RIVERVIEW – During my many years writing about South County I’ve done a lot of stories about scams. There have been bank scams, political scams, business scams, computer scams and local people who have gone to jail.
There have also been some pretty smart people victimized. It doesn’t take much of a twist on a known scam to confuse someone enough to hit them from behind.
This story is personal. As much as I know about scams, I was almost a victim. Had I not done so many stories, talked to so many law enforcement officers- and yes, crime victims- over the years, I’d have fallen for it.
So I decided to tell the story here before it happens to anyone else.
I am still waiting for a response from the fraud management department for Craig’s List but I have talked with the sheriff’s office, local bankers and a representative from the FBI.
It all started because I advertised a rental on Craig’s List in mid May and immediately began getting emails. Most of them though, were from people outside the United States. I thought it was strange that eight of them were supposedly from exchange students, or students who wanted to spend a summer learning about American life. Several went into some detail about their purpose in coming to the States, and even gave me some description of themselves, such as age, major in college, job experience, and personal information. All needed my address and home telephone phone number to send my check.
I chose one and responded. It was supposedly a young girl in England, which she referred to as the UK (United Kingdom). I never heard back from her after that, but thought little about it as there were supposedly still two weeks until her arrival.
Finally, I emailed her back.
“My phone has already been disconnected but I will call you with details from a pay phone this weekend,” she said in her reply. “Did you get my check?” she asked.
I said I had not. She said that was strange as she had mailed it several days before.
Meanwhile, I was flooded with emails from all over the place, from Wyoming to Michigan to Australia. It seemed everybody needed a rental for six months to a year.
One of these interested me, a young man who supposedly worked for the Farm Bureau. His name was James Abrahams.
Now I didn’t think about this then, but since I bought farm land in Tennessee last year, I have occasionally visited on line sites related to obtaining USDA grants and subsidies.
I still had had no “Ah-Ha”moment and began to correspond with James.
This, I thought, would work out perfectly. He said he planned to work mostly at USF, but also had business at the Farm Bureau in Plant City and in Tampa and Bradenton and Riverview- where I live- was a perfect choice for a central location.
This made perfect sense, and I gave him my address, hoping while he was here I could obtain the information about farming I need.
I received a check almost immediately from the Toronto-Dominion Bank in Brampton, Ontario. James had told me he was doing some work in Canada, so I thought nothing of it.
The amount, however, was what tipped me off. The check was for $3,800. He only owed me $1,000 which included one month rent and deposit.
I emailed him immediately. “Why is this check over the amount?” I asked.
He said he would send me details and asked that I send a check to his moving company and keep the rest in American dollars for him so that he would have them immediately when he arrived.
Not a bad scheme, I thought. The check looked completely real, right down to the watermark.
I called the Toronto-Dominion Bank and spoke to a corporate fraud spokeswoman, Kelly Hechler. As it turned out, there is a branch at the address on the check. In fact, the check is written on a valid account. The only problem is that the person owning that account did not want a rental in Florida.
I went to BB&T Bank in Apollo Beach and showed officials the check. Within minutes, it was confirmed that I was targeted for a scam.
Well- being the reporter I am at heart, I began baiting a couple more of my rental “prospects.”
This time, I wrote to Belinda Martins, who had said she was from Ireland. She planned to stay in the United States for one year and travel but needed a “base.”
She said she had been awarded some kind of a sabbatical leave to study our culture and way of life.
Within days, she had sent me a check. This check came in U.S. Post Office Priority Mail service and was delivered to my door.
Inside the familiar red-white-and blue envelope that carries the looks and feeling of “importance” was a check for $2,380 from TruWest Credit Union with two addresses on it: one in Scottsdale, Arizona and another in Austin, Texas.
The first thing I did was check the addresses on line. There was only one difference in what was on the check and the addresses listed (which I called and verified): PO Box 3439 on the check in Scottsdale was really 3489 according to the bank.
Someone had mistaken the 8 for a 3, which without a magnifying glass, I might have too.
Now it was time to visit the bank and the sheriff’s office.
First I went back to BB&T and spoke with vice president David Bock who closely examined the checks.
They were certainly good replicas, but he noticed immediately that the signatures looked “stamped.”
The main tip off to him was the fact that both checks were sent over the amount due me.
“The way it works is that by the time you deposit them in your account and write your checks to someone else, then their check bounces back leaving you holding the bag,” he said.
After listening to him talk about bank scams for awhile, I moved on to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office where I was directed to the FBI in Tampa and interviewed David Couvertier.
“There’s a whole new breed of Internet scams now,” Couvertier said. “The excellent computer programs and printers available now make replicas extremely easy.”
Most of the scams are originating in Canada or the UK, he told me. “The only limitations are the imaginations of the cyber-crooks,” he said.
The common thread he said is the “over the amount” and often a sense of urgency, which in my case had been the people’s stated need to rent by the first of the following month.
“There are so many varieties of scams out there now you can replicate documents that look completely official, including birth certificates and cashier’s checks.”
So what’s a person to do when something like this happens on line? I asked.
Naturally, he said not to deposit the checks and especially never to write one from your own account.
Reports of attempted scams should be made to the National Crime Center at www.ic3.gov where you can file a report on line.
I went to the site and found several official government links to consumer alerts, lists of current scams, and forms to file reports. There are also links to the National White Collar Crime Center and the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and of course, the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
As of press time, I still had not received an email back from anyone at Craig’s List Fraud Report Center.