In 2012, RF Builders started construction of an 18-storey building on 110 khata land in Adarsha Gram area of Cox's Bazar bypass road. The project was named "White Sand", an homage to the glistening sandy shores of the world's longest stretch of unbroken sea beach.
Actor Ilias Kanchan was the director of the project, while cricketer Shakib Al-Hasan booked a commercial area of 20,000 square feet there in 2018.
In a video campaign in 2018, Ilias Kanchan said, "I have joined and Shakib Hasan has joined before me. We want to transform Cox's Bazar."
Dangling easy property ownership, backed by superstar credibility, drew thousands of investors. Three hundred flats were sold to 3,000 customers – 10 to 12 persons against each flat.
A flat of 290 to 910 square feet is sold for a minimum of Tk5 lakh to a maximum of 25 lakh.
But it wasn't just the ability to boast about owning a hotel, sharing rooms with no less than Shakib himself. The investment would also bring lifetime ownership and time-sharing in five-star hotels and shopping malls. It would also be recouped many times over.
Although the project is supposed to be completed by 2018, now the entire project site wears a deserted look. Only three storeys have been constructed, each acting as a car garage.
Within one kilometre of this project in the Kalatoli area, four more projects of the same company are similarly lying incomplete since 2018.
A few half complete buildings are strewn about. For completed projects, disputes abound as investors complain of not receiving any dividends as per the agreement.
The White Sand project, which sold so many dreams, hasn't transformed anything. It has only changed the fates of thousands, who have been duped out of their money. The same play book of employing celebrities has been used again, alongside the age old promise of easy money.
Ilias Kanchan, too, is now singing a different tune.
"I am no longer the director of this project. I don't want to tell you how long I haven't been the director of this project. The main thing is, I am not there anymore. The project is shut. You should contact those who came up with the project," Kanchon told The Business Standard.
RF Builders isn't the first or only real estate developer to engage in such a fraud. More than ten developers have grabbed crores of taka from investors by luring them with similar false promises.
At least 25 such projects have been left unfinished. Along with those who have bought flats from these institutions, the land owners are also spending anxious days.
Among the accused companies are RF Builders, Coral Reef Properties, Hyperion Builders Limited, Ideal Properties Limited, Oasis Developers Limited, Green Delta Housing and Development (Pvt) Limited, Dynamic Properties, Sea Star Properties and Mission Developer Limited.
President of Cox's Bazar Chamber of Commerce and Industry Abu Morshed Chowdhury Khoka told TBS, "Since there is no specific policy and control of the government in this business, an unscrupulous syndicate continues to cheat in the name of flat-suite and time sharing. The government should have specific guidelines and controls in this regard. There should also be rules on how many people a suite can be sold to," he said.
He said that the information of complaints of at least 500 people is with the Cox's Bazar chamber.
Abdul Halim, a local and a victim of such fraud, said, "In 2015, I made an agreement to buy a 910 square feet time-sharing flat in the White Sand project of RF Builders for Tk25 lakh. I also paid Tk6 lakh. Even though the flat was supposed to be delivered in 2018, I have not received it in the last seven years, nor have I received the money back."
He added, "I gave the money to RF Builders for the purchase of the flat from the pension of my father, who was a school teacher. My family thinks I defrauded them. I can't show my face in society anymore."
Anatomy of a scam
A Facebook post from 26 April, 2018 by the White Sand Resort, captures an event titled "Cox's Bazar is Transforming", with the who's-who of Bangladesh in attendance.
The chief guest of the event was Obaidul Quader, the general secretary of the Awami League and the transport minister.
In one of the event photos, he is flanked by actress Moushumi and actor Omar Sani, among a host of other celebrities.
In a televised advertisement, Moushumi could be seen saying, "Invest once, get returns over and over again."
Developers sold the same hotel rooms to 10-12 people in the under construction buildings. Offers ranged from timeshares, full registration, free stay with family members for 4 to 5 days a year, priority card as a partner and discounts. A profit of between Tk70,000-1 lakh was also touted as yet another reward.
The presence of ministers and celebrities in the promotions easily swayed the people.
And hence, the trap was laid.
Abul Khair, another customer of the same project of RF Builders, is another victim of the elaborate scam.
He paid Tk16 lakh till 2014 for 290 sq ft flat, Humayun Kabir paid Tk 16 lakh for a 305 sq ft flat, Farhana Chowdhury Lucy Tk10 lakh for a 245 sq ft flat and Syed Rafiqul Haque Tk12 lakh for a 305 sq ft flat.
In 2012, RF Builders started two projects named "RF World View" and "Cox's Bazar Central Mall" in the area adjacent to Kolatoli Primary School.
Abdul Malek, a local, gave 22 katha land to RF Builders on a fifty/fifty ownership basis for the Cox's Bazar Central Mall. But in the last 12 years, the developer has done nothing except piling works.
Land owner Abdul Malek told TBS, "We were supposed to build a 15-storey building and pay our share by 2015. I have sent at least 10 legal notices in the last 10 years, but nothing has worked. As per the agreement, apart from 50% ownership of the building, we are owed about Tk3 crore as rent to RF.'
For the RF World View, a piece of land was taken from three sisters – Gulbahar Begum, Noor Nahar Begum and Rabeya Khatun.
According to the agreement, they are supposed to get Tk6.75 crore in cash and nine flats of 800 square feet in exchange for land in this project.
But even in the last ten years, the flats have not been given to the land owners.
Omar Farooq, director of RF Builders, told TBS that due to the Covid-19 epidemic and the global recession, it was not possible to complete some of our projects. Those who invested in the closed projects are being offered flats in other projects, he said.
However, the customers are unwilling to accept this. Many say projects have been closed since before Corona and the cheques given as refund have yet to be cleared.
Scams littered all over
Ideal Properties Limited, a member of the Real Estate and Housing Association of Bangladesh (Rehab), began selling flats in 2011 using the banner of Swiss-based International hotel chain Movenpick.
A 24-storey building in South Kolatoli, Cox's Bazar, was on offer. Time-sharing slots were sold to about 4,000 customers, mopping up around Tk200 crore.
Twenty people made one-time investments on each suite.
But after completing construction up to five storeys, the project was closed in the mid-2015.
Shafiqur Rahman, chairman of Ideal Properties Limited, has since resettled in America, according to different sources.
Rehab, which is supposed to deal with the matter, is doing nothing, according to investors, with the association now skirting any responsibility.
Abdul Ghaffar Meyazi, member, Rehab, Chattogram Regional Committee, said, "Many have applied to Rehab. But we don't know how to solve it as the owner is not in the country. And the company has not renewed its Rehab membership."
The basement of the building is being used as an auto rickshaw garage. Shahinur Hira, a local resident of Cox's Bazar, is currently in charge of the maintenance of the building.
Hira said, "I have been in charge of the maintenance of the building since 2017. Two to four people come every month. They invested during the construction period. But I can't give them any answer."
Robin Majumder, a former manager of the project, said, "Our responsibility was to sell the slots, which we did. About 2,000 people invested in the project. But construction was abruptly stopped in 2015. Personally, I myself am owed Tk4 lakh. Many of our colleagues invested in the project. They have lost all their investment and salaries."
Another example is the scam carried out by Coral Reef Limited. One of the two projects of the real estate developer was completed in 2014 and is currently being operated under the name Best Western.
The hotel was made after collecting around Tk150 crore from 2,500 people. Even after eight years of opening, the suites it sold haven't been transferred to investors.
Cases have been filed against the company in various courts of Dhaka, Chattogram and Sylhet.
Those who have got the registration now complain that they aren't getting the money as agreed upon.
The second project of the developer is the Beach Club, which sold shares to hundreds of customers and was to be completed by 2019. It has yet to start construction.
Mustafizur Rahman, an investor in the slot, said he paid Tk5 lakh. By 2021, about 500 customers were supposed to get the slots of the hotel, but the construction work has not started yet.
President of the Coral Reef Slot Owners Association (Chattogram) Shamsul Anwar Khan said, most of the customers have not received the registry even after 10 years. Dividends are not being paid as per the contract to those who have been registered. Slot owners are supposed to get a dividend of Tk1 lakh taka per year, but they are getting only around Tk2,000-16,000, if even that.
Many slot owners haven't even been able to stay at the hotel, despite earlier commitment.
In this regard, Coral Reef Director (Operation) Kamran Didar said, "We have registered 2,208 people out of 2,425 slots in the hotel [Best Western]. As the payment for 160 slots booked is pending, their registry has not been given. The allegation of non-payment of proper dividend is not true, as hotel builder Coral Reef has nothing more to do after giving the registry of slot owners."
"In 2014, in the presence of the slot owners, an independent organisation called Grand Heritage was given the responsibility of managing the hotel."
On the Beach Club, he said 70 investors have been refunded while the rest are being given shares in other projects.
Shamsul Anwar Khan rejected the statement of the Operations Director.
New names, old games
Around 2008, Green Delta Housing and Development (Pvt) Ltd started the construction of a hotel called Shomudra Bilash in South Kolatoli, Cox's Bazar.
After ten years of remaining dormant, the project was recently launched with a new name. A housing fair was recently organised in Dubai, United Arab Emirates with the name "Bay Sands Hotel".
The event was attended by Planning Minister MA Mannan, among others.
But 200 people, who had invested in the project 10 years ago, are yet to get any returns.
Biswajit Pal, a victim of Green Delta's fraud, said, "According to the terms of the contract, I paid Tk17.50 lakh in cash along with the booking money for the flat purchase. But even after the expiry of the flat transfer period, the company has not provided the apartment."
Then there is Hyperion Builders Limited. Although the company has implemented 11 projects, all are rife with complaints and allegations of fraud.
In 2010, it announced the construction of a three-star hotel called Sun Coast in Kolatoli and sold slots to about 600 customers.
About Tk7.50 crore was taken for investors, but the construction work hasn't been completed in the last 12 years.
Recently, it has been found that the developer has already sold the building without transferring the flats to investors.
Apart from Sun Coast, many hotels including White Place, Water View, Sea-Wave, Bay-Queen, Sea-World all took money from investors offering flats or slots on the basis of time-sharing but none of the dues were cleared.
Several cases have been filed against Hyperion Chairman Shamsul Alam in various parts of the country, including Cox's Bazar, for fraud.
Shamsul Alam could not be reached by phone after repeated attempts. He also did not reply to an SMS.
Shamsul's younger brother Shariful Islam Mintu said those who invested in the project did not get the flats, but will be given opportunities in other projects.