Union City police are trying to track down a mysterious man who advertised himself as a spiritual healer but who appears to be a scam artist who has bilked at least $1 million from Bay Area victims with manipulation, magic and promises of riches.
The man, who calls himself “Iqbal” and ran ads in the fall on a South Asian program called “Radio Humsafar” (1200 AM), left his rented Union City home at the end of January.
Victims gave him between $10,000 and $200,000 after they had already met him during free visits in which he swore he would heal the evil sources behind their aches and pains. After winning their trust, he persuaded them to part with thousands more, vowing that he’d give them winning lottery numbers and turn them into multimillionaires, police Lt. Jim Bizieff said.
Since fall, Iqbal has tricked at least 20 people, Union City police say, from San Jose, San Mateo, Millbrae, Hayward, Union City and Newark.
How could people be so gullible?
“I don’t know,” Bizieff said. “I am sure that people who call on him are at a very weak point in their lives. And people like Iqbal prey on that.”
One of those victims is T.J. Bajwa of San Jose, who, like others the Mercury News interviewed, asked that his full name not be used because he’s embarrassed that he lost $70,000 to Iqbal last month.
“I don’t know what he did to my brain,” Bajwa said. “He made me so stupid. I gave him the cash. He has some kind of magic power.”
Annapurna Pandey, a cultural anthropology teacher at San Jose State University, explained that going to a religious healer is quite popular in India even if people go to conventional doctors, too. There’s a belief among many, she said, that even if someone uses Western medicine, spiritual healing can stop the origin of the problem.
“Folk religion, spiritual healing, it’s in the air and in vogue,” Pandey said.
In police statements and interviews with the Mercury News, victims described going to Iqbal’s rented home at 34499 Jasmine Court in Union City between November and January.
Iqbal recited passages from the Koran and said he practiced black magic, or jaadu tona.
Bajwa was seeking Iqbal’s help to cure his wife of arthritis. Iqbal’s first two consultations were free, though Bajwa and others said Iqbal sold them 11 packets of incense-type envelopes for $100 each. The victims were told to burn the packages and in a few weeks, Iqbal would tell them who was cursing their family and causing them troubles.
But on the third visit, Bajwa and some of the other victims said, the tenor changed. Iqbal talked to them excitedly about helping them win $100 million in the California Lottery. All they had to do was fork over $10,000 in cash for every million they wanted to win. Then, in an unusual request, Iqbal told his victims to buy a dozen eggs. On the victims’ next visit, Iqbal boiled the eggs. Iqbal turned his victims into astounded believers by pulling out from the inside of the boiled eggs tiny pieces of folded paper wrapped in foil. On the slips of paper were numbers and the victims’ names, which Iqbal said were the winning lottery numbers. He promised to tell them when to play the numbers; they just had to be patient.
And so, Bajwa said, he handed Iqbal $75,000, some in cash, some in a cashier’s check, hoping to win $75 million. He said Iqbal told him to contact him on Jan. 24 to figure out when to play the numbers. But when Bajwa called a few days before, he said Iqbal’s voice mail didn’t work. When Bajwa went to Iqbal’s house, no one was there.
Police seek victims
What Bajwa did find was a note on the door from Union City police asking for victims to come forward. Bajwa and others left notes on the doors, too. Now, the victims say they’ve heard of similar scams in Chicago, Houston and New Jersey, and are trying to help police catch Iqbal, who goes by the second name of either “Sirriri,” which means saint, or “Sahab,” which means sir in some Indian languages.
Bizieff said police have only a brief description of the suspect: A cleanshaven Indian man in his mid-30s with dark, short, wavy hair, standing about 5 feet 4, who walks with a limp.
As for evidence, Iqbal asked his victims for cash, though some paid with cashier’s checks or, in the case of V. Den, 62, of San Mateo, who also asked that his full name not be used, took out several credit card loans to give Iqbal money.
Den said he lost $70,000 in the scam. He went to Iqbal to help heal his wife’s chronic headaches. But Den’s wife isn’t any better. And he hasn’t told his grown children about his misery, and now he might have to sell his house to pay back the loans.
Anyone with information about Iqbal should call Union City police at (510) 471-1365.