A couple of weeks ago I answered an ad for a freelanced writer, probably on Craigslist, but I’m not sure and now wish I were. As I recall they wanted a writer and were willing to pay $2 a word.
That rate is high for a writing job, particularly online, but not impossible.
A day or two later I got an email describing a 20,000 word project and asking for a more specific quote. The email had a business address and phone number in Canada and seemed fine. (I’ve done business with Canadians before successfully.) I offered to do the work for a total of $10,000, with a third up front, a third in the middle and the balance at the end, with two revisions per chapter. My bid was maybe a bit low, but the writing work they wanted was easy and was feeling a bit hungry.
The next email, which said they wanted to pay in quarters rather than thirds, also seemed fine.
Then it began to fall apart. I suggested they pay by PayPal and they responded they couldn’t use that service but would be happy to send a cashier’s check. I was told to expct a phone call to confirm my mailing address. But the English seemed off this time.
The phone call came and seemed to be just a confirmation of my address along with the statement that a cashier’s check would shortly be in the mail.
By this time I was pretty sure I was involved in some sort of scam. Since my address is public I didn’t figured I wasn’t hurting myself by confirming it. I decided to just wait and see what happened.
Sure enough in a few days a cashier’s check arrived, but instead of being for a quarter or even a third, it was for more two-thirds of our agreed amount. Now I was sure someone was being scammed.
I called my the credit union where I do business (California Coast Federal Credit Union if you’re in the San Diego area) and asked what I should do. They suggested I call the issuing bank, or in this case, credit union (Michigan State University Federal Credit Union if you’re there – nice folks). The logo on the check and the logo on the credit union’s site were identical. I couldn’t get through on the phone, but they had a chat function and shortly I was chatting with someone helpful. Sure enough, the account existed, but was empty and according to the fellow I was chatting with it was the second or third time that day they’d gotten a call about that account!
The credit union didn’t seem to know where I could report it, but I found the Internet Crime Complaint Center and filed a report there. Since the check was mailed, although from Canada, I’m taking it and the envelope to the post office today, along with copies of the emails.
I am grateful that Craigslist posts warning like:
FAKE CASHIER CHECKS & MONEY ORDERS ARE COMMON, and BANKS WILL CASH THEM AND THEN HOLD YOU RESPONSIBLE when the fake is discovered weeks later.
over and over again. That probably planted a needed doubt in my brain.
It’s no longer enough to be wary of cashier’s checks from foreign countries, nor is it enough to simply check to see if the issuing bank exists. Nor is it enough to say if it’s too good to be true… in this case, none of those applied. The amount offered for my writing skill was reasonable. While Canada is a foreign country it isn’t Nigeria. The phone call I received was from a number that at least appeared to be inside the US and, as you know, it’s impossible to tell where emails come from.
The truth is, a call to the issuing bank is the only way to check out if the money you’re being sent exists.
I’m not clear on how the scammers expected to benefit. I can’t imagine they wanted the writing for free – the writing gig was just an excuse for the transaction. The usual pattern would be for them to ask for a portion of the money back – that hasn’t happened. In fact I haven’t heard from them at all, leading me to believe they are at least temporarily out of business. But maybe they would have asked me to refund the “extra” third. If I had they would have gained and I would have lost.
If I had deposited the check, my bank is required to honor it until they find out it’s bogus, at which point I become responsible for what I’ve spent, not either bank. In other words, I would have been on the hook.
I certainly could have stopped this by not responding at any point, or probably by trying the phone number. I don’t know why I didn’t – I don’t expect to be scammed and this is the first time it’s happened.
My decision to keep going and see what happened was both curiosity and a desire to stop scammers. But I will admit that while the fellow at the credit union was checking the account number I was considering how I might use the money!
By the way, as most of you know, I do a lot of business over the internet and will continue to. It’s probably no more risky than many streets. Just be careful.
Have you ever been scammed?
Image from http://www.sxc.hu