Brace yourselves for a lengthy post my friends! In my non-writing life in addition to a full-time job in IT customer support, I’m also an independent designer for Origami Owl, a direct sales custom jewelry company. (If you look for me on their site, you won’t find me; I’m listed under my real name, not my pen name.) I recently became aware of a scam targeting those in direct sales when the scammers set their sights on me. It took me several internet searches before I stumbled upon the right words to find others impacted so I thought I would summarize my experience here – along with the things that set my internal alarm system off – as a warning to others who might find themselves in the same situation.
My journey began when I received the following email notice via my Origami Owl website:
Hello i have a list of stuffs I will like to order for my daughters wedding. I will appreciate if u can email me back at (email@example.com ) so I can forward you the list. Thank you. Mr David.
The fact that the message has a couple of grammatical errors is not enough to make me think SCAM! Grammar Nazis aside, we all make typos and fall victim to autocorrect. Some might think it odd that the customer contacted me about placing an order rather than just placing it on my site, but once again, that isn’t enough to indicate a scam. There are still plenty of people – especially older people – that are somewhat comfortable surfing the web, but not necessarily with actually ordering.
So, I contacted “Mr. David” to find out what I could do to assist. I received the following reply:
Thanks for getting back to me, I hate to say this, I am hearing impaired and hope you treat me like any of your other customers. Sadly for me this is the last Christmas we will be celebrating together as a family unless she comes for holiday.
I’m getting her these gift as a surprise wedding gift so anytime she puts them on, she would always remember that mom got it for her… Below is the list of products I want, She’s my only child and my world. I will order some more for my self in the future. So reply to this email with an invoice with the total price and cell # as I might need to text you.
INSERT LENGTHY LIST OF ITEMS HERE
I would like to send payment upfront so you can commence with the order, So let me know how much the grand-total for the order would cost me and payment will be made out to you via cashier/certified check, once the check clears i will give you the shipping address to send it to.. Kindly get back to me with the total amount, Name, phone # and contact address where payment should be mailed to you. You will have it shipped to this address : 6300 44th street Sacramento, CA 95824.
This is where the first mental alarms went off. First, the total of the items listed was roughly $650. For someone to contact me out of the blue with an order that large made me a little suspicious. It kind of felt like the old saying “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Second, the shipping address was Sacramento, CA – the other side of the country. “Mr. David” could have found hundreds of designers closer to his location. However, I do have a friend in the Sacramento area and I had given her an Origami Owl bracelet for Christmas so it was completely within reason that she had referred him to me.
When tallying up Mr. David’s order I noticed some discrepancies, such as not ordering a band for a bracelet. When I emailed him his total, I included my recommendations for resolving the discrepancies and included two totals – one for the order as submitted and a second including my recommended changes.
The next response is where the warning bells became claxons:
I need to inform you that the payment for the products has been mailed to you via USPS courier service, my personal assistant is yet to get back to me with the tracking number from USPS although she told me its been mailed out. please do proceed to your bank immediately and get the payment check deposited into your bank account, funds will be available and fully cleared into your account the following day.
Also, I will like to notify you that she mistakenly gave you the wedding planner amount and gave the planner $644.95 which is ment for you, all you have to do is to just deduct the money for the product from the fund and Extra $20 as a gift for time and get the rest send to the wedding planner who is to book her ticket and other things needed to be done as soon as the money clears. Because she will be coming down to the area to visit all the vendors that will be working for us perior to the wedding day. Do get back to me asap to know you understand what i mean then i will get back to you with her account information to make the deposit.
There were several areas of concern in this response. First, there was absolutely NO acknowledgment of the discrepancies I pointed out. Second, you have a “personal assistant” that mailed me the check but she couldn’t help you place the order online? Right. Last, the remainder of the response is classic scam: I’m going to send you money which you need to deposit immediately and then do this for me because there was a mistake. Yeah, not going to happen.
So, by this time, I’m confident that this is a scam but let’s just see where it goes. Then, the mail gods stepped in on my behalf. I didn’t receive the promised payment. The tracking number provided showed it as “In Transit” but it never arrived. So, after several days, being the professional that I am, I notified “Mr. David” of the problem. By this point, Mr. David must have thought he had a sure thing because he immediately sent me another payment by FedEx – he ever went so far as to overnight it! My dear “customer’s” excitement was almost palpable – he began texting me to thank me for “my caring” and to find out if I had received the payment. Now, a real, non-scammer customer would have taken this turn of events as an opportunity to fix his mistake and send me a payment for the correct amount. Not my dear Mr. David, his second money order was also for the incorrect amount – $4900 to be exact.
The payment itself was chock full of oddities. The FedEx label showed that the shipment came from Obi Arah at the The Blackstone Group in New York. Now, the Blackstone Group is real but their website shows no record of anyone named Obi Arah. The money order itself was supposedly drawn on Credit Union 1 in Anchorage Alaska. Once again, there is a Credit Union1 in Anchorage but why would a prominent New York firm write their checks from a Credit Union in Alaska? Well, they wouldn’t. The money order itself has a line which states “Ref: FRANCES MAUGA” Who the heck is Frances? Nowhere in our communications is a Frances listed. I even did an internet search for Frances and – big surprise (not) – didn’t find anything. The rather amusing clincher was the poorly formatted “letter” included. The letter from Michael Lee instructed me to email him at Michael.Lee@accountant.com (such an official address don’t you think?) and send him a copy of my deposit slip. Just how stupid do you think I am “Michael”? I don’t send anyone anything involving my account numbers and if you are reading this, neither should you.
In this particular ploy, the scammers are hoping that you will deposit their fake money order. Then, when the funds become available to you, that you will forward the “accidental” overage to the account that they provide. They then abscond with your money leaving you to face the consequences. You see, the financial institutions will discover in a few days that the money order is fake. And, while hell may hath no fury like a woman scorned, that doesn’t hold a candle to a financial institution in danger of losing money. And, have no fear, they will not go after the scammer – they will go after YOU. Not only will you be expected to pay back the full amount of the fake money order, but you will be hit with fees out the wazoo. Afraid yet? Good.
I noticed that a lot of the others approached by these scammers are, like me, relatively new to the world of direct sales. (I saw reports from consultants with Origami Owl, Avon, and Mary Kay. I’m sure there are others as well.) Yes, the idea of making such a huge sale is exciting, and that is what they are banking on. They are hoping that our excitement will overwhelm our common sense and sadly, I’m sure sometimes it does. They wouldn’t keep trying if they weren’t occasionally successful.
Oh, how does my story end? With one last text to Mr. David:
“Hi Mr David! Thank you for the phony cashier’s check. I have made a copy of all documentation received from you – including IP addresses – and forwarded it to local law enforcement agencies and the FBI. Better luck next time!”
I then blocked his phone number and email address. Now, I didn’t really send anything to the FBI but if my threat put some fear into some dishonest person’s heart for just a minute, it was worth the little white lie.
What about you? Do you have any tales of scammers to share?