They target laptops, phones and heavy bags
Samson is a senior police officer. With a career in the force that spans nine years, you would expect him to be con-proof. But he turned out to be the victim.
"We boarded a taxi at dfcu bank stage along Jinja road in Kampala en-route to Banda. I sat in the front seat near the driver. I found six people in the taxi, posing as passengers and when we reached the Spear House building on Jinja road," he recalls, "the driver diverted to Dewinton road and joined Yusuf Lule road, then later rejoined Jinja road, pretending he was dodging the heavy traffic."
The taxi then stopped at the Airtel House roundabout at Wampeewo to pick up another passenger, who turned out to be another conman.
"The conductor started confusing me saying that the front door of the taxi where I was seated was not locked properly. So, I tried to open it but to no avail. I didn't know that they had put a baby lock in there. The driver and another conman, who was next to me in the front seat, told me to remove the laptop which I had put on my lap at the sides and use both hands to close the door."
As he was engrossed in closing the door, the duo quickly removed his laptop from the bag and inserted a big stone. With the mission accomplished, the driver decided to continue up to Nakawa, before the 'passengers' started complaining that the vehicle was moving too slowly and was in dangerous mechanical condition.
They all alighted, leaving Samson and the driver and his colleague in the front seat. Realising this, the driver then asked Samson to get out as he could not continue with the trip without passengers.
"It took me 30 minutes to get another taxi and it was only after I had reached home that I realised what had happened," he recalls. "I collapsed because my computer had a lot of vital information and personal research proposals for my master's degree."
If Samson could be robbed, many more are now victims. The police are now investigating what they call 'organised crime' in the city involving conmen who target taxis.
"This is an organised syndicate by criminals in the city who pose as state officials. These criminals hire vehicles from taxi drivers and use them in robberies," Kampala Metropolitan Police Deputy Spokesperson Ibn Senkumbi said.
The criminals allegedly pose as government officials in need of hired private transportation. They hire the public vehicles from unsuspecting owners for a few days and use them to rob passengers. Senkumbi said the crime is on and off. He said the conmen keep changing tact.
"What we have to do is to sensitise the public more, to be careful...We are also working hard to arrest the suspects," he said.
Senkumbi says their biggest problem is that most of the suspects arrested apply for and are granted bail by the courts and the cycle begins all over again.
How they rob passengers
Being a police officer, Samson took the stone as an exhibit and reported the case to Special Investigations Unit, Kireka, which is now looking for the conmen. Two of those who were posing as passengers have since been arrested. They are identified as Hassan Senoga alias Hassan Sebaggala alias 'Young' and Tony Muliika, a resident of Nabweru. The duo is held at Kireka to help police with further investigations.
Police says that after interrogations, these suspects will lead police to arrests of a racket of these conmen who rob passengers in taxis and buses using different tricks. Muliika confessed that the conmen have been hiring out a taxi, which they use to target decently dressed women and men holding bags, which usually hold laptops.
He said they mainly con people using the front seat by telling them to adjust the vehicle's mirror. They then use the passengers' eagerness to help to snatch cell-phones or cash. In a day, Muliika says, they can steal up to Shs 500,000 in cash and about two laptops and five mobile phones from about 15 passengers. He said, people who pose as passengers are paid Shs 10,000 and the rest of the cash is shared between the driver and the conductor.
The stolen laptops are sold around William, Wilson and Luwum streets in Kampala, for between Shs 300,000 and Shs 350,000 depending on the make, with Toshiba, Acer, HP and Dell being the most sought-after models. The police is now hunting for the buyers of these stolen laptops to help with investigations. They, however, suspect that some of the stolen items are sold in Rwanda and Tanzania where they are highly marketable and can't easily be tracked.
According to Senkumbi, the other challenge is the lack of complainants reporting these robberies.
"These suspects repeat the same tricks of robbery around the city due to weak laws we have, but also because not enough people are reporting." Senkumbi said.
He reveals that the police have so far impounded two taxis, registration numbers UAQ 783W and UAG 134X, suspected to have been used in the scam. The thugs are suspected to be mostly based in Nansana-Kibulooka zone, Namungona, Kasubi, Nabweru, Kalerwe, Nakulabye and Bwaise.
Consequently, a genuine taxi driver, Ronald Mukasa complained that the conmen are making public transport unsafe for passengers because it's difficult to tell genuine drivers from rogues.
Other types of conning
Other conmen hire out taxis from drivers and then ferry passengers along the normal routes. They usually ply lengthy distances, with three or four colleagues posing as passengers. These conmen never use the taxi park. Instead, they pick up unsuspecting passengers along the way.
"After driving for a few kilometres they divert from the main road and stop in a nearby bush pretending that they are picking something urgent," said the head of the Kampala Metropolitan Crime Intelligence unit, Musa Birunda.
"After this, they then force all the passengers out of the taxi at gunpoint and take all their belongings, many times leaving them naked to prevent them from chasing the thugs," Birunda adds. "These robbers at times have guns, knives and other dangerous weapons which they can use to beat or kill any passengers who might resist them."
Other times the thugs will turn up pretending to sell jewellery in a taxi and in the process may open an unsuspecting passenger's bag and rob them. Birunda said most robberies happen early in the morning and during the afternoon when passengers do not suspect anything.
Senkumbi said police are working with the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), which manages the taxis, to weed out the bad elements. He said since the operation started at the beginning of this year, three people have been arrested in connection with the robberies and two vehicles have been impounded.
What should public do
The deputy CID commander Kampala Metropolitan Boniface Walimbwa cautioned the public to always be very suspicious of their surroundings when they use public transport.
"They should guard their property carefully and avoid changing money," Walimbwa said. "A person with a computer must know three things which help in tracking, a mark address, track device and a seal number."
Walimbwa also requested the public to always record the number plates of public vehicles they use. For any assistance call: 0800199199, 0800199299, 0800200019, 0800909199, 0800909299 and 0800200019.