So many scams, so little thought.
Within the past five years counterfeit check schemes have exploded across the Internet as scam artists have shifted from fake mail lotteries to online fraud. In the past year alone, the United States Postal Inspection Service seized over 600,000 fake checks worth more than a fake $2.5 billion combined. Yet, according to USPIS estimates, the overall number of counterfeit checks sent to potential victims in 2008 is likely four or five times that.
In late December I placed an ad on craigslist to sell a piece of audio equipment. I posted the ad from Queens with a selling price of $600 and a clear message at the bottom that I would not ship and that the buyer must come to pick up the device in person.
Within two days I received five responses from potential “buyers” offering to send me money orders in exchange for the device. I knew they were all scams involving counterfeit checks (likely from Nigeria, the world capital of fake check schemes.) But I wanted to see for myself how these scams were supposed to play out. So I decided to pursue one.
The most detailed response to my ad came from firstname.lastname@example.org. So that was my bait. Wait, I mean catch… I was the bait.
The responder, who went by Michael Sean, told me he was out of the country on business, but that he would send me a money order through express mail and have his assistant pick up the device after I securely deposited the cash.
Ok, I thought, let’s see what comes of the bullshit. I had already sold the device.
Soon after I agreed to take my ad off craigslist and hold the item for him, I received another email explaining that his assistant had mistakenly mailed payment for more than the requested $600. Michael courteously apologized for the inconvenience and asked if I would be so kind as to wire the difference to his father, Gabriel Sean, in London through Western Union. In exchange for my troubles, I could take an extra $40.
I replied with a few unassuming questions:
How much more had his assistant sent and how much would he be expecting me to wire back?
Could I just give the remainder to his assistant when he or she came to pick up the device?
How could I get in touch with his assistant to arrange a pickup time?
Two days later I received another email from Michael letting me know the money order was safely on its way and would arrive the following week. “Sorry again for the inconvenience,” he wrote, “I appreciate that I can trust you with my request.” Screw this, I thought, it’s more work than it’s worth. I replied by telling Michael I was well aware he was trying to scam me and that I was completely unimpressed with his lack of consistency.
Then about three weeks later, on February 3rd, I received a brown wax-paper envelope heavily postmarked from the Republic of Benin in West Africa, right next to Nigeria.
Inside were four international money orders, each for $950. The money orders were dated January 13th — more than a week after I had sent my last email — and carried the remitter name Jerry D. Holbrook, the Chief Financial Officer of Fox Chase Bancorp in Hatboro, PA. That wasn’t hard to find on Google. Nor was the fact that Mr. Holbrook’s name has been used several times in previous fake check scams.
Nonetheless, my “buyer” still thought he could pull one over on me. I suddenly became agitated. After I had blatantly told him I was privy to his scam, he expected me to go out and cash the money orders, wire more than $3,000 to an unknown party, and owe my bank the full amount after the checks bounced!
Was he dumb? Or did he think I was dumb?
I had to take it just a little further at this point. I emailed Michael to let him know I had received his payment and that I was heading over to my bank. A few hours later he replied:
“I am happy you have gotten payment. Like I said in my previous email, go ahead and get them cashed at your bank, deduct your payment and send the balance via Western Union to my dad on the following details:
NAME OF RECEIVER: GABRIEL SEAN
COUNTRY: UNITED KINGDOM
THE REMMITER NAME IS JERRY HOLBROOK
Send me the transfer details after doing that. i.e. MTCN (Money Transfer Control Number). Western Union will give you that after doing the transfer, and the total amount sent after deducting the charges. I need to send it to my assistant to take care of some pressing bills and to help me arrange for a pick-up by FedEx.
I will wait to hear from you as soon as possible. I AM SORRY FOR THE DELAY. YOU CAN TAKE $50 FOR THE STRESS YOU WILL GO THROUGH.
Over the next week I called the USPIS.
“The most prevalent scams have always been fake foreign lotteries,” said Allan Weissmann, a U.S. Postal Inspector. “What they’ve started doing in the past few years is adding a fake check or money order to the scheme as an extra twist, which has lead to all kinds of money order scams over the Internet.“
That begs the question, how many of these scam artists are actually artists? The Internet allows for plenty of fraud, but it also allows for plenty of carelessness. Online scams are about as abundant as online pornography and myspace music pages, and often just as sloppily produced.
“What throws unsuspecting people off is that by law their banks have to make the money available within a few days,” said Mr. Weissmann. “But that doesn’t mean the check has cleared.”
Obviously, I never cashed the bogus money orders, but that didn’t stop Michael Sean from sending me more emails to see when I would wire his payment back.