Oakley woman outsmarts cyber criminal
All Amy Regan wanted was $2,000 for her Ford Aerostar van. What she got was $3,800 worth of forged money orders and a migraine.
Wanting to sell her van, Regan posted it online on several different sites: Cars.com, Craigslist.com and others. After just a few days, she received a phone call from a relay operator.
"I had never received a call from a relay operator before, so it was kind of weird," Regan said. "A deaf person uses the service by typing what they want the operator to say, then the operator types back the response. The gentleman, who gave the name Michael Smith and said he was a deaf missionary, asked me to e-mail him some pictures and told me to consider the car sold."
Smith told Regan he needed a few days to get the money together and asked for Regan’s address so he could mail money orders to her. After that, however, Regan did not hear from Smith for several weeks and so figured he had lost interest.
"A few days before Thanksgiving I got another relay call from him," Regan said. "He apologized for not being in contact, but said he still wanted to buy the car and that money was on its way. I told him I’d believe it when I see it."
After a few days after Thanksgiving, the phone rang again. Smith asked Regan if she had received his package. Since Regan had been out of town for the holiday, her neighbor signed for it.
At the end of the conversation, Smith told Regan he had sent her an extra $1,800 she could use to pay to ship the van to New York. He told her to send back anything left over. That’s when Regan became suspicious.
"I had read a warning on Craig’s List about people who send fake money orders and then ask the seller to send/forward the money somewhere," Regan said. "I told him I had no intention of paying anyone or doing anything with the money until the money orders were verified. The guy hung up. I thought it was over."
It wasn’t. Smith called back an hour later and asked Regan if she was implying that something illegal was going on. Regan reiterated that she would not send the van, nor forward any money to anyone until the funds were verified. Again, he hung up.
"You can’t trace the call and the call doesn’t even cost them anything because it was setup as a free service for deaf people," Regan said about relay calls. "The operator I spoke with after the guy hung up on me said, ‘You know, this is probably a scam.’"
Regan looked closely at the money orders, which came from MoneyGram and were payable through a bank in Minnesota. She checked out the bank. She checked out MoneyGram. Both were legit.
On the MoneyGram Web site, there was a link to a money order tracking service. Regan plugged the tracking numbers for the four $950 money orders into the Web site.
"This money gram was cashed on April 14, 2006," the tracker on all four orders said.
They were frauds.
"I don’t know how they did it," Regan said. "I don’t know if they dummied these things with my name on it or what. They look legitimate, but they’re not worth the paper they’re printed on. From what I heard it’s a textbook scam."
Just to see what would have happened had she cashed the orders, she took them to the bank. She was told she could get cash or have the money deposited into her account. The banker didn’t verify the funds.
They would have done just as the guy wanted them to do, Regan said. If she would have cashed the orders, the bank would have come back and demanded repayment once they realized the orders were fraudulent, so she would have been out the money and the car.
Had the bank cashed the orders, Regan would have been held responsible for the money. The back of the order had a warning: "This money order will not be paid if it has been forged, altered or stolen, and recourse is only against the presenter. This means that persons receiving this money order should accept it only from those known to them and against whom they have effective recourse."
Regan called the Utah Attorney General’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Both told her they couldn’t help. The calls couldn’t be traced neither could the money orders. Since she hadn’t fallen for the scam, she was not a priority.
"I’m sure I’m just one of a dozen people he has on a string," she said. "He probably just takes me off a list and goes on to the next dummy. Needless to say, I don’t plan on doing business over the Internet for awhile."
Regan said the experience taught her a few things, not the least of which was the fact that this type of fraud can happen to anyone.
"If you’re doing something like this, make sure you read these warnings like the one on http://www.craigslist.com," she said. "Sometimes the warnings on these sites jump out at you and others you have to go looking for. I ended up selling my van because it was parked in front of my house and someone drove by and saw it. Just stick to your local classified ads and know what kind of scams are coming on."
Mike Scott, specialist for the high-tech crimes unit for the Utah Attorney General’s Office, had similar advice.
"People need to be on their toes and check things out," he said. "Be very leery of any payment that is done by wire transfer, money order or anything along those lines, especially if the orders are for more than the selling price. If that happens, break the sale and walk away."
"It happens a lot," he continued. "This is an old, old scam that has merely been tweaked to work in the modern era. These used to be actual mail scams, now they’ve gone electronic."
Katherine Milhoan, FBI spokesperson, said Internet auction fraud is, by far, the most reported cyber crime, comprising 62.7 percent of complaints. She also said cyber crime is one of the fastest growing types of offenses across the globe.
Kathy Rubafoni of MoneyGram said cases like Regan’s are unfortunate, and that people should do as she did and use tracking systems before cashing money orders.
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