Thursday, September 15, 2016

Yes, it's embarrassing ... but this week I was the victim of a sophisticated employment scam

As I think most of you know, I am currently between jobs. I was laid off of from World Vision on August 3. I have six months of severance pay (which is very generous of them), but I do have to pay for my own health care (which is ridiculously expensive) and by the end of six months I will need to have something in hand that can help pay the bills.

Darlene has a good part-time job with the Puyallup School District (as a school nurse), though the pay isn't awesome. (Hey, it's the school district.) Our house is paid off, and we do have a solid nest egg set up for retirement, so it's not an emergency. But I do feel some pressure (at my relatively young age!) to find something, and not just anything, but specifically what God has cut me out to do. I've been hard at work investigating jobs in writing and editing, and social media and web innovation, as well as looking at some other areas that might fill the need temporarily. I've also been doing a lot of writing ... working on blogs, on my next novel, and on a magazine article or two. And I've been developing a business idea. (Yes, you guessed it ... related to exotic mushrooms!)

So, I've been busy. I've been working with an outplacement company, and have lots of resumes and applications out there, seeking interviews for various positions. This week (as part of this process) I was taken in (for a brief period of time) by a very sophisticated employment scam. And of course since then I've been dealing with the fallout, trying to protect our assets and help the authorities catch the criminal(s) running the scam, if I can.

I'm embarrassed that I was taken in, however briefly, and it's painful to share about. But I felt I should tell the story so others would be aware and might learn from my mistakes. And also, as you will read more about below, to protect myself if possible.


Laying the Groundwork

It all started out last week, when I saw and applied for a job posted on Indeed.com (a legitimate employment website) for a social media manager job at a (legitimate) smallish/newish business-to-business firm called Filmless, in San Francisco. The posting described basically what I would be good at doing and offered $35/hour for full-time work-at-home efforts, plus expenses.

This amount didn't work out to what I was making at my last job, but was better than what I need to survive and what I'd already been offered elsewhere. And the work-at-home part was very attractive. So I applied, via the Indeed site.

Day One ... Monday, Sept. 12

I received a contact email in the afternoon from someone purportedly named "James Townsend." The form was a standard Indeed email form and my response that I was interested triggered to their website.

Day Two ... Tuesday, Sept. 12

About 8 a.m. Tuesday morning, I received a very officious-sounding message from James which said:
"Hello,

We at Filmless are glad to let you know we have accepted your resume from Indeed for the position of a Social Media Manager and you can proceed now to get started with your interview for the job. This Position is Mon- Fridays and pays $35/hour, full time hours guaranteed if desired with salary increase.

To proceed you must first undergo an online assessment/job briefing and you will be needing a Gmail (Google Hangout Instant Messenger) on your Pc/device, using your Gmail account to gain access to Hangout Messenger. Contact your interview Manager and request to get started with an interview using your job code as verification."
The part (other than a few sloppy typos) that should have been my first clue, which I didn't pay sufficiently close attention to at the time, was his email address, filmlessworkers948281@gmail.com. Note that it has the word "Filmless" in it, but it's actually from the Gmail domain, and not a legitimate Filmless.com email address. But, I completely missed that at the time.

So, I followed his instructions and connected with him via Google Hangout, which I am familiar with as a result of using it extensively on my last job. His account had the official-looking Filmless logo which was on their (legitimate) website and Google Plus account. So I assumed (yes, another assumption) that I was talking to the legitimate Filmless Google account.

Once we connected on Google on Tuesday morning, he said, "Okay, are you ready for your interview?" I was somewhat taken aback, assuming an interview would be something that would have to be scheduled. I was sitting there at my computer in my pajamas still, so I responded: "Well, I'm not prepared for a video interview, we should schedule that if that's the case. But if you wanted to interview by chat I suppose we could do that now."

He simply responded, "Yes," and started off firing interview questions. (By the way, this became an MO for him. He typically didn't respond either completely or clearly to my questions, which should have been another clue. It was as if his attention was divided while we were talking online, and now I suppose it was — probably running his scam at multiple levels simultaneously — but at the time I supposed he was probably just a busy guy and not a great communicator on chat. Many people aren't, and one reason is they don't type as fast as I do!)

The interview took about two hours, and he asked lots of questions about my social media skills and experience, which I realized at the time were canned questions, but I figured he was probably HR and asking a lot of people standardized questions. Hence I was quite surprised when, at the end of the interview, he began talking as if I had the job.

Another red flag was that as he did this, he immediately launched into financial details. Did I want to be paid by check, or online? If online, what bank did I use? And he began talking immediately about providing me with the funds to purchase the software I would need to do my job at home. Some of the items on the list were familiar and I had used them before, others were new. But I realized the way such software worked was, as a user on a company account I wouldn't actually have to pay to purchase "software," but the company would simply add me as one of its available user seats.

One other thing that had happened during the interview (prior to this point) was that I had tried to interrupt his stream of questions (at what seemed like an appropriate moment) to ask a list of questions of my own about the company: their history, their culture, their values, their financial details, etc. The only one he actually answered was to confirm they were located in San Francisco (which I already knew from Googling them), but he ignored the rest of my questions. Also a red flag.

But at this point I was still processing the fact that it sounded like, counter to my expectations, he was offering me a job. So I asked for clarification: "Are you offering me a job?"

Yes, he said he was. He confirmed the salary and we talked a bit about benefits. He mentioned that they did have a retirement plan, but when he copied me a list of benefits, nothing about a retirement plan was on it. Another red flag, but I wrote it off as a misunderstanding.

Another red flag was a comment he made that I was "lucky" to be selected for this job — not something a real HR professional would probably say. But I excused it, thinking, "Well, he's probably new. The company's only two years old, after all."

Then he continued talking about the process of getting me a check, and when I was available to start? I told him I was flexible. He said he wanted me to start training on Monday, and that for the sake of speed they would email me a copy of the check (as a PDF) so I could deposit it in my bank account.

At that point I told him I was not yet ready to accept his offer, that I needed to speak with my wife about it and also close the loop with some other applications I had in process first. This response seemed to upset him a bit, and I received a curt: "Well then, message me back when you've made up your mind." Should have been another red flag.

Shortly after the interview ended (about 1 p.m. or so) I received a text (I had given James all my basic contact information, which is a part of my resume) from someone who identified herself as Angela Perryman from Filmless. The number the text came from was 858.683.7846. I didn't recognize the area code but assumed it was San Francisco. (I didn't research this until later, and found out it was a San Diego area code. Not that that in and of itself is anything of a huge red flag.)

By the way, I'm putting names I was given (probably all phony) as well as the real (disposable, no doubt) email addresses and the text number that I have here, in this blog, because I know Google will index this information and it will become available to anyone searching the web for information on these scammers.

Was I full of reservations at all these unusual red or yellow flags? Yes, absolutely, and I talked those through with Darlene after she got home from work Tuesday evening. She agreed they were weird. But I had also spent a lot of time researching Filmless, and they seemed to have a spotless reputation. (At this point I didn't really consider the possibility that Filmless itself wasn't a part of the scam.) It was clear that the company was more or less virtual; though it had a small physical office in San Francisco, it was clear on their website that all their producers were freelancers, and with such a new-ish company it made sense that most of their staff would telecommute.

Other than reservations, however, there was one other thing I had. Let's call it by a term that is frequently used, but difficult to define: A "check in my spirit." I stayed up late Tuesday night, my mind spinning, difficulty going to sleep. I prayed, and I watched a movie to try and get my mind off the sense of nagging anxiety that something wasn't right. But even as I finally went to sleep, well after 1 a.m., and when I woke up at my usual time at 6:30, it was still there.

Day Three ... Wednesday, Sept. 13

I reconnected on Google Hangout with James on Wednesday morning at 8 a.m., as I'd promised. I said, "Before I accept your offer, I have a list of questions for you." I fired all my questions at him (one at a time) from my prepared list. And he responded to them quite well. I also was sure to be clear that he was very aware of my Christian faith, which I know might be off-putting for some. But it didn't seem to phase him. Once again, we talked for about an hour.

My final question was, "Why do YOU enjoy working for Filmless? What makes you go to work in the morning?" (I had also asked him who Angela was ... he said she was his secretary, which in hindsight should also have been a yellow flag, since nowadays such folks are called admins, not secretaries. And I asked him if they worked in the office or were remote. It would have been smarter for him to say "remote" as this would have made it harder for me to verify with Filmless, but he said they worked in the office.) We bantered about the traffic in San Francisco, and he told me the reason he did the job was for the money, and that he had family in the area. I was expecting more of a PR-ish answer than that, but it seemed honest and so I kind of laughed it off. And stuffed down my sense of anxiety, thinking, "Well, I can certainly put the breaks on this at any time if I need to."

I did still have reservations at that point, about all the seeming yellow and red flags, and also about the job description itself, which seemed a bit unrealistic, but Darlene had said: "Test him a bit. Maybe ask for flexible hours and see if he agrees. If so, they probably do really want you and are willing to be flexible. And you could always quit if it doesn't turn out to be a good fit."

So, I told him I was willing to give it a try, if he agreed to my flexible hours request, which he did without hesitation. I asked what the next step was. He said they would pay for my training next week, and that he and I would also need to get some details taken care of before then, so I would need to be available online for a few days. I asked him who would do my training. He said he would, which I also found slightly suspicious. I asked him who my supervisor would be. He said that would be determined after the training. Hmmm. You mean there isn't actually a hiring supervisor? Weird.

Then he again started talking about how to get me a check for me to purchase things I needed. At this point I stopped him and said, "Okay, yesterday you said the check was for software, but my understanding is that's not really how the software situation should work, especially if your company already has relationships with the software vendors" (he had told me earlier that I was replacing another social media manager who had left the company, so it made sense this was true).

But then he replied, "No, it's not for the software, it's for purchasing the equipment from our approved vendor." And the amount of the check made sense for equipment. However, I KNEW the day before he had said it was for software (twice), so this was another red flag. But by this time, I'd taken the bait, and I wrote it off to the fact that he was evidently a pretty sloppy communicator.

In hindsight, it's amazing to me how you can create and use all kinds of internal excuses to try and explain unusual behavior, red flags which should really stop and make you say, "Hold your horses here." But it's a powerful thing, when someone approaches a person who is vulnerable due to need with a seeming way to meet that need. You want to believe that they are telling the truth, so you rationalize things in your own mind to try and make you feel more comfortable and less edgy.

I used to make fun of people who were dumb enough to fall for scams proffered by Nigerian princes. Now, I'm going to be a little more empathetic.

That sense of edginess, I realize now in hindsight, is a valuable thing we should listen and pay attention to. I had SO many red flags, I was already reasonably convinced there was a 50% chance that this was some sort of a scam. Despite this, I continued down the path with this scammer. (Or scammers, I'm not sure.)

I didn't have a virtual check deposit app set up with my credit union (didn't actually even realize they had one, which is a nice thing to have), so I set that up. He then PDF'd me a copy of the check with instructions to print it out and then scan it using the app, for deposit.

I called my credit union (ECCU) and talked this through with them. They said they weren't sure it would work, printing and then scanning a digital copy. But he assured me, "Sure, it will work, it's basically the same thing as scanning the original." Which made sense to me. So I tried it. Repeatedly. About a dozen times. I kept getting error messages from the credit union's system that the scan wasn't clear. James kept bugging me, "Have you deposited it yet?" (Which also should have been suspicious.) And making suggestions about how to make it work: better lighting, etc.

I finally got the scan to go through, by following one of his suggestions and cutting out the printouts in the approximate size of a real check, then placing them on a dark background for the photograph. And the app acknowledged my deposit.

James then asked me for a screenshot of the acknowledgement message to verify that the check had been deposited. But by that time I'd closed the app and couldn't get the message back, and told him so. "Well," he said, "just log on to your account and send me a screenshot of your transaction history." I looked at my account and the check I'd submitted wasn't reflected there yet, and I was still sufficiently suspicious that I wasn't ready to provide account numbers or any sensitive financial information to him, so I told him that deposit wasn't yet reflected in my transaction history and I would send verification whenever I could get it. He then let that go.

And, in hindsight, yet more red flags: The check that he emailed me wasn't made out from Filmless and didn't even had Filmless' name on it. (Or James'.) It was from a "Diversified General Credit Union," signed by a "Demi B. Atwood" and it had the name "James Beckham" in the memo area. Moreover, the check itself wasn't sent to me from James' email account, it was sent from the email account of someone named "Ben Dawson" at inteltechoffice4181119@gmail.com.

But there was one more thing he wanted. "To set up our payroll, we need verification of your account. Is there a branch of your credit union nearby? We'd like you to go have them make out a $5 cashier's check, to you, then scan and send us a copy of that. You can then cash the check for yourself when you're done."

It seemed an unusual request (another red flag), and I think it pushed me over a tipping point of sort. After all, at this point the thought of NOT having to work with this weirdo was becoming rather appealing. I decided to "play along" but to seek the credit union's advice about the situation. I told him, truthfully, "My credit union doesn't have any branches in my area, but there is another credit union I belong to here, Harborstone, where I can have them make me out a cashier's check."

"Do it," he said, "and let me know when you are able to scan and send a copy of that to me."

So I headed for the credit union. When I got the Harborstone branch office on South Hill. I had a very helpful conversation with a teller who listened well, talked to her supervisor, and came back and agreed that the whole situation seemed quite suspicious. "A $5 cashier's check made you to you? We've never heard of that before and don't understand how that would help them set up payroll. It doesn't have any of your own account numbers on it. Perhaps it's for some sort of a security or credit check?"

"I don't know," I said, "but I can ask them." So I messaged James back and asked him to call me because I had questions.

He didn't respond right away, so I left the bank and ran a few errands. While I was out I also did something else I had intended to do much earlier: I had gotten Filmless' main office number off their website (where they also had email and chat contacts listed). So I called it, intending to ask them about James Townsend and Angela Perryman. But an answering machine picked up the call, so I left a detailed message describing my dilemma.

Meanwhile, James responded to my message asking him to call me: "What questions?" was all he said. (Another red flag was that he never did give me his phone number, even though I asked several times.)

I told him what the credit union had said, that they didn't understand why he'd want me to do this. He gave me some lame and muddled explanation about needing it to set up payroll. So I returned to the credit union and showed them his response. They read it carefully and said, "That doesn't make any sense at all. This really does sound fishy."

I had also brought a copy of the $3,400 check they had sent, which I had already deposited to my credit union, so at this point I asked if they'd be willing to take a look at it. They said, "Of course. We can do even better than that. We can run its numbers to see if it appears legit or not." So the teller typed the numbers into the computer, then immediately shook her head. "Nope," she said, "it's coming up as a bad check."

The gig was up. On their advice, I immediately called ECCU and told them what had happened. They said they would put the check I had deposited into a special research hold and try and figure out what was going on.

After stopping for some lunch, I headed for home. As I did so, James was messaging me: "Did you get the cashier's check? Can you send the scan soon?" His urgency to do these weird financial things was another red flag that I should have really paid attention to earlier on.

I ignored his messages until I got home, and then decided to put him off while I tried to figure out what to do. I messaged him briefly and told him I'd developed a bad migraine (which was true!) while waiting at the bank, and that I was going to bed for the rest of the day (not exactly true) and would talk to him tomorrow. He asked again about the check, but I ignored this, and also a 4:30 message asking me if I was feeling better.

Immediately after this I got onto the FBI's website for internet crimes, called the "Internet Crime Complaint Center" or IC3, and made a full report of the crime. I told a few close friends who had been praying about what had happened, but asked them not to share it publicly, as I didn't want to tip him off that I was onto him. And I also went back on Filmless' site, sent them an email with the whole story, and also tried their chat technology, which said they weren't available to chat. I left a message that I was going to call the San Francisco PD on Thursday if they didn't get back to me. (At this point I still wasn't sure whether they were in on the scam, or not.)

Later Wednesday evening I did get a gracious response from Filmless. They told me that over the past two days they had been the victim of an employment scam, and they apologized, and suggested I ignore any communications about a job offer. A little late, of course ... I wanted to advise them that next time they should say something about it on their website, which would have clinched it for me earlier. But, I can understand that they were inundated putting out the fire. (I've been there, in my job at World Vision.) They also told me they were working with Indeed.com to resolve the situation.

Naturally, I was upset about all this. I felt foolish, and was frustrated about wasting my time, and being victimized, and disappointed that what had seemed like a nice job didn't pan out. Nonetheless, my spirit was at rest, and I also had a great sense of relief. The only open question mark was "Why?" What were the scammers hoping to gain from all this?

I went to bed early and slept like a log on Tuesday night.

Day Four ... Today, Thursday, Sept. 15

James was messaging me via Google again before 8 a.m. this morning. Then, shortly after 8, he sent the following message:
"Hello.
I see you on hangout now , Larry what is going on And the funds you deposited have cleared The bank just informed me"
I was, of course, reasonably certain that was a lie. I knew that even under normal circumstances, a check like that took days to clear. And these weren't normal circumstances; ECCU had said they had put a research hold on this particular check. But, I called them anyway, just to make sure.

While I was waiting to talk to someone, I checked my web balance online, and was startled to see it list in my transaction history the deposit of the $3,400 check! However, when I looked at my available balance, the check amount clearly wasn't reflected in that.

When the operator came on, I started at the beginning and described the situation, then said: "I'm concerned because my transaction history shows the check I deposited yesterday, but my balance does not." The gentleman I spoke with looked at the situation and told me that the deposit was indeed flagged for research, but that as a normal part of their process they were showing the transaction in my history and that they had actually released $200 of the $3,400 check (per their policy, I assume) to my account. He said he would reverse this and that they would contact the issuing bank to be certain. He said if the check was a phony it would be rejected at that point.

Okay, I told him, but I had two concerns: 1) I don't want a single cent of this guy's money in my hands! Yesterday when I talked with you, I assumed the check would be rejected, because I told you what Harborstone told me, that it was a fake. But even if it's not, I don't want him accusing me of cashing his check! And 2) I didn't want to incur any fees for this bad check, if possible.

At this point, after reading James' message this morning, I realized with a chill what the point of the whole scam might be. He would probably come back and say, "Hey, you cashed my check. You owe me that money back!" And of course he'd want it in the form of a cashier's check, or some such. (Possibly the reason he had me prove I could get a cashier's check? I'm not sure.)

Or perhaps the check is one he's stolen from someone else? Or perhaps it was forged on someone else's "real" account? And now of course the bank of the victim would have a record of me trying to cash the stolen or forged check. Perhaps this might be a blackmail attempt of some sort?


This feels ugly ... here's why I'm telling you this

Whatever it is, it feels extremely ugly. So I'm telling the story here, partly in an effort to protect myself, just as I've told it to the FBI (through their IC3 website ... though I really wish I could talk to a human being there).

Naturally I'm hoping for justice. And I'm hoping to stop this guy so no one else is victimized. I feel bad for what has happened to Filmless.com, and to Indeed.com, as a result of this scam. And possibly to other people (possible innocent victims?) I've named in this blog.

In the meantime I've learned some lessons about trusting my own heart, and about being more cautious and getting verification earlier in the process when things don't seem right.

I also have a message for James, if he bothers to read this (and he might, I'm not sure): While you have tried to hurt me, for the sake of your own greed, I am not angry at you. In fact, I forgive you. This is because there is One who has already paid the price for every sin you have ever committed and ever will commit. Jesus gave His life on the Cross to forgive you and set you straight!

I will continue to pursue justice, and hope that the FBI catches you and stops you before you hurt anyone else. But even as you sit in jail (since as an interstate crime, this is a federal offense and a felony), I will pray that you find peace, and true purpose, and recognize the freedom that comes from being forgiven.

As for the rest of you: I'll continue to post updates (as comments to this blog) and let you know how things develop from here. Please do pray for James, and for anyone victimized by his greed. And thanks for listening!

3 comments:

B Field said...

Desperate times often lead to desperate measures unfortunately. There are so many online and phone scams now-a-days. I am constantly warning my children and all my family members to question every single thing that comes their way. And back to the old adage - if it's too good to be true it probably is.

I watch my credit card and bank information like a hawk. I have my credit card account setup to send me an alert every time my card is used. A couple weeks ago I got multiple text messages stating my card had been used to purchase about $1000 worth of goods at various online stores. It wasn't me. Immediately I called my credit card company and they cancelled the charges and issued me a new card number. For the life of me I can't figure out how someone got my information. But it goes to show no matter how safe you think you are you always need to be vigilant about your banking information.

Glad you got everything straightened out and hopefully many people will be enlightened to yet another online scam that they need to be watchful of.

Peace

Gary Lent said...

Ah yes, now waiting for the "rest of the story" ...

Chelsie Frank said...

Wow. Larry I am so sorry this happened. So glad the truth was revealed.