Patricia Calhoun of Twin Falls, Idaho, is a very generous woman. Particularly with my phone number.
Last Wednesday, my direct line at Westword started 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...."
I went on the company's website, www.superfinerose.com, to learn more about the self-proclaimed "place for Big lace, Damask and Headtie." But beneath the smiling pictures of the African models was a suspicious sign: an address in Korea. And the website would work even better, my computer advised me, if I downloaded the script for the Korean language. Perhaps Big lace translates as Big Scam in Korean.
Several of the beneficiaries of Patricia Calhoun's fraudulent largesse insisted that they'd never heard of superfinerose. com, although one did mutter something about doing some work for someone in China before she hung up. But others said they'd recently advertised items on eBay, which shows the next direction this scam is headed: You advertise an item for $400, a buyer sends you a check for $4,000, then e-mails you that, oops, he made a mistake, and why don't you just deposit the first check, keep $100 or $200 or $500 for your troubles, and then send the rest back to the sender. After you do that, of course, the bank discovers that the initial check you deposited was a forgery — but you've already sent real money to the scammer.
Between chats with my new penpals, I called the U.S. Postal Service (which has to be relieved that the con now relies largely on the Web and commercial delivery outlets) and filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission's identity-theft site, which lists other steps to follow, including notifying credit-reporting agencies. One of my Pennsylvania correspondents had found a very useful FedEx worker in Twin Falls, who'd told him that 41 packages had been dropped into the box that day. But when I called the Twin Falls office, I reached a much more officious FedEx worker who said the helpful fellow was only a part-time carrier who had no authority, and what was I doing with their internal office line, anyway? Gee, I responded, a lot less than the person they'd let open a bogus FedEx account with my internal office line.
The Denver Police Department clerk who took my complaint wasn't much more enthusiastic, even though I was careful to file a report that didn't contain a single typo or grammatical error that might mark me as a Nigerian Scammer. He only perked up when it came to the line of potential suspects — a cast of characters too large to list, since I'd had a host of workers trudging in and out of my flooded, asbestos-riddled house all winter. Then there was the write-in candidate for city council who'd threatened to shoot up the office because of a Kenny Be cartoon, although it was unlikely that his scooter could make it to Twin Falls. But hey, how about that adult bookstore where I'd charged a set of handcuffs for a wedding present a few days earlier? And that doctor out on bond for treating strippers in exchange for porn might have skipped out on his bond...
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But even with a suspect, it's hard for a local department to make a case, since these scams stretch around the globe. Even as I was pulling all the superfine rose.com strings last week, I talked to a Denver teenager who'd advertised his paintball gun on eBay, gotten a check for ten times the amount he was asking, and then was told to ship the gun and a money order for several thousand dollars overseas — which he was ready to do when he found out that the check he'd deposited was counterfeit. And another man in Littleton who was trying to do some business on eBay suddenly found that he'd opened a FedEx account — which was doing a land-office business shipping phony checks out of Georgia.
"We work very cooperatively with all levels of law-enforcement agencies," explains a FedEx spokesman, who then declines to say exactly how they all work cooperatively, since that might tip off the scam artists. "We vigorously defend the use of our network from illegal shipments."
Perhaps, but when I caught the FedEx logo on a midnight rerun of Cast Away this weekend, I changed the channel faster than I deleted the 100 persentage legit Job Offer that just arrived in my inbox.