A Foolish Little Deflowering: My First Scam.

Learning to trust is one of life's most difficult tasks.

     - Isaac Watts

I hate moving.

Bloody hell it’s a pain. It would be easier if I weren’t a packrat, but there you go.
“Honey, do you need this?”
“What is it?”
“Don’t know. Maybe it’s a pipe. It was my dad’s. I think.”
My wife is not a packrat. I should adopt this attitude from her.

Anyway, moving: you’re busy as hell, and you get to that point eventually where you look at your dog and subconsciously gauge what size box she’d fit in. Then you recalculate because you forgot the food dish. Our impending relocation is international, which makes it even more fun: who knew you had to fumigate your mattresses when moving into Canada?
Then, the only way I could imagine this little excursion worse than it is happened. The most infuriating experience I have ever encountered while moving: falling for a scam while looking for a place to rent.
It started with my wife and I searching for a house to rent in Calgary, Alberta. We’re moving there so she can grow her career in a medical field. I can work basically anywhere. We looked at ads on Craigslist and Kijiji, and also a great site called Rentfaster.ca, which is where we found most contacts.
It was frustrating going: homes rented days after postings went up, and we were still in the states and unable to view the properties or safely give landlords or property managers deposit money to secure a place. Very scam-savvy, you see: silly to send security or deposit money to someone without a contract and a set of keys in return. Everyone knows that.

In our travails she came across an unprepossessing ad for a home in the part of the city where we were looking. The ad was sparse, had a pretty nice photo, and seemed like a good deal. Not too good to be true, just good.
My wife inquired, and the response seemed unusual but not terribly out of the ordinary: the landlord (scammer) wanted to see proof we were able to afford rent. He’d been burned before, he said, and he made a seemingly reasonable request: we could set up a money transfer via Western Union - not to him, but from me to my wife, who would be required to present a photo ID to collect it. All we’d need to do is show him the receipt which proved we had the money.
We did exactly that. $2,831.00. I had to pay cash, so I went to the bank, withdrew $3,000 (I have had so little experience with cash I was actually nervous holding it – victim of a debit card-driven society. It made me feel like goddamn Scrooge McDuck, rolling in dough), and went to the local grocery. The kid behind the counter was efficient and overly-nice, curious about my family’s move from the US to Canada, and nodded approval when I told him I was sending this money to my wife, and the landlord (scammer) would just see just the receipt. “Sounds good,” he said.
After I returned home, I scanned and sent a copy of the receipt off to the landlord (scammer) and put my feet up.
About an hour later I got a call. It was from a toll-free number, and the gal (scammer-2) on the end was well-spoken and seemed professional. She announced that she was from Western Union’s Anti-Fraud division, and she noted we had a particularly large transfer in the works. I said “yes.” She noted it appeared to be going to a family member. I said “yes.” She stated this seemed like a safe way to conduct business, considering the only person who could pick up the transfer was my family member, so she was going to approve the transfer to go through. I said “thank you” and we hung up. Sounds good, indeed.
The landlord (scammer) later reached out to me with an email stating his wife was unable to verify the money was transferred, but we were assured the house was reserved. He sent another message with a dozen bright pictures of the home. To me, this was one thing off a massive, looming checklist of things to do, and that was nice: we were packing, filling out paperwork; all the BS one must go through to move out of one country and into another. Having lodgings secured took a load off our minds.

I was sitting in a tire shop getting the rears replaced on our car when my wife texted me that the landlord (scammer) wasn’t responding to her emails for additional pictures of the place, and she wanted to confirm the address. He hadn’t sent the actual property address, stating he felt that was unsafe. Half an hour later she texted again, saying she thought we might have been scammed.
The thought hadn’t crossed my mind at all, and even after her text I shrugged it off – he was probably just busy.

A few minutes later she called. The money had been picked up already.
How could they pick it up? You need a photo ID, right?
Yeah. You do. What was I missing?

Here are a few details of a Western Union transaction I was a little hazy on:
1.) You cannot send money to a city when you send it out of the country. Send a thousand bucks to, say, Italy, you can pick it up in Palermo or Rome, no difference.
2.) Your receipt has a number on it called the MTCN – this is the number which the sender and recipient can use to verify the transfer is ready for pickup. Anyone, of course, can use this number if they have it.
3.) The receipt also has the recipient’s name on it.
4.) A scammer with the ability to get a fast fake ID only needs that MTCN and the recipients’ name to collect the money, and they can do it anywhere in the country.

The money we intended to secure a place to live was to be picked up in Calgary – my wife would collect it at her leisure after she got there, since she was going to get there first. It was, in fact, picked up in North York, outside Toronto: 2000 miles away.

In hindsight this all seems pretty damn stupid, and I certainly feel stupid. Maybe I should – this was not a “too good to be true” deal, but it was odd. In our zeal to secure the lodgings we needed we fell into it. The scammer knew the market well enough, I think, to set up a basic, no-frills ad that didn’t particularly stand out, but showed a nice, clean home for a fair price. What’d I miss?
Well, how about this:
1.) We never got a phone number
2.) We never saw a photo of the front of the house
3.) We never got an address
I called Western Union’s fraud reporting hotline and got a very tense sounding individual who took my report dispassionately and succinctly. I was in a furry lather at this point, and kept my remarks short and tart – this guy was a note-taker for them, and wasn’t the cause of my woe, no need to chew on him. At one point I angrily muttered “seems the damned receipt is more like a claim ticket for the money, that might have been good to know.” He grunted and kept typing, instructed me to notify the police, and bid me a good day. I assure you I did not have one.
I called the Charlotte/Mecklenburg County Minor Crimes Reporting Hotline, but after 30 minutes I couldn’t handle any more waiting and gave up. I called back on my cell from work later and gave up when my battery died after 25 minutes. I’ll get it done, some day when I have a few hours to waste.

My money’s gone and never coming back, of course. I am certain of that.
So where did it all go wrong?
1.) Stupid is as stupid does. I have to take virtually all the responsibility for this. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t a too-good-to-be-true deal, it doesn’t matter that it seemed fairly straight and narrow – there were signs, I ignored them. For instance, the scammer wrote stating money was not yet available. So what? This was a cash transaction. The receipt proved we’d already spent the money, and that was all the evidence one would need. I paid $2,831 dollars to learn that cheery little factoid.
2.) This scammer was well equipped enough to have a simple little scam, a partner, and good working knowledge of Western Unions’ weaknesses, plus I might actually assume a there was a good understanding of the working mind of one who has never used Western Union before: it was called a receipt, but should have been viewed by me as a hat check ticket.
3.) Young, pleasant clerks in grocery stores are trained to set up Western Union transfers, but holy hell are they poorly trained. I told the kid what I was going to do, and he didn’t shoot down my security measures. Note that the grocery chain, and the kid himself, are blameless here: they didn’t invent the process, and obviously were not well trained on it.
4.) Noob factors: I have never, ever been scammed before, and this type of scam – rental/roommate scams they’re called on the http://www.scamvictimsunited.com web site – aren’t something I do weekly, monthly, or even yearly: renters who move a lot may know about it, I tend to stay places for at least a few years.
5.) The Perfect Storm. Take into account my glee at finding a clean, quick solution to our rental problem, my willingness to turn my back on the quirky nature of the deal, and all the above factors, and I am suddenly the perfect victim. Face it, folks: this story contains a measurable amount of laziness on my part, no matter how exhausting the process of moving is. The signs were there. My head wasn’t.

For their part, I do have a few questions for Western Union, of course. The idea of having all relevant data needed to collect money on a receipt seems a bit ludicrous, and low-hanging fruit to the scammer community. What if I drop it? I am assuming the scammers who took me put little more than an hour’s effort into it, depending upon how long it took to secure a fake ID. Given the number of friends I had who carried fake ID’s back in High School, it isn’t a long reach, I bet.
And recent events uncovering scams which have included luring victims off into dark places and murdering them, how can they say they are performing good customer service when their agents community at large remains so untrained?
As for the grocery store, I was loathe to call and tell them about it for fear the poor kid who did my order would get fired, but it needed to be socialized that this happened there to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

In the end, I got my cherry popped by someone just clever enough to know there’s some truth to P.T, Barnum’s famous adage “there’s a sucker born every minute,” and I am left feeling like most virgins who just gave away their purity.

It was a lot better for the other person than it was for me.

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