Friday, July 23, 2010

Fraud, Scam, or Practical Joke?

by Libby Hellmann

Here’s a puzzler of a crime that’s happening to my sister, even as we speak. Although it’s hard to see how anyone is profiting. If you have any thoughts on who, why, or what’s really going on, please -- leave a comment.

In early July, my sister received an email from the Bank of America Fraud Department asking her to call them. When she did, she was told there were about 20 charges on her credit card all on the same day, ranging from $24 to $48. They were all listed as “USPS Click and Ship,” an internet service that allows you to print postage online for packages and large envelopes.

My sister told them she hadn’t made any of those charges, so the bank cancelled her card and gave her credit for all the charges. They told her she’d have to fill out a fraud report. No problem so far, right? Just your average identity theft.

But then, two nights later, she began receiving phone calls from people she didn’t know telling her they’d received a package with her name and return address on it. Inside each package was a personal check for about $2,000, drawn from various banks with real account numbers, names and addresses of the account owner printed on the checks, and, of course, their “signatures.” Each person had received a check from a different person.

The callers had never heard of my sister… or the people who signed the checks. Neither had my sister. She got back in touch with BOA who added the information to her file and speculated that the people whose accounts were used were probably victims as well.

In this day and age of identity theft, it’s not hard to imagine that someone stole my sister’s name, address, and credit card number. Or that they also managed to get checking account information from other strangers.

But why send checks to people who have no idea why they’re getting them? Who’s profiting? What’s the scam? Were the recipients supposed to deposit the checks, use the money, then find out the checks bounced? Was this a way just to get MORE account information from innocent people, ie, the check recipients?

There are other questions, too. Are the people whose accounts were used for the checks being ripped off in other ways besides the checks? Why use my sister’s name and address on the envelope? Didn't they realize the people who got the checks would probably track my sister down?

Which raises the final set of questions...Are these the dumbest identity thieves around? A Keystone Cops gang? Or is there some grand complex scam I’m not aware of?

What do you think? I really want to figure this out.

30 comments:

John Purcell said...

There is a scam going around law firms where someone calls to retain you for a job for a client out of the country, then sends you a check for the retainer. The check is about 10 times the agreed amount, so when you call back and tell them the check was too much, they laugh, say it must have been a clerical error, to deposit the check and wire back the difference. Of course, the check's no good, but the wired funds are.

Not sure that helps, but perhaps they want your sister to deposit the check and then send other funds another way, but she hasn't got far enough into the scam to do that yet? I once received a check from someone saying I had won some prize, and the check, which was drawn on a Canadian account, looked real, but when I checked the internet, there were tons of posts by people who got the same check. I wish I could remember the angle.

Anonymous said...

This is Deane, Libby's sister. I was not one of the check recipients. Presumably there were 20 of them since there were 20 postage charges on my credit card account. The recipients were random people around the country, some of whom called me because my name and return address were on the package they received. No one said there were any instructions about what to do with the checks. One woman said she looked up the checking account owner of the check she received and it was a real person, correct address etc. Another woman said she was reporting it to the police as mail fraud. Someone else suggested I call Experian, Equifax and Transunion to report this. Libby says they'll put a "fraud alert" on my record. What do you think? Is that asking for more trouble?

John Purcell said...

I would allow the report to be placed on your credit record. I don't see how that hurts you.

Here's some check scams. Who knows? Maybe one of them is what they are doing, or maybe they've concocted something original. It still sounds fishy, either way.

John Purcell said...

...and this is the type of scam they tried on me.

Anonymous said...

A guess: If the recipient of the check were to cash it; then their data could find it's way back to the scammer. This could include the routing number and account number. So the crook is counting on the check being cashed.

What I know for certain is that putting an alert out with Trans Union or Experian is not asking for trouble. It's a good idea.

Sara Paretsky said...

I think this sounds unnerving, because someone got access to Deane's credit card. I wonder if the scammer used a random person's credit card and home address to avoid being traced as the source of the checks? And while the check account owners were real, it may be that the account numbers were fake, along the lines of John Purcell's scam--although the whole thing sounds so elaborate as to be unworkable, it's possible, too, it was an act of economic terrorism being enacted on a grand scale along the lines of Margery Allingham's 1940 novel, Traitor's Purse.

Doug Riddle said...

Intresting....and my first guess is that even though everyone involved lived in different parts of the country and different banks were involved, there is some common element.....most likely a purchase made with a credit card....either online or at a store (big chain store) or someplace like a hotel.

A couple years back the parent company for TJ Maxx / Marshalls / Home Goods had their credit card information hacked by thieves stilling outside a TJ Maxx in Miami when the store sent their batch reports at night.

What the profit element is I have no idea. But one the common element is found, then you would be one step closer.

Doug Riddle said...

sorry for any typos etc....sitting in a Starbucks soaking up some much needed a/c after having lost power at home two days ago......not illiterate, just melting

Deane, Libby's sister said...

Thanks everyone for your thoughts. I spoke to Experian and am not sure that's what I need. Will be calling Bank of America to see what protection services they may offer. There are monthly charges for all the providers. I am glad my only involvement is the postage charges on my (now cancelled) credit card and nothing to do with the checks, at least not so far. But as someone suggested, if they have (had) my credit card, name and address, who knows what else they may have? I'll let Libby know of any new developments so she can let you all know. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

There's an interesting item in today's San Jose Mercury News describing a counterfeit check scheme that sounds as though it might be what you experienced:

http://www.mercurynews.com/business/ci_15614807

Maybe the folks that called your sister had responded to a make-easy-money offer on the web, but were suspicious after receiving the fraudulent check and were trying to decide whether they should go along with the scheme.

Anonymous said...

I immediately thought of the scam John Purcell mentioned. I worked at a family law firm, and we had requests to deposit these massive checks from someone's ex and then send on the difference.

Good luck with your search for answers!

Picks By Pat said...

I worked in banking for many years and was responsible for software support for check fraud at a large midwestern bank.

I believe one of the people receiving these checks is the scammer. The other checks were probably sent as a cover, in the hopes your sister would be blamed since her name was listed on the return address. I'll bet she didn't receive calls from all the people who got these checks. But by now, the scammer has probably disappeared.

Anonymous said...

In addition to calling the credit bureaus and asking for a fraud alert to be placed on your account, I would also go to your local police department and file a police report. The police may not be able to do anything to help you stop this, but it may aid in protecting you down the road if someone tries to accuse you of being the perpetrator.

CurtAH said...

Yes- I agree this could be an act of 'economic terrorism'... demonstrating that our personal financial information is available to individuals of little moral character, whose only intent is to shatter our confidence in our financial system. These folks are just demonstrating that they have information about all these individuals- and probably about more folks, too. It will be interesting to see if this begins to happen repeatedly.
Hmmm... isn't DefCon happening right about now?

Shaun Webb said...

Whao. That's crazy! But I know all about abuses of the legal system and am now a registered sex offender beacuse of it. Its all grist for the mill: the subject of my first novel!!

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