THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- Roommate ruse: Bank scam claims another victim
When Tom Steeves advertised on craigslist.com for a roommate, he didn't realize that he would fall prey to a faceless criminal and pay a wrenchingly high price for his misfortune.
A Charlottesville native who attends Radford University and lives in Blacksburg, Steeves got an email on January 7 from a "Catherine Smith" who purported to be looking for an apartment for her "marketing executive," who would be coming to the U.S. for six months of training. Steeves, who didn't know that this is the latest iteration of the infamous "Nigerian 419" scam, responded by describing the house, his roommate (who is also his girlfriend), and their pets. He also asked for a description of Smith's employee, seeing as how they wouldn't meet until the person's arrival in Blacksburg.
Steeves' transaction unfolded the way these scams always do: Smith wrote back to assure Steeves the employee, 23-year-old "Faith Mcmillian," was a "responsible, approachable and martured [sic] professional," then got down to business.
Smith briskly informed Steeves that she'd be sending a U.S. money order for $3,200, even though Mcmillian's rent would only be $300 a month and her share of the deposit $150. "I am sending you that much money," she explained, "because I am out of the country at the moment and my staff will be in need of physical cash in order to arrange her flight ticket and shop for other necessary things to take along to the States."
Then, she continued, Steeves would cash the check and wire Mcmillian's travel agent the difference after deducting the rent, deposit, and wire-transfer fee. Numerous emails back and forth ensued, with the amount of the check and the name of the travel agent changing for no apparent reason. Steeves finally received a check for $4,500, purportedly issued by Integrated Payment Systems in Englewood, Colo., and drawn on the Wachovia account of "Peter Gaudet."
How I wish Steeves had read the Hook's earlier articles about these things: "Nigeria's latest" on October 7, 2004 and my January 26, 2006 column entitled, "Check the check."
On January 16, Steeves took the check to a Bank of America branch in Blacksburg, where he claims a bank employee held it up to the light while examining it, then initialed the back and allowed him to cash it– even though, he says, he only had $200 in his checking account.
I'm surprised the check passed muster, because there's a red flag that even a neophyte in the banking world might have noticed: On the "Pay to the order of" line, Steeves' name looks like it was painstakingly printed by a child. Checks issued by such companies as Integrated Payment Systems, however– which is a legitimate company and has a website, fdcips.com, that illustrates their checks' 11 security features– are never handwritten, let alone printed in a childish scrawl. The employee may have held the check up to the light, but she would have done better to simply read it.
You can guess the rest: Steeves wired the elusive "travel agent," Julie Savage of Andalusia, Alaska, $3,860 and assumed the matter was closed. Instead, to his horror, he learned a week later that the check had been counterfeit– which meant that he was overdrawn by $4,300.
Steeves appealed to the bank, but its only concession was to allow him to pay $500 every two weeks. For a full-time student who works in a restaurant part-time, that's cold comfort; Steeves believes that his bank should have read the warning signs he was too naïve to see.
Bank of America spokeswoman Diane Wagner declined to comment, citing customer confidentiality, but stated that "tellers do try to determine if a check is counterfeit, but sometimes it is not possible." Sounds to me like the teller in question could use a refresher course in the basics of fraud detection.
Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second Street NW, Charlottesville 22902.