Crimes of Persuasion

Schemes, scams, frauds.

Fake Money Order Rent Check Nigerian Roommate / Hotel, Bed and Breakfast Room Rental Reservation Scam

By NATALIE LOMBARDO - The Daily Oakland Press

01/05 - Rick Richmond thought all was well when a South African man responded to his online ad, looking for a roommate.

But Richmond's roommate never showed up, and Richmond almost lost several thousand dollars.

"I know of scams out there, but I've never heard of one in terms of renting a room," Richmond said.

When Richmond requested the man, who called himself "Ben Mark," send $1,000 in the mail from Africa for a security deposit and rent for one month, he was surprised to receive $5,950 in postal money orders.

Mark explained to Richmond that his father had sent extra money for spending, and asked him to wire the remainder to an account in London, where he was staying temporarily.

Richmond said he proceeded to deposit the money orders, considered "the best kind you can have" by the clerk at Bestbank in Clarkston, into his own bank account and paid his rent of $950 with the money orders.

Fortunately for Richmond, the bank found the processed money orders to be counterfeit before they were wired to London.

Richmond, a 58-year-old theological professor and writer, recently moved to Clarkston from Florida. He said even though he doesn't feel culpable, he will have to pay back the $950 he spent for rent to the bank.

"It's a rough way to get my feet on the ground," Richmond said. He said he wanted to help Mark because he could empathize with the hardships of being a student and finding housing.

Ed White, a fraud investigator for Bestbank, is looking into the case. Richmond is receiving legal advice, but hasn't talked to police.

To extradite Mark from London to the United States would cost more than it's worth, White said.

If the checks hadn't been discovered fraudulent up front, White said, they would have gone through the system until they reached the Federal Reserve System.

Then, the money can be traced back to the unknowing spenders such as Richmond, who, in turn, would have to pay up.

Man Foils Attempted Nigerian Internet Counterfeit Check Roommate Scam

03/05 - By TYLER CHRISTENSEN for the Missoulian

Brandon Mikkelsen went online to find a roommate and became the target of a counterfeit cashier's-check scam.

Unfortunately, it's a familiar story - but because Mikkelsen listened to his intuition when things didn't seem to be adding up, this story has a happy ending.

The trouble began when Mikkelsen, 21, turned to the Internet to find a roommate for the four-bedroom, three-bath house he shares with two University of Montana students.

He posted a profile on and soon received an e-mail from someone named - or going by the name of - Alexandra Andersen, or "Lex."

Lex claimed to be a Swedish native living in Nigeria, a student at the University of Lagos trying to transfer to the university in Missoula.

Lex didn't ask for more information about the basement room, which rented for $295 a month, but almost immediately asked to secure it for three months.

He said his "sponsor" in the United Kingdom would send Mikkelsen a cashier's check as soon as Mikkelsen provided his full name and mailing address.

Hmm ...

Instead of providing the information, Mikkelsen e-mailed Lex with some questions of his own.

"I would actually like to talk to you and let you know details and answer any questions that you may have about the place and myself before you decide to send me money," Mikkelsen wrote.

Thus began a back-and-forth telephone and e-mail conversation in which Lex repeatedly told Mikkelsen that he would like to move to Missoula as quickly as possible.

Satisfied that Lex was sincere, Mikkelsen gave his name and address and asked when he planned to move in. Lex said he would arrive Feb. 18.

Again, Mikkelsen paused. The next university term doesn't start until this fall. So why the hurry to move?

"Little things were clicking in my head that kind of tipped me off," he said.

Then Lex sent Mikkelsen another e-mail detailing how his "sponsor" would be sending a check for $3,500, from which Mikkelsen was to deduct three months' worth of rent, or $885. He could wire the rest of the money - $2,615 - back to Lex later.

To Mikkelsen, this arrangement sounded fine. When the the check arrived in the mail - in a plain brown envelope with no return address - Mikkelsen cashed it at the Southside branch of U.S. Bank.

Then Lex e-mailed surprisingly detailed instructions on how to wire money to Nigeria - to an accountant named Charles Osuji.

"I was like, hmm, has he done this before?" Mikkelsen asked himself.

Well, Mikkelsen said he'd send the money just as soon as the check cleared.

Lex again pushed him to send the money now, but Mikkelsen didn't budge.

"I hope you understand about me waiting just a couple of days for the check to go through the bank," Mikkelsen wrote in another e-mail to Lex. "I trust you and everything, but it is always better to be safe than sorry."

Mikkelsen also asked him for the check's origination information so he could verify it.

But Lex's replies didn't provide any information he could use to verify the check - he only wanted to know when the money would arrive.

Mikkelsen's guard was up by now. Friends showed him an Associated Press story about $25,000 in fake money orders recently received by banks in Kalispell.

He began searching the Web for information about fraud and discovered that a lot of phony cashier's checks are coming from scam artists operating out of Nigeria and other countries outside the United States. Victims are told to cash fake cashier's checks and send a portion back to the scammer.

By this time, Mikkelsen had waited over two weeks for the cashier's check to clear. He decided to go to Cathy Trahan, sales and service manager of U.S. Bank's Southside branch. Trahan immediately suspected the check wasn't legitimate.

"I had been presented with a similar check a few days prior to this one," Trahan said.

After a quick call to the Bank of Frankewing in Tennessee - the bank the check was drawn off of - she was able to verify that the check was indeed a counterfeit. She was told that the account and the person who signed it don't exist.

"In Brandon's case, he was smart not to wire the money," Trahan said. "But a lot of people will wire the money and then check later on."

It used to be that a cashier's check was as good as cash, and unfortunately a lot of people think that this is still true, Trahan said.

The reality is that if a cashier's check is found to be fake, the person who cashed it is required to return the money.

Trahan said Mikkelsen's insistence on waiting for the check to clear helped him escape a scheme that claims victims on a daily basis.

"That is one of the most common frauds that we see," she said.

But crooks are constantly finding new ways to deceive people, especially older people who tend to be more trusting and may be less familiar with the Internet, Trahan said.

Her advice: When in doubt, check it out. If she bought a car costing $8,000, for instance, she wouldn't write the dealer a check for $10,000 and ask him to return the rest.

"If it seems too good to be true, it probably is," Trahan said.

Anyone can call the bank that a cashier's check is drawn off and ask to verify the funds, she added.

Investigate any doubts and go to financial institutions for help - banks exist to protect their customers' money, she said, and they have ways of checking into potentially fraudulent claims.

"To Brandon this was foreign, to me this was an everyday occurrence," Trahan said.

Last Tuesday, Mikkelsen learned that the $3,500 he thought he had is now gone for good, debited from his account.

He sent Lex a final e-mail saying that he would turn him in to the authorities, but he has yet to do so - and he probably won't. It would just be a waste of time and saddle the police with more paperwork, Mikkelsen said.

"There's really nothing they can do," he said. "It's not like the United States can go over to Nigeria and arrest him."

Nevertheless, Mikkelsen wants others to know about his experience so they can be on guard against similar scams. Amazingly, while he was dealing with Lex, Mikkelsen was approached by another person in Nigeria looking to make a similar deal.

He's afraid western Montana is becoming a target area for Internet-savvy cheats, and he doesn't want anyone to fall for the swindle.

"Just be cautious," Mikkelsen said. "Just because we live in Missoula doesn't mean things like this don't happen to us, especially on the Internet.

"I'm usually fairly smart about these sort of things and he almost got me."

Nigerian Room Reservation Check Scam

JACKSON, Wyo. - 09/06 - (AP) It all seemed normal enough: A religious group from Scotland reserved 10 rooms for two weeks at the Trapper Inn and promised to send a check to hold the reservation.

After sending the check for $23,000, the group found itself unable to make the Aug. 20 reservation.

"They e-mailed us four or five times asking if we received the check," Diana Waycott, owner of the Trapper Inn, said Friday. "On the 20th, no one arrived, no one came in, but two days ago, I got a cashier's check made out to the Trapper Inn for $23,000."

Suspecting something fishy, Waycott checked with her bank and the police. And good thing she did.

The check was a forgery - an essential tool in a scam in which the intended victim, in this case Waycott, is asked to deposit the check, then send a new refund check back to the religious group.

"Buyer beware," Jackson Police Cpl. Roger Schultz said. "Trust no one, and verify everything."

Schultz said anyone receiving a check from someone they don't know - especially if the check comes from another country - should take it to their bank.

Bank employees can help verify the check's legitimacy and whether there are funds available to cover the check.

Waycott said she's glad she avoided being taken in and that she was surprised how elaborate the scheme was.

"I was really blown away just how far they took it," Waycott said. "It was quite elaborate, with the rooming list, six or seven e-mails, double checking we received the information, then a great deal of interest in whether we received the check. They even actually made a phone call."

Nigerian 'Renters' fleece college-town landlords, tenants with counterfeit checks and money orders.

07/07 - (CA) Students, and landlords, beware: It is scam season in college towns like Davis.

Worthless money orders in large amounts to rent apartments are arriving in the mail from scam artists posing as renters.

Landlords are cashing the counterfeit money orders, taking out first month's rent and wiring the extra money back to the supposed renter.

By the time the bank tells the landlords that the checks they cashed are worthless, it is too late.

The result: Davis residents are minus thousands of dollars that end up in foreign bank accounts. Although the scam occurs nationwide, Davis police said it is prevalent in college towns where rental turnover is high.

"Leases are expiring," said Davis Police Sgt. Scott Smith. "Any community like Davis where houses are turning over and students are looking for roommates makes us particularly vulnerable."

In the summer, landlords are looking for renters to replace students who graduated and moved on. And students are advertising for roommates to help cover the rent.

"Ads are being placed," Smith said. "They are invitations for these fraud operations to target us."

One University of California, Davis, student, scammed out of more than $8,800, told police that her travails began about March 15 when she posted an ad on the craigslist Web site.

Looking for someone to sublet her apartment, she got her first e-mail response from "Sandy Ferguson." Ferguson said she was moving from London and was looking forward to living in Davis.

A deal was struck, and after a few weeks, a check for $4,325 arrived in the mail from Ferguson, according to a written statement from the victim.

The Davis woman, whom police declined to name, had only asked for $500 to cover a deposit and first month's rent.

Police say scam artists usually explain that the extra money was a "mistake" or a miscommunication between the scammer and their parents or secretary.

Ferguson asked the Davis woman to do her a favor: Send some of the extra money via Western Union to her shipping agent so that her luggage could clear customs.

On April 12, the unsuspecting Davis woman deposited what she called the "check" from Ferguson and wired $2,415 to the shipping agent, a man in Nigeria.

Ferguson then e-mailed the Davis woman, asking that another chunk of the extra money be sent to her shipping agent. On April 19, $1,592 was wired.

Then, another e-mail from Ferguson said the luggage was too heavy. An additional $199 was e-mailed by the Davis woman.

By this time, the woman had returned so much money from the worthless check that she no longer had enough to cover the apartment's deposit and first month's rent.

Still not suspecting she was being scammed, she e-mailed Ferguson, asking for enough to reserve the room. She got what later turned out to be another worthless money order a few weeks later for $7,200.

Luggage supposedly still in limbo, Ferguson e-mailed the Davis woman to send $2,767 to her agent May 19, which the Davis woman did.

A few days later, Ferguson e-mailed that her shipping agent had asked for more, and the Davis woman sent $1,869 on May 22.

The scam ended abruptly when the Davis woman's bank sent her a letter, charging her a $10 fee for a returned check.

"Sandy's check account was closed," the woman said in her police statement. "No such account. That was when I finally found out I had been a victim of scam."

Many scam artists are from Nigeria, Kenya, England and France, Smith said. They typically say they are students and establish a trust via e-mail.

"Sandy Ferguson" e-mailed that she was British, 5 foot 7, heterosexual, quiet, a nonsmoker and nondrinker. She swam and played tennis.

"I have no friends in the U.S. except for you. LOL (laugh out loud)," she wrote in an e-mail to the Davis student. "I like to go out clubbing once in a blue moon ... You sound fun."

Smith said scammers occasionally ask about good restaurants in Davis and promise they are good roommates: quiet and clean.

"There are usually a lot of red flags that go up, but we tend to be trusting," Smith said. "The excitement of having a new roommate and the many e-mails develop a trust."

The checks or money orders look legitimate but are counterfeit.

"If you receive something in the mail and you are asked to send cash back, then it is a fraud," Smith said.

Losses by Davis residents in the rental scam are generally running between $1,500 and $3,000.

"You can see if you do several hundred of these from overseas, if you get four or five people to send money, then that is a pretty good paycheck for just corresponding on the Internet," Smith said.

Sacramento Bee

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