (RSTA) to check the vehicle ownership. “I found that the ownership was changed online to a woman.”

Section 26 of the Road Safety and Transport Regulations 1999 states that a transfer of vehicle ownership should be accompanied by a deed of sale that includes the sale price of the vehicle and the signature of the seller and buyer, signed across a legal stamp by both the parties and a witness from each party; the registration certificate for the vehicle; and credit Information Bureau (CIB) to provide access to the system for online verification of hypothecation status by the Authority.

RSTA’s chief transport officer, Sithar Dorji, said that RSTA wouldn’t deny vehicle ownership transfer if the buyers and sellers submit the required documents, including legally produced sale deeds.

He added that the transfer made in the case was done after verifying all required documents.

Reportedly, some of the sale deeds made between the suspects and new buyers were also accompanied by a certified search report from the Royal Monetary Authority.

Phurba said that he shared a photocopy of his identity card on WeChat with one of the suspects. “She said that she needed the details of my documents to receive payment after completing her deliveries. So I shared a copy with her.”

Of the 27 vehicles retrieved by the police, there were only three that hadn’t been sold to a third party by the scammers.

As cases unfolded in Punakha and number of the scammed vehicle owners increased, it was found that many of the vehicles had been sold to several individuals by forging signatures on the sale deeds.

Many were sold online via social media platforms.

According to a vehicle owner, the scammers prepared agreements before taking the vehicles. Terms and conditions, he said, ensured that the vehicles would be maintained and the owners would receive a refund in case of an accident.

A Nu 35,000 hiring charge for a month was also paid to vehicle owners before the vehicles were taken.