When an order came in via e-mail for 100 frames it sounded convincing. Later when the customer asked that I send money for shipping to a company in West Africa, I saw what I was really dealing with.
Just before Christmas I received an e-mail request for a hundred 2" wide 8"x10" solid wood picture frames with an antique gold finish and a natural linen liner. Payment was to be made with a credit card.
I am a small, one-man operation. I was quite excited to receive this inquiry, as business was slow, even though it was the holiday season. While I have a website, I do not process orders through my site. The framing section is actually very limited and still “under construction.” It didn't dawn on me at the time to ask how this customer located my framing business. I needed the work and was happy to give a quote on the job, which was about $5,000.
After I sent an e-mail with the price, the customer asked if I accepted credit cards and for a completion date. His next e-mail stated that he wanted to make payment including shipping charges. He also recommended Smart Fields Shipping Company and provided a contact name and e-mail address of Smartfields@post.com.
When I contacted Smart Fields, they asked for an address and number of packages. By the fourth e-mail from the shipper, I got info on packaging, crating, and international airway taxes along with a request for payment by Western Union money transfer of exactly $1,200.
It took eight e-mails from the customer to finally get his address. I noted that it was very similar to the shipping company’s address—the same town in Ghana in West Africa. The next e-mail from the customer requested my phone number so that I could be contacted to complete payment with his MasterCard.
By now my heart had already sunk. I had previously contacted my credit card processing company to ask about taking such a large order without the customer present. They said taking an order would be fine. They would accept the credit card and process the order, but if the customer didn’t pay them, then they wouldn’t pay me. They told me that if a customer came in and signed a credit card slip and I took down their driver’s license info, then they would back the sale. In this case, however, I was on my own and should use my gut instinct.
Usually I get a 50 percent deposit on all orders but hadn’t asked for one up to that point because the e-mails had been going back and forth so fast and the customer indicated that he wanted to pay for everything up front.
I then got a phone call from the customer to process the order. He gave me all of his credit card info, including address and security code on back of card. When I told him I would not be able to process the order with a credit card, he asked, “How can we do this?” I replied, “The same way you want to pay for shipping—Western Union money transfer.” The next thing I heard was a dial tone.
The bottom line is that this is the same scam as the one in which you are “overpaid” with a phony cashier’s check and then send the “change” via Western Union. (I actually have a phony $10,000 check that I framed and put on my wall.) The only difference in this scam is the shipping charges take the place of the “change.” The whole point of the scam is for you to pay a portion of what you think you’ll be getting.
I might have been able to spot the scam earlier had I spent a little more time researching the “customer,” Googling his name on the Internet or doing a credit check. But when you’re busy with holiday business, sometimes you just don’t have the time to spare. Had I known he was in West Africa from the beginning, I would have been much more skeptical, but this “customer” only provided enough real information to get me interested and to make it sound like a legitimate order. After all, why would someone in Africa want to buy 100 frames from a frame shop in a small town in Maine? But the real red flag was the request to send money for shipping. Even then, when you need the business, you still keep wanting it to be real even though you know in your heart that it’s not.
I really wanted a nice fat job like this just before Christmas and had even been tempted to order the materials to speed things along. But without a deposit and a customer at the counter, I listened to my gut and didn’t jump the gun. Business may be slow, but no one needs to make things worse by allowing Internet scam artists to con us out of a decent living.