No matter how caring or conscientious a company and its employees may be, on occasion most receive some kind of call from an irate or even crazy customer.
Such was the case, or so we first thought, when a call came in that accused us of stealing from a woman in Pennsylvania by writing a bad check.
Thus began our 18 month-long Nigerian nightmare.
Apparently, this woman advertised a couch for sale on Craig’s List. A man in Tennessee contacted her about buying the bed and offered her the asking price. He stated that he would send her a check via overnight UPS mail. She was to deposit the check, retain her share for the price of the couch plus some additional cash for her trouble and then wire the rest to an account that the buyer provided.
After she received the check, followed the instructions and wired on the remaining balance, she learned 3 days later that the check had bounced and she was out a lot of money. About $2,400.
The check? An exact counterfeit duplicate of our company’s check with the exception of one incorrect digit in the account number. Thankfully, our bank caught it and refused payment.
It soon became clear that this was not to be a one-time incident. The calls began to multiply and become angrier. Every victim thought we were to blame. It wasn’t long before the calls over a matter of months were well over 100 and they came from all over the country. Some days there were as many as 5 to 10. As it turns out, there are countless ways to scam gullible people who think they can make an easy buck.
Within days of the beginning of this scam, we engaged the help of local police fraud detectives and contacted county and federal prosecutors as well. The Feds couldn’t offer any help because none of the scam checks were written for more than about $2,600. The federal authorities explained that the scam artists know this and deliberately go for a larger quantity of scam checks with lower amounts to avoid federal level intervention. The county level prosecutor’s office said there was nothing they could do either.
The city police told us this was a classic Nigerian check scam. Based on experience, they know that these scams are impossible to catch or stop. The money that each victim wired away actually went to another victim of the scam. This second victim was lead to believe that they were helping an offshore charity by receiving the wired money, keeping a few hundred dollars as payment for themselves and then wiring the rest of the money to what turns out to be offshore bank accounts, usually in Nigeria.
The fraud detectives explained that in Nigeria, one can actually take a course in how to scam and defraud Americans and that it is considered an honorable profession.
At one point, we thought we were clever and attempted to identify the scammer’s source location by the UPS account number on the UPS envelope used to send the fraud check to the victim after convincing one victim to send us the UPS envelope. It turns out that the UPS account number used was stolen from a company in New Jersey.
A month or two later, we thought we were again clever by identifying a drop point for one of the checks. We caught an address, searched it via Google Earth and Street View only to see that the address was an abandoned building in a bad neighborhood in The Bronx.
For a year-and-a-half we chased this matter, worked with authorities and put out fires. We addressed every single angry caller and provided them with details of our efforts to stop it. All to avoid some type of social media smear or a trumped up lawsuit that could have severely impacted our company image and reputation.
Every time we thought it had ended, it would again flair up for brief periods and affect victims all over the country. There was no pattern. In fact, after some time, the scammers even stopped using our CFO’s name and signature and started using a variety names as the check signer. All of the other names used to sign the checks were names of our employees and none of them had signing authority.
We ultimately survived the situation. The checks finally stopped and we came away unscathed in social media and no one sued us. But, the price for that diligence did exact a heavy toll on management time and the volume and frequency of our Head Noise.
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Cameron Bishop is a partner with The Capitus Group. The firm provides comprehensive business value enhancement and transition strategy solutions. Partners and Advisory Directors comprise an experienced team of business professionals who have successfully owned, run, grown and sold companies. Capitus utilizes proven value enhancement and risk reduction techniques to enable superior transition options.