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Check Fraud
19 January 2009

In the movie Catch Me If You Can Tom Hanks played Agent Carl Hanratty who pursued Frank W. Abagnale, Jr. a check forger and impostor.

The vast majority of our customers are honest, friendly and understanding.  I think the vast majority of people are generally good.  Unfortunately there are always a small percentage that you have to watch out for.

We recently received an email from someone interested in purchasing some Kona coffee from us.  Most people can manage to order coffee from the website without any problems but some need a little extra help.  In this case, the email request we received was quite vague and looked like a mass mailing.  It seemed a bit suspicious but I try to give people the benefit of the doubt.

I started with a short email reply stating that we do indeed sell 100% Kona coffee as they had requested.  I also politely pointing out that using our website is easier, faster and more secure than email.  They ignored that not-so-subtle hint and sent another email requesting the price of 50 pounds of coffee and a physical mailing address for "payment issuance."  This definitely seemed suspicious.

I responded with our address and an explanation of the different types of coffee we sell.  I included a price but couldn't give an exact total until I had their shipping information.  Their only response was "We therefore require you to confirm this address prior payment."

Two days later I received a FedEx package that contained a check for $1850.  That was more than three times the amount I had quoted.  The original email had one name in the From field and a different name in the actual email address which was a free Yahoo account.  The check was from a third name with an address in Massachusetts and had been sent from an address in Los Angeles.  There was no note with the check, no request for any particular item to be purchased and the memo field on the check simply said "expenses".

Check Another Kona coffee farmer had received the same original email request and had contacted me to make sure I knew it was a scam.  At this point I totally agreed with him.  Check fraud is nothing new.  I suspected that this particular scam was an attempt to get me to wire them a refund for the "accidental" overpayment.  Either that or an attempt to get my bank account information.  Either way, I wasn't falling for it.

I received another email stating that they had sent payment and, as soon as the check cleared, their "pick up agent will come for pick and shipment".  I doubted they had an agent on the island and I had no intention of depositing their check.  What I wanted to do was catch them but I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt one more time.

I pointed out that the amount they sent didn't match anything I sold and once again asked them for an exact order.  Their response was "Our MIS department made misquote error in favor of the shipping agent."  I began to wonder if they even remembered what I sold.  Some scams like this are actually overseas businesses with a room full of people that simply cut-and-paste predetermined responses even though they themselves do not speak English.

The Secret Service is in charge of money laundering and check fraud.  I doubted they could help, especially since it involved a foreign company, but I figured it was worth a try anyways.  I looked through the Secret Service website.  The only advice I found was an FAQ encouraging me to contact my bank "who will take measures to protect your account and notify proper authorities".

A call to my bank proved the Secret Service wrong.  My bank is normally very helpful, by far the best bank I've ever dealt with, but on this matter they didn't seem to care.  I hadn't deposited the check so there was nothing for them to do.  They suggested that I call Bank of America, the bank shown on the check.

The Bank of America representative verified that the check did indeed use a valid account number but wouldn't tell me if that account had sufficient funds or if the account name matched the name on the check.  She said I should contact the branch the check was sent from but the check only had a routing number and, of course, she refused to tell me what branch that routing number referred to.  Her next bit of advice was talk to one of my local Bank of America branches but there aren't any here in Hawaii.  Her only response to that was "I'm sorry Sir but I can't help you."  So much for protecting me and notifying the authorities.

A friend of ours is a teller at a local bank.  She said Bank of America won't even give her any information when she calls for official bank business.  It's too bad the banks work so hard to protect criminals.  Even if the check cleared it's still possible for the bank to reverse the transaction several weeks later.  Basically, you're at your own risk when you deposit a check from someone you don't know.  The banks assume no responsibility.

I decided to send another email to the scammer.  I very clearly stated that I needed complete billing information, shipping information and order details so I could provide an exact total amount.  They provided an overseas address and said "We initially discussed on coffee."  They totally ignored all of my attempts to clarify what they were trying to order which meant I could not provide an exact total amount to be paid.

Most people would have simply dropped the whole thing by this point.  I didn't want to do that.  I don't think thieves, liars and crooks should simply be allowed to get away with it.  The problem is, what can you do about something like this?

The Better Business Bureau helps protect consumers from dishonest businesses but businesses are on their own with dishonest customers.  Technically, no crime had been committed yet.  I found a website where I could file a complaint but further inspection revealed that my complaint would simply go into a giant database and probably never be seen again.

Reno911 I decided to contact the local police department to ask for their advice.  The dispatcher wanted my name, address, phone number and date of birth before she'd listen to anything else.  When I tried to briefly explain that I just wanted to know who I should contact she was all confused.  She asked if I knew who had stolen the $1850 from me.  I said that nothing had been stolen yet and tried to explain that it was just a fraudulent check.  She cut me off mid sentence and said "I'll send an officer out" then hung up before I could say anything else.

About twenty minutes later I received a phone call from the police department asking for directions because the officers were lost.  Even our plumber has a GPS map that can guide him to any house on the island but apparently the police department doesn't even know where our road is.  I had to give them landmarks so they could find our place.  Maybe the dispatcher should have asked for directions before she hung up on me.

As suspected, the police officers did nothing but write down a couple notes and say they'd file a report.  Their advice was "Don't deposit the check, it's probably a scam."  No sh*t Sherlock.  Did you learn that in cop school?  Thanks for all your help.

I wish there was more I could do.  It's not fair that people can get away with crimes like this yet the banks, the police and the federal government don't do anything about it.  I didn't get ripped off this time but the scam must work sometimes or else they'd find some other way to steal money from innocent people.

As frustrating as it is, I have no choice but to let it go.  The vast majority of our customers are good.  I'll continue to watch out for scams but I'll also continue to give people the benefit of the doubt.  So if you want to purchase coffee by check, that's fine.  We'll be happy to spend as much time as we need to figure out exactly what you'd like to order then we'll provide an exact amount.  If you decide to send us a tip for $1850 that's fine too, just be sure to send a note along with it.

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