We’ve all heard this advice over the course of our lives – “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
This is not bad guidance. Typically, it is true. But what about when it just sounds reasonable, normal, likely, or possible? Last week, someone hacked into one of our company’s FedEx accounts. Over the course of three days, they sent 79 packages to people all over the country. We only realized the situation when people started calling early one morning asking why they had received a check via FedEx from us, as the label showed our company name, the employee’s name, our address, and phone number as the “shipper.” Our employee hadn’t sent any checks, so she logged into her account and found pages of tracking numbers for packages she hadn’t sent. As we scrambled to piece everything together, we were receiving calls from all over the U.S. I filed a fraud complaint with FedEx, then opened investigations with my local police department and FBI office. As more calls came in, I started to figure out what questions to ask to help further the investigations. What I discovered was sickening, heartless, and cruel.
We’ve all heard of Nigerian prince scam emails. I wrote an article last year about a Western Union scam that someone almost successfully pulled on my nana. We know that if you receive an email claiming it can give you a bigger penis or that you can make thousands of dollars from the comfort of your couch, there is probably something fishy afoot. The people I talked to over the past few days weren’t conned by anything like that. The cons were different, and they were long games. These fuckers weren’t playing checkers, they were playing chess.
One gentleman contacted me via email through our website’s general mailbox. He inquired about the check, and when I explained the situation, he responded that he had communications with the person who had sent it. He then forwarded me emails from a “woman” who had been flirting with him via email for months. The check, she explained, was for him to cash and then Western Union her the money so she could buy a plane ticket to come visit him. She claimed it was from a business in the States that owed her money. He only realized it might be a scam when the address she sent him to forward the money to was in Africa, as she had been posing as someone from the U.S. throughout their exchanges. When he questioned her about it, she responded that “Babe, I told you I was over here for a few months a while ago, but I can’t wait to come see you.” Preying on people’s loneliness or need for companionship was route number one.
Another woman called Tuesday, explaining that she had cashed the check we sent her on Friday, per her boss’s instructions, but that her bank had contacted her that morning letting her know the check was counterfeit. The “per her boss’s instructions” part struck me as odd, so I again explained the fraud situation and asked if she would mind answering some questions, and she readily agreed. She had been hired by a “woman” (I keep using the quotes around these since we have no idea whether these people are men or women) as a personal assistant to her in the States. This young woman forwarded me 19 emails worth of communication she had with her “boss.” The boss claimed to be in England because her daughter was very ill and she was there taking care of her. Because she had a business in the U.S., she needed an assistant to help her with her stateside affairs. The boss sent communications with application details, questionnaire items, and other things you would expect from someone looking to hire you for a position. It was part-time, but the woman could earn $300-$900 a week based on the needs and amounts of tasks from the boss. Unfortunately for her, her first task was to be the receiver of a check from one of the boss’s “debtors,” which was to be made out to the assistant, who would then take the check, cash it, keep 10%, then Western Union the rest. The money was allegedly to cover partial payment for the sick daughter’s necessary surgeries. The difference with this one? The Western Union was going to someone in the States. Not Africa. Maybe she should have been more suspicious, but that is a feasible request. Route number two – taking advantage of a shit economy and preying on people’s need for any extra cash to help them make ends meet. This young woman’s rent check (among others) bounced, and she is liable for the money unless something magical occurs.
There were other tactics – one person had put a deposit down on an “apartment,” and assumed it was repayment. Other people weren’t comfortable providing details, either through embarrassment or suspicion of me. Some received company checks; others cashier’s checks. One gentleman, realizing it was a scam, took his cashier’s check to the bank to have them confirm his suspicions. The teller told him it looked legit, the manager confirmed it looked real, and it wasn’t until he pressed them further that the VP of the bank finally examined it closely enough under a special light that they realized it was fake. These scammers are getting good, folks.
I’m sure many of you reading this can’t believe anyone would fall for something like this. I know most of the people I have given the quick version to can’t believe how foolish one would have to be to not run in the other direction once the words “Western Union” were used. But none of these people were falling for Get Rich Quick schemes. None of them were being promised millions of dollars from a foreign prince. These were all people who responded to someone, whether via Craigslist or some other site, because of something they needed in their lives. Maybe that guy is a widower who is seeking companionship any way he can find it. Maybe that young woman is a single mom who is broke from buying school supplies for her kid and was looking for any kind of part-time work to help her save up enough money for Christmas presents or basic daily needs. Maybe that young couple is moving across the country for better job prospects and they don’t have the luxury of flying out here in advance to look for housing, so they are left to conduct their search online and via email. I don’t know.
I like to believe, I think most of us do, that I am far too savvy to fall for something like this, that I would recognize a scam from a mile away. I like to comfort myself with my perceived intelligence all the time, because I am cocky and have, possibly, more self-esteem than is reasonable. But when I take a step back and realize how incredibly lucky I am – I have a wonderful partner, a loving and close-knit family, a good job, no little ones with mouths to feed, the luxury of spending inordinate amounts of time on the Internet or watching television – I realize that if I didn’t have those things, wouldn’t I be willing to suspend disbelief or ignore that nagging intuition if it meant keeping a roof over my head or food in my belly? None of these people were dealing with situations that seemed too good to be true; they were dealing with situations that would make their lives a little bit better, a tiny bit more manageable, an iota less lonely. How could I fault anyone that?
I hate that this whole fiasco has made me even more suspicious of people than I already am. I trust very few people on this planet, and this only serves to reinforce the rationality of that position. I know I can be pessimistic, but I would be remiss if I didn’t make you all aware of this, how close to home it has hit, and how devious and clever these horrible people are becoming. I think we all have people in our lives that don’t consume as much information as we may, that may be more susceptible to something like this. If this article helps even one person not fall victim to this shit, I will be happy. And I will keep updating the police and FBI with every piece of information I receive in the hopes that someday soon, someone, hopefully lots of someones, will pay for this shit.