Fraud Watch | The anatomy of a scam

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Con artists thrive on deception, impersonating a wide range of personalities from officials with an array of titles to ordinary people on the street — basically any character who can separate you from your money. While the situation described today is very specific, the general approach is common.

Among my many roles, I am an elected justice of the peace. Aside from legal responsibilities related to elections and municipal taxes, JPs have served historically as marriage officiants. Here is where the scam develops.

I received a rather unusual, flowery, descriptive email in October from an individual identifying himself as Michael Rivera, seeking the services of a justice of the peace. Generally, messages of this type contain two questions: are you available and how much do you charge? Mr. Rivera's inquiry was lengthy and filled with descriptive adjectives. As a JP for over 30 years, the note struck me as odd, but I decided to reply stating my availability, noting my fee to be $50. I also requested information on the specific venue for the wedding.

After a series of email exchanges, Mr. Rivera provided a Brattleboro, Vt., address for the wedding and told me that I would receive a FedEx with the payment in advance of the ceremony — also somewhat odd in my experience. The address I gave for the parcel was the AARP office in Burlington, Vt. (By the way, my emails included my official signature as AARP Vermont Fraud Watch Coordinator.)

Within a few days, the office received a FedEx envelope sent from Michigan; Mr. Rivera indicated his address was in California. The envelope contained a check for $1,850, somewhat more than my fee. In the next email exchange Mr. Rivera apologized for the overpayment, asking me to forward the balance to his "videographer," whose payment was "accidentally" included in my check.

As this was occurring, I checked the address for the ceremony. The location was indeed a Brattleboro zip code address but was a vacant house physically located in Halifax, Vt.

The whole scenario was an elaborate scam. I traced Mr. Rivera's email to a point of origin in a Western state. The FedEx envelope containing the check was sent using a stolen account number. The check that was received was written on a California business that recently experienced a data breach involving its financial accounts. Overall, a very complex scam involving activities in multiple states, stolen bank and FedEx account numbers, and email exchanges carried out for three months.

Is this typical? Yes and no, depending on the scam. An experienced criminal will work the scam as long as he or she believes it can turn productive. Mr. Rivera apparently believed that he was driving the scenario to a point of success.

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The situation described was not unique, as JPs throughout the state of Vermont were contacted. Hopefully none of them fell victim to the scam. The objective of the criminal was clear: overpay the bill and request that the overpayment be immediately returned. The result: the con artist takes the money and the victim ends up with the loss and a bounced check.

While this case study involves the services of a justice of the peace, the scam has greater implications. Similar situations are faced by individuals who sell products or services on internet market sites such as Craigslist and blogs or bulletin boards. Scams even occur on well-protected commercial websites like eBay. When selling items or services online, be cautious. Here are a few valuable tips:

- Limit the amount of personal information you post; less information — less opportunity for identity theft or profiling

- Try to limit sales to only local buyers. Most scams take place in long-distance exchanges.

- Accept payment through third-party companies such as PayPal, where your identity is confidential.

- Be wary and trust your instincts. If the "vibes" are not good, end the transaction.

Epilogue: Over the weekend of March 8 to 10, numerous JPs in Vermont received emails and text messages from Michael Rivera. The email address has been discontinued by the service provider.

Elliott Greenblott is a coordinator for the AARP Fraud Watch Network and writes this biweekly column. If you suspect that you may be a victim of a computer-based scam, call the AARP Fraud Watch Network hotline at 877-908-3360 or the Massachusetts Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division at 617-727-8400.


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