Centsible Mom: Scammers run rampant, with no recourse

2014-07-20T00:00:00Z Centsible Mom: Scammers run rampant, with no recourseAngela Pittenger Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

I knew something was wrong when my husband, Clint Pittenger, woke me last Saturday morning. “I need you to come look at something,” he said.

He asked me to look at our bank account on his computer. I stared for a minute, my eyes still blurry from sleep.

“Does that say we’re $650 overdrawn? How could that be?”

Then we saw what the transaction was that caused the shortage — a $795 charge from FedEx. But we hadn’t shipped anything.

Clint logged onto FedEx.com, and sure enough, there were more than 40 shipping transactions — none of them ours. The $795 charge that overdrew us was FedEx collecting payment.

“It makes me so mad,” Clint said. “I am pissed. They took our hard-earned money.”

First thing we did was call our bank’s fraud department. They said they would reverse the charges, and send paperwork for us to sign and return. And they canceled the bank card attached to the FedEx account.

We were able to see details for every FedEx transaction. A few of the shipments were sent to Tucson addresses. Clint called the Tucson people to find out what was in the package.

Turns out, our FedEx account was being used to send fraudulent checks.

One couple, Frank and Julie Sanchez, agreed to talk to us. We went to the apartment they share with their four children, so we could see what this guy was up to.

For the Sanchez family, it all started when Julie applied for a job she saw listed on Craigslist. It was for a personal assistant to a doctor — who used the same name as the hacker of our FedEx account.

She was told she got the job, which brought relief to her family. “I thought I had a job,” she said. “I was happy. I was going to make $400 a week. ... And the kids could go with me on some of the errands.”

But when Sanchez received fishy instructions in an email, she realized something was wrong.

The email said she would receive a check that day, and she was to cash it, deduct her first week’s salary, which was $400, and send the remaining balance, through Western Union, to a “supplier” that would send her office furniture and software for the new job.

Sanchez received a check that day, as promised, via our FedEx account, for the amount of $1,950. Sensing it was a scam, Sanchez emailed the “doctor” saying her bank wouldn’t cash it.

“Why won’t they cash it?” someone wrote back. “Go ahead and deposit it.”

“Nice try,” she replied.

Good thing she didn’t deposit that check.

Otherwise, depending on her bank’s policy, she could have been out some money, said Nick LaFleur, spokesman for the Better Business Bureau serving Southern Arizona. “If the bank accepts the check, the consumer ends up on the wrong end because when the bank finds out it’s fake, the bank is going to hold you liable for that money.”

Sanchez had quit looking for work when she thought she landed a job. Now she’s in a bind.

“Now they’ve screwed my kids,” she said. “That’s the worst part.”

Sanchez gave us the check she received. It said it’s from a car dealership in Brookline, Massachusetts, which would raise a red flag, since it was supposed to be from a doctor. Other than that, it looks legit.

“Some of the checks look obviously fake,” LaFleur said. “But a lot of the ones we see look pretty authentic. They try to make them authentic enough so the bank will accept them initially. It can be really difficult to tell if you’re not an expert on security features on checks.”

But if you receive a check you’re not sure about and there is a business named on the check, LaFleur suggests calling that business to ask if it was issued to you.

Trying to get this resolved has been frustrating, to say the least. It feels like nobody can really help bring these people to justice.

The Tucson Police Department took a police report and asked us to supply any documentation we have, in order to have a paper trail, in case there are more complaints. But they didn’t think anything could be done.

“It’s hard to catch them,” said Deputy Tracy Suitt, spokesman for the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. “They have a big network who do this. Most of these scams are from all over the world. ... Jamaica, Russia, even Africa.”

Plus, they usually use untraceable, temporary phones that can be purchased at convenience stores, Suitt said. Once they call a few people, they throw it away and move on.

“You filed a police report, so that’s a good thing,” Suitt said. “But the bank becomes the victim once you get your money back, and then it’s up to the bank. A lot of these cases disappear because if it’s a small amount of money, they’re not going to waste the time to file charges and go after them.”

The FedEx fraud department is closed on weekends. Once Clint spoke with somebody on Monday, it took another 24 hours to close the account.

FedEx spokesman Scott Fiedler said the company continually monitors the networks and tries to notify its customers of suspicious activity on their accounts. He said FedEx tried to call us but didn’t have the right phone number.

Apparently, the scammer entered an 800 number, which obviously isn’t ours.

Once fraud is reported to FedEx, the company will refund or credit any fraudulent charges, close your account and set up a new one if you want one. After that, it’s out of their hands.

“We turn the information over, but we can’t determine if a crime was committed,” Fiedler said. “That’s up to the law enforcement agency.”

As far as figuring out how this guy got our account information, that is beyond me. We’re pretty smart about online accounts.

“It can be really difficult sometimes to find out how scammers get your information,” LaFleur said. “But with the amount of data breaches going on in companies and their networks right now, it’s a good practice to always check on your accounts on a regular basis to make sure everything is on the up and up and nothing is awry.”

Knowing it’s so easy for people to get away with this is beyond infuriating. They prey on people less fortunate, the elderly and everybody in between, but unless it’s a huge sum of money, there’s no recourse. So, it continues.

All we can do is educate ourselves, diligently check our accounts and hopefully outsmart them to prevent it from happening in the first place.

Contact reporter Angela Pittenger at 573-4137 or apitteng@tucson.com. Follow her on Twitter @CentsibleMama or on Facebook at facebook.com/centsiblemama.

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