The Nigerian Scam Strikes Again

Caught in an Internet con, courtesy FedEx.

Patricia Calhoun of Twin Falls, Idaho, is a very generous woman. Particularly with my phone number.

Last Wednesday, my direct line at Westwordstarted ringing before eight in the morning, and it didn't stop all day.

"Why did you send me this money?" asked a woman in Kentucky.

"What am I supposed to do with these traveler's checks?" asked a man in Maryland.

"How did you find my address?" asked a third caller in Pennsylvania.

Good questions, all. Unfortunately, I hadn't a clue what they were talking about. It was only after debriefing each of them for a few minutes that I was able to unravel a semblance of a story: On May 22, someone had dropped a number of packages into a FedEx box in Twin Falls, Idaho, with the name Patricia Calhoun, a fake Twin Falls address and my work number on the outside. And inside? A handful of checks or money orders, made out to the package's recipient and allegedly drawn on the U.S. Postal Service or Chase or another bank, and totaling anywhere from a couple thousand dollars to five thousand smackers.

I decided to start tracking the mystery at FedEx, where I was put on hold with customer service for half an hour. A few more rounds of hold later — "all agents are currently busy" — I wound up with an official in FedEx's fraud security department, who said that someone unknown had mailed the packages on my FedEx account. Just one problem, I told her: I don't have a FedEx account.

Wrong. Turns out that as of May 21, I did: Someone had opened the account online using my home address and my Visa card.

This time it was FedEx's turn to hold while I canceled that Visa.

While I was on the phone, two more calls came in to my voice mail, where I'd recorded a new message advising callers that Patricia Calhoun of Twin Falls, Idaho, did not exist. One student in Ohio had received a FedEx package with a wad of traveler's checks; another woman in Pennsylvania had actually tried to cash the money orders that came to her.

I called her back immediately. "It sort of did seem too good to be true," she admitted, as she proceeded to spill out how she'd gotten taken. That weekend, she'd received an e-mail with the subject line "Job Offer Proposal," and rather than delete it the way you do similar e-mails ten, twenty, a hundred times a day, she'd opened hers. "We came across your email address through an email listing affiliated with the US Chamber of Commerce," it read. "We are glad to offer you to be our company's Representative Book Keeper in the USA...the average monthly income is about 4000USD (1000 salary inclusive)."

To earn this amount, all she had to do was agree to receive payments from customers interested in buying fabulous African fabrics and costumes from Finerosetextile Company, deposit those payments in her own bank account, and then forward 93 percent of the total to the company, deducting 7 percent for her trouble — and ignoring a truly alarming number of typos and grammatical errors in the original e-mail offer: "We have noticed now that we are running at a lose, (Time and commission wise) clearing cheques from from the US in our banks here."

But this woman has two kids and a big need for cash, and so she'd replied that she might be interested. Two days later, she received a confirmation e-mail telling her that the money orders were on the way via FedEx, and advising her to deposit them and then send the "company's balance of $3485 via Western Union transfer to the company's delegate in China." When the package arrived, she took the money orders to a check-cashing outfit — which promptly told her they were fakes. "I almost got arrested for this," she said. "My kids were in the car when I was trying to cash that check!"

That check from one Patricia Calhoun.

She'd fallen for the Nigerian Scam, as this particular con is known, although it's morphed a lot since its early days on the Web, when the recipients were supposed to help someone locked up in Nigeria claim some funds — or since its really early days, dating back to the sixteenth century, when it was known as the Spanish Prisoner Scam and involved a wealthy person locked up in Spain who needed a ransom to be rescued.

After her narrow escape, the irate mom continued to correspond with her company contact, pretending that she needed more information before she did anything with the money orders because "this is all a little fishy to me, how do I know your not selling drugs over there." To which she got this explanation: "What I am telling U is that the money that is with U, U need to send it cause our company need it in China for some things and I need to get my air ticket out of the money cause my agent too his in China so I can be coming over very soon, and make all the plans we have for U and the new company...."

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