Crimes of Persuasion

Schemes, scams, frauds.

Nigerian Scam Victims Left with Bank Debts after Cashing Counterfeit Checks or Money Orders

02/05 - Donna Bassick thought she had found her "knight in shining armor," the man who loved her so much that he would travel almost 5,500 miles from Ghana to Greensburg just to be with her.

All the 42-year-old single mother of three had to do before meeting the man of her dreams three days after Valentine's Day was to cash more than $38,000 in U.S. Postal Service money orders her new friend just could not cash in Ghana. For all of her trouble, plus the cost of wiring the money to Africa via Western Union, Bassick could keep $2,000.

But to her dismay, Bassick found out this week that Prince Charming, the man who purportedly was thinking of marrying her, was really a rat.

"This has been the worst day of my life. I'll never trust another man as long as I live," a heartbroken Bassick said last night.

Greensburg police are investigating who is behind the Internet scam that lured Bassick and her good friend, Debbie Corl, 48, both of whom live in the Eastmont Estates housing complex in Greensburg. Capt. George Seranko said it is difficult, if not impossible, to pursue the case to Africa.

That scam may have netted someone named Silas Uwem, of Accra, the capital of Ghana, more than $50,000 in cash from the First National Bank branch office at Foodland Fresh at 730 E. Pittsburgh St., according to the accounts from both women. What it got the two women, they say, is in such a financial mess that Corl says she owes the bank about $16,000, while Bassick acknowledges her bill is "more than $20,000."

"I'll be paying forever and forever. My life is ruined," Bassick said.

Bassick said she doesn't have any of the money she received from her "friend" in Ghana because she spent it on her children, who range in age from 12 to 19.

Corl, who is making ends meet on her husband, Tim's, disability checks for their family of four, has no idea where she can get the money to repay the bank.

"We're $16,000 overdrawn. We don't know what we are going to do. We're praying to God for help," Corl said.

A spokesman for First National Bank could not be reached for comment last night.

Bassick said she met Uwem on an Internet chat room last summer and developed a friendship, based on what she believed was their mutual belief in Jesus Christ and God. "He quoted the Bible," Bassick said.

He sent her photos of himself and when he talked to her on the phone, "he called me his wife," Bassick said.

Bassick said Uwem last month sent to her home what turned out to be bogus U.S. Postal Service money orders through United Parcel Service. She got four packets -- $9,000, $9,600, and two $9,800 packets. All of the individual money orders were less than $1,000.

The U.S. Post Office in Greensburg would not cash a money order in such a large amount, but did not say the money orders were bogus. She turned to the First National Bank in Greensburg, which she said accepted the money orders. She got the cash and went to a Western Union office in the supermarket to wire the money to Africa. She said the last two times she cashed the money orders, she was told to wait five days before taking the cash in an effort to prevent fraud.

Bassick said she sent the last of the money orders last week, but found out a few days later that the money orders were worthless.

Before she realized she was duped, Bassick said she told Corl about her friend, and Corl also contacted Uwem via the Internet.

"At first, I thought it was too good to be true. Common sense tells you, you don't do this," said Corl, who explained she was undergoing a stressful period in her life.

Taken in by a story that Uwem needed money for an orphanage, she accepted two packets of U.S. Postal Service money orders -- $9,000 and $9,600. She was told to keep $900 from each packet, donate $100 from each packet to her church, and send the remainder to Uwem.

Corl said she cashed the fake money orders at First National Bank in Foodland and wired the money orders to Uwem in late January in amounts of about $4,000 each.

Neither woman saw a U.S. Postal Inspection Service news release last December that warned of an Internet scam involving bogus postal money orders.

The Postal inspectors say the "fraudsters" contact people through an Internet chat room or e-mail, convince them to cash the phony postal money orders, wire the money and keep a portion as a gift. The unsuspecting victims are "often unaware they have assisted in a federal crime," the Postal Inspection Service stated.

"Such scams can be coordinated from anywhere in the world, but recently many have been conducted from Nigeria," according to the Postal Inspection Service. Using the Internet, they can connect to a sea of strangers and "dangle promising treats, hoping someone will bite," Chief Postal Inspector Lee Heath stated.

"It was total, complete stupidity on our part," Corl said.

"He was building up their trust, then boom," said Patrolman Pete Sandberg, the investigating officer.

Charity Worker Loses Home to Bank because of Nigerian Check Scam

03/07 - Audrey Chavez, center, and her two daughters Ericca, left, and Roobie, right, have recently lost their home after a scam conned them out of about $50,000.

She is still running Bakersfield's AIDS Project and supervising the living arrangements for end-stage AIDS patients at Ricky's Retreat. Many residents of the east Bakersfield hospice have nowhere else to go -- an irony of galling proportions, given the fact that Chavez and her family are now essentially homeless themselves.

Chavez and WestAmerica Bank were conned out of about $50,000 almost three years ago in a so-called "Nigerian scam." The bank successfully pinned the whole debacle on her, winning a September 2005 judgment that forced the Chavezes to sell the family home.

Audrey and Martin Chavez were able to rent their old house back for a year, but were finally forced to move out last September -- a traumatic turn of events for the Chavezes' two teen daughters in particular. The house on Wenatchee Avenue was the only place the girls had ever lived.

Now, a couple of times a week, the girls come "home" to Ricky's Retreat, the hospice named after an uncle they barely knew as toddlers.

"It's bittersweet," Chavez said. "We've been able to provide this home here for people in the end stages of AIDS -- people who, a lot of the time, have no other place to go. And we ourselves have no place of our own. It's been very hard."

At least the Chavezes are in good company.

The Nigerian scam, or "419" scam, as it's also known, will fool 10,000 Americans this year, according to the FBI. Many will be people who would seem to know better.

Among the recent victims: Pam Krause, the town treasurer of Almond, Wis., who thought she was helping a desperate widow recover her husband's fortune.

The widow, in return, had promised to pay a multimillion-dollar reward, but only after Krause paid certain fees in advance.

Krause lost $18,000.

Thomas Katona, treasurer of Alcona County, Mich., lost at least $186,500 in county funds to another sort of Nigerian scam.

An audit has since discovered that more than $1.2 million in county money is missing, and police believe Katona may have lost $72,500 from his personal bank account.

The perpetrators are difficult to locate and almost impossible to prosecute, according to the FBI.

Chavez's ordeal began in June 2004 when she received an elegantly worded letter from an obscure South African government official.

He had millions of dollars laying around because an account had been "over-invoiced."

His offer: He would deposit some of this money in her account and in return she could keep a chunk -- less a portion for "taxation and miscellaneous expenses."

Chavez called the telephone number provided and talked to the man whose name appeared at the bottom, a Dr. George Aggrey.

Chavez, whose brother, 36-year-old Ricky Montoya, died from AIDS in January 1993, told Aggrey of her fondest wish -- the creation of an AIDS hospice home for Bakersfield. Aggrey said he was touched by her dedication and offered to help.

Aggrey said he wanted to make an initial donation of almost $50,000, then pay a visit to the AIDS Project's offices to explore future, larger donations.

But once Chavez received the donation -- which Aggrey said would come in the form of a secure wire transfer, according to Chavez -- she would need to send various sums to doctors and administrators around the world to facilitate their travel to Bakersfield.

Chavez told bank employees she was expecting a $49,000 donation, WestAmerica customer service manager Kelli Aragon later told the court in a written statement. The "donation" was approved for deposit on that basis, she suggested.

Two days after the deposit appeared in the AIDS Project's account, Chavez, director of the nonprofit, withdrew almost $10,000 in cash -- unprecedented for her, Chavez now acknowledges. On Aggrey's instructions she sent $4,800 to two men in England via Western Union, even though she could have wired money to her "benefactors" at far less expense right there at the bank, WestAmerica told the court.

Over a six-day period, Chavez, her husband and AIDS Project volunteer John Neal Willey sent $55,800 in 12 wire transfers to six individuals.

Then Aggrey, who had been orchestrating all of this, stopped calling.

On July 29, the bank telephoned. That $49,000 check was a forgery. What check? Chavez asked. The donation was to have been a wire transfer.

But the deposit had come in the form of a fraudulent check, ostensibly from Valley Presbyterian Hospital of Van Nuys, bank officials said. And it had been dropped in the bank's night deposit right there at the corner of Truxtun Avenue and Eye Street, catty-corner from the police station.

WestAmerica demanded that Chavez repay the money, and when Chavez failed to do so promptly, the bank sued.

Chavez argued in an October 2004 court filing that WestAmerica had failed to obey "standard banking laws by allowing funds to be withdrawn" before the check cleared.

She also claimed that WestAmerica had fired three employees "as a result of said negligence." The inference was that if bank employees broke bank rules, the bank had not properly protected a depositor and was therefore liable, in whole or in part.

Bakersfield attorney Kathryn Fox later agreed to defend Chavez and the AIDS Projectpro bono.

The case was settled in a conference with Superior Court Judge Gary Friedman. Chavez, who did not attend, said she was flabbergasted to learn the outcome: She and her husband owed the bank $50,639.

(Fox did not return a call Friday. Neither did either of the attorneys who represented WestAmerica in the case, Matthew C. Mani and Richard P. Murray.)

The Chavezes sold their house to a real estate company on the last possible day before looming foreclosure would have taken it, and they rented it back for several hundred dollars per month more than their mortgage payment had been.

Last September they decided they couldn't afford their house anymore and they moved out. The Chavezes now live part time in Shafter with Audrey's parents and part time in east Bakersfield with Martin's brother.

The girls, a freshman and a senior at Highland High School, use Ricky's Retreat as a weekday afternoon respite from their nomadic life.

"It took a long time for all of us to get over it," Chavez said. "It was especially hard for Ericca, our 15-year-old. As a parent you want to explain things, and we didn't have an explanation.

"Martin explains it by saying, 'Well, we sold our home.' But Ericca says 'They took our home,' and by 'they' she means the bank."

Chavez got her AIDS center anyway: Ricky's Retreat, the only nonprofit hospice home in Kern County that cares for people with HIV/AIDS, opened in June 2005. It is funded entirely by donations and volunteer support. A second, more permanent facility for AIDS patients, the five-unit Marshall Manor, opened exactly a year later.

"I've always thought hospice centers were as important as birthing centers," Chavez said. "Thank God a few generous people agree."

The Bakersfield Californian

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