THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Snappy scam: Photographer target of email bilking
The spam comes at me in waves, but it's all a variation on the same theme.
There's a multi-million dollar fortune trapped in some Third World country, or sometimes locked in the basement vault of a London bank, its rightful owner blocked from it by some legal technicality. And if I would just offer a little help as a middleman for a banking transaction to help them get it, half of it would be mine.
If these e-mails make it past my spam-blocker, I usually just delete them. Occasionally, I read them just for the entertainment value. Among recent standouts was an email purportedly from Charles "Chuckie" MacArthur Emmanuel, son of former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, seeking my help in recovering his family's fortune.
Chuckie was sitting in a Miami jail cell at the time, awaiting trial on passport fraud charges, and was on the run from war crimes allegations.
And there is, of course, the Mona Lisa of the genre, the tale of an African astronaut stranded on the MIR space station for years through a bureaucratic snafu. He's owed millions in back pay, half of which is yours if you will just help finance a mission to get him back to Earth where he can cash the paychecks.
While the very absurdity of these scams makes it tough to muster up much sympathy for victims– the hubris and greed required to actually fall for them carry built-in schadenfreude– there's a much more subtle form of this con that's no laughing matter. Last month, it almost nabbed Hook photographer Will Walker.
In addition to his work for the Hook, Walker is a professional photographer, so when he received an email from a Reverend Edwin Donko to make arrangements for photographing a weekend of festivities associated with his wedding anniversary, which he would be coming to Charlottesville to celebrate, Walker was pleased to shoot the event.
Shortly thereafter, he received a legitimate-looking cashier's check for $7,500, an amount significantly in excess of the agreed-upon $3,600 fee. Walker was wary, but when his bank accepted the check without any hassle, he still thought it might be the real deal.
Like any honest and responsible businessman, he emailed Donko about the discrepancy.
Donko responded that his trip's "sponsors" erroneously sent all the money they had raised– including Walker's fee, $2,500 in Donko's travel expenses, and an additional $1,400, to Walker in one check. Donko asked Walker to cash the check, from which Walker could keep his fee, and to please wire Donko's travel expenses to his agent, Global Travel & Tours in Accra, Ghana, via Western Union.
At this point, an extremely suspicious Walker wrote fellow photog Jen Fariello asking, "Hey ... doesn't this seem really sketchy?" Fariello agreed.
Walker returned to his bank. There, an investigation revealed that the check, from investment bank Davenport & Co. was indeed legitimate, but unfortunately came from a cache of recently stolen blank checks.
Had Walker complied with Donko's request, he would have been out the $2,500.
This was no random astronaut-stuck-in-space story. The scammers had clearly targeted a local photographer.
Donko's emails are not obvious frauds. Indeed, they are slightly off, but their errors might even enhance their credibility. For example, there is no Global & Travel Tours in Accra, but there is a Global Pleasure Travel & Tours there– close enough to seem legitimate. Similarly, Donko's email signature line references a religious website, belief.net, which my browser could not find. There's a similarly named website, beliefnet.com.
The Hook has written a number of times on variations of this scam. A particularly common one in this town scours classified ads on Craigslist or other publications to find students or landlords trying to rent rooms for upcoming semesters. Following email communications that can last weeks to establish trust, the scammer will send the victim a cashier's check for more than the rental amount and then ask for a check on their own account to return the overage.
It seems seasonal, probably because of the rhythms of the school year. Last spring at least three UVA students were bilked of several thousand dollars each by this scam.
This spring, forewarned is forearmed.
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