I’m going to tell the story of something that happened to my wife this week. It will piss you off. I know it pissed me off. It’s about a type of scam that’s apparently been in play for a little while now, but I’d never heard about it until it happened to her.
A little background, first.
We met in Portsmouth, NH in 2005. I was up there because my submarine was going through an overhaul at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. I lived in a small town called South Berwick, Maine, just across the border from New Hampshire. Long story short, she moved into my place in 2006 and we got married in 2007. In early 2008, I transferred to the Pentagon, and the rest, as they say, is history. When I met her, she had just finished up her Bachelor’s degree and training for a paralegal certificate, and she decided to continue on to grad school, to get an MBA. She had previously been to college but dropped out, and worked in construction (she was a crane oiler and operator – pretty cool, actually) and in a hotel in Portsmouth before shifting to the paralegal game. As an aside, she worked for a defense attorney, and holy cow does she have stories. I won’t go into them except to say that I oppose the entire concept of sex offender registration lists completely and without reservation, mostly because of the stories she told me about guys getting completely fucked by the system and labelled for life over something that amounted to the equivalent of stealing a pack of gum from a 7 Eleven.
But I digress…
Before I knew her, she was not so good with money, and made some bad calls. Among them, taking out a Payday Loan. I don’t want to go off on a rant about Payday Loans, but I think we can all agree that they are designed to prey on the most desperate, least educated, and/or least financially savvy members of the population. No one who knows how to evaluate interest rates would ever even think about signing on to a Payday Loan unless they had no other choice. Ever. The interest rates on those things extend well beyond usury into the diabolical. That said, they are better than the alternatives like the mob, so I will not ever support an initiative to ban them. They do fill a need in the marketplace, and in their defense they are loaning to the highest of high-risk people, so they stand an excellent chance of never getting their money back. Which justifies their uber-high interest rates. To an extent. Sort of.
I still don’t like them.
Anyway, she had some debts when we hooked up, though she had already cleared up the Payday Loan by that point. During the summer of 2006, I sold my house in Charleston, SC. We used part of the proceeds to day off all of her debts, and we entered the marriage feeling good about life. Until 2008, when I just got crushed by the real estate market and a couple other things. Long story, but suffice it to say we’re only just now getting dug out from that mess; by April of next year we’ll be debt free again, except for her student loans. But I don’t really count them as bad debt, since they are, after all, tax deductible. As I said before, it’s good to stick it to the man. Also in late 2008, I got transferred back to Charleston and suddenly regretted selling my house, but you can’t predict these things and the money went to good use, as I said.
But again, I digress…
So, fast forward to this week. Thursday afternoon, to be exact. The better half sent me an email that someone left a voice message on her cell phone about some sort of allegations against her. I thought, “Hmm that’s weird,” but didn’t worry about it too much until I got home. She told me the guy called her back and told her that a check she had written to pay off her Payday Loan had bounced, way back when, so she owed $945 dollars. Since writing a bad check for >$500 is a felony with a sentence up to a year in jail, this guy’s business was going to forward the claim to the county prosecutor’s office unless she settled up. In their generosity, they would take only $450 and call the matter settled. She was supposed to call him first thing the next morning to work out the details of how to git ‘r done.
Needless to say, she was a little rattled. But she was also suspicious. I was, too. A few things stood out:
- He never told her the name of his company, which supposedly was hired to handle the delinquent account.
- He wouldn’t tell her which bank or business had the claim.
- He claimed they had sent written notice to her, but they sent it to our address in Maine, where we haven’t lived in five years. When she asked him to re-send it, he said “they” – the company with the claim I suppose – had already tried once, and they would not send it out again.
- He had her social security number, date of birth, and maiden name, but asked her to confirm them (and she did – boy does she feel stupid).
- He claimed to have run her credit report. Of course, had he run her credit report, he would have had her current address and #3 would not have happened.
This had my suspicious dander up. So I did a little research online. Found out some nice facts:
- Dude’s phone number turned out to be a cell phone in Athens, GA. Recall that we lived in Maine during the time in question. In fact, she lived in New Hampshire when the Payday Loan bit went down. So why exactly would a business in Georgia be involved? And why would he be placing business calls from a cell phone while talking as though he was calling from his office?
- Turns out the Statute of Limitations for bounced checks ranges between 3-5 years, depending on the State. Maine’s is 4 years, as is Georgia’s. I checked.
- I ran her credit report (she was due for her free annual check anyway). The only delinquencies on there were the accounts we already knew about, which were just about set to come off her report as we paid them off in 2006. No one had inquired as to her credit besides Transunion (one of the credit bureaus) since October of last year. So when had this dude supposedly checked her credit?
I did some of this research after the better half went to sleep. When she got up in the morning, I filled her in on what I’d learned and she felt a lot better. We agreed that if she heard from the guy again she would demand he send her written notice of the delinquency because that’s how things are done. Otherwise, he could piss off. I left for work feeling good about things.
I came back a little before noon. It was an early day because we were having a thing called a Hail and Farewell, where we welcome new officers into the command’s wardroom and say goodbye to the guys and gals who are leaving, at 1300. I arrived to find the better half completely frantic. She was just hanging up after talking to the guy and she was almost in tears. Turns out the guy had again refused to send out written documentation. He claimed his associate had tried to send an email to her, but she had never received it. He then proceeded to get that associate on the phone, and she told the lady her email address again. Twice. Each time they lost connect, somehow.
After the second lost connect, she was really tearing up. “What if I missed something, somehow when we were cleaning up my debt? This is a felony! I don’t want to go to jail!”
To say I was pissed was to call lava lukewarm. I needed to take our son to Speech Therapy (he had a half-hour session scheduled before we left for the Hail and Farewell), so I told her not to do anything. But I wrote down the guy’s phone number. On the way back from dropping our son off, I called the dude. Here is how the conversation went:
“This is Christopher Ross.”
“Hi, what’s your company’s name and where is it located?”
“Who is this?”
I told him.
“Oh you’re Ericka’s husband?”
“Yes. And there are several holes in your story.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t talk to you about this without her consent.”
“Actually you can. It’s called I’m her spouse. What is your company’s name and where is it located?”
“Etech Systems in Atlanta, Georgia.” – Remember how his cell phone was from Athens? Athens is a goodly distance from Atlanta.
“Ok, here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to send us, in writing, in the MAIL, on company letterhead, some actual documentation of this supposed claim. There is a formal, legal method to do this and it doesn’t involve semi-threatening phone calls from anonymous people.”
“Sir, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I know I work for a legitimate business and I’ve done everything I can to help you solve this out of court. So I’ll tell you what, I’m going to terminate this call and forward this package on to the County.”
I called him back. Got the name of his business again before he hung up on me. But I wasn’t done. So I called him back again.
“This is Christopher Ross.”
“Who is your supervisor.”
“Who is your supervisor? Let me speak with your supervisor.”
“As I said before, I am the pre-litigation lead in the check fraud division. I don’t have a supervisor except for the director, and he won’t talk to you. I’ve done everything I can do, and I’m forwarding the package on to the County.”
By the time I got home, Ericka was less stressed, as she had time to think about it. I looked up his business. The only Etech Systems in Atlanta is an electronics company. Maybe. But its Manta profile is empty, as is its profile on the local business forums. Suspicious. Ericka found a number of forums that warn people about this very scam, but with different names. We both agreed again that obviously, this was a complete scam. So we called the FTC and made a report. I intended to call the local FBI field office to file a report also, but got caught up in Hail an Farewell stuff and didn’t get around to it. We’ll probably do that today.
So let’s talk about all the things that were wrong with this guy’s claim:
- If you are in debt to a business, they will send you documentation of it in writing. Email is not writing. They will call you if they have been unsuccessful in reaching you in writing, but they will (and I’m pretty sure they must, legally) always send written documentation on it.
- A legal complaint, such as a lawsuit or criminal charges, against you will always be made in writing.
- A legit business will not be circumspect about its contact information, and will never refuse your demand to talk to a supervisor.
- You are legally required to be shown all evidence against you so that you may defend yourself against accusations.
I could go on, but this has all the hallmarks of being a total scam. The FTC agreed, and confirmed that they had encountered this before multiple times.
So yahoo! Scam defeated!
Well, no. Not really. Here’s why.
This guy was very slick, spoke well, and sounded, for lack of a better term, bureaucratic, like a worker-bee in an office. In short, he sounded legit. He seemed to have Ericka’s vital data, but she can’t recall how much he had and how much he got her to reveal. By the end of this, he had her SSN, birth date, maiden name, email address, current address, and a former address. That is everything he needs to steal her identity and do all sorts of nasty things in her name. We’ve put fraud alerts on all our accounts and with all three credit bureaus. But still, this is bad.
We knew this was a scam on Thursday night/Friday morning. Even still, this guy was so slick, and pressed the “You’re going to jail” intimidation so hard that by the time I got home, Ericka was scared almost out of her wits. She’s smart. She has legal experience and an MBA. But this guy was hitting the emotional buttons so hard that all she could think of for a while there was that she was going to jail, she would lose her kids, her life would be ruined. Not to pat myself on the back or denigrate her, but I halfway think if I hadn’t arrived then and poked a finger back at the execrable Mr. Ross, she may have given in and just sent him money. Which is exactly how these guys operate. They cajole and threaten, and the easily intimidated, or the ignorant, or the stupid, or just the senile people of the world will roll over and pay.
A lot of people on those forums that Ericka found did just that. And then found that they were hounded even more afterwords.
So keep this in mind: you do not owe money to an anonymous voice on the phone. There must be documentation IN WRITING (not email. writing.) or it is not real. Worst case, just call the bluff and tell them to sue you, or to press charges. That might seem scary, but let’s think about this. Let’s say this was real and Ericka really was liable here. Worst case, we would get slapped with a summons or an arrest warrant. But then we at least would have faces, names, and paperwork to deal with, an attorney on our side, and a process to go through. All the things that separate us from the barbarians. And that is a whole lot better to deal with than some unknown, threatening voice on the phone.
And let’s face it – you’re not doing time for something like this. Worst case you’ll pay a fine and restitution. Seriously.
So that’s my story. I’m sure Christopher Ross was not this guy’s real name. But just in case, his phone number was 706-621-7715. Do not trust anyone who calls from that number.
You have been warned.