If It Sounds Too Good To Be True... A Cautionary Tale

It is always nice when one’s private obsessions actually pay off in the real world. While most of you are familiar with my generally high level of geekdom, my love of horror, my research into what people are afraid of, my appreciation for well written novels, video games, and just about every aspect of speculative fiction, there are a number of things which you may not be familiar with. I have a deep and abiding interest in criminology, criminal justice, and forensic science. I enjoy reading myths and fairy tales from all over the world and love the work of Joseph Campbell. I spend lots of time reading non-fiction, especially biology, anthropology, archeology, and physics. While I am a fairly typical computer user, I find information about computer security and those who try to subvert it fascinating. I have spent a lot of time reading true crime, especially books about serial killers, sociopaths, and con artists.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending upon how you choose to interpret this next tale, it is this last one that came in to play recently.

Another thing you may know if you have been reading the personal posts lately is that I have been attempting to work from home as a freelance editor and ghost writer. This current project is having middling success. What happened this past week is a result of that endeavor.

I have profiles up on a number of freelance websites. These allow potential employers to contact freelancers for short and long term projects. Most charge a small fee for this, either up front as a membership fee or as a percentage of what the freelancer is paid. In exchange they provide a secure payment platform.

I am not going to name the site which the individual in question attained my name from, as the website is in no way culpable for what happened.

Occasionally, an employer will attempt to contact a freelancer outside of the security of the website. Naturally this is discouraged. There are, however, a number of reasons why someone might be interested in working in this manner.

So, on to the details.

I was contacted, off-site, on the e-mail address which I have set up for the writing & editing business.
3 The initial contact e-mail sounded quite professional:

Dear Editor,

Your service is needed as an Editor and proofreader for a press release,The document word count is 18,826 word to be edited with the fixed deadline date (10/31/2013).
Please confirm to me on your availability for this project including the following:

* Your price rate per source word
* Terms and conditions that surrounds your service.

I await your mail while i supply you with more detail.

Best Regards,

From the desk of;


150 West Parker Road, Suite 603
Houston,TX 77002
Tel: (770) 455-5981

Yep, that’s the exact e-mail, word for word.

Notice that it does not specify where Mr. Reinhard acquired my information. This is not really a red flag because I have my information on a number of sites as well as on fliers at local colleges. In a later correspondence he stated that he found my e-mail information on one of the sites with the secure payment platform but chose to contact me off-site.

Red flag number one.

I should also not that this is the only contact which we had that utilized anything even remotely resembling a coherent command of the English language. Not really a red flag. Some of the work I have been hired for was to take something which was translated into English and make it sound less stilted but still professional. Hindsight says that this initial contact e-mail sounds good so they can set the hook.

We agreed upon a price for the proposed project. For jobs which are hired off site I require half of the agreed upon amount before I begin working. Reinhard stated that there were some irregularities which prevented him from using PayPal (red flag number two) and that he was not comfortable providing me with a credit card number (understandable, but a bit weird if it was a company account, so call this one a pink flag). I specified that if he was going to pay by check it would have to be a certified check, cashier’s check, or money order and that I would would not begin working until the check had cleared.

He agreed and said that he would send the check ASAP due to the firm dead line by which the work had to be completed.

The check arrived a few days later via registered mail from a different address.

Kendra Kirkland
19 19 Teston St
Brampton ON L7A 1Y5

So now I’m dealing with an address which is not only not in Texas, it’s not even in the US. Either I’m dealing with an international company or this is red flag number three.

Upon examination, the check appeared to be a certified check (written from a bank in Florida -- red flag number four), for an amount approximately eight times more than the total that the project was contracted for.

By now this is starting to smell like a freshly fertilized field.

I received an e-mail that morning (before the mail had arrived actually) stating the check would be written for a higher amount because they wanted to retain my services for a larger project. Red flag number I’m not sure how many we are up to here. I stated that I was not comfortable with this arrangement as we had not agreed upon a price for the other project and that I would not be able to take on any large projects before the end of the month as I had other commitments to attend to.
4 I was encouraged to deposit the check and that the forthcoming project would not be needed until the end of the year.

If my bullshit meter hadn’t been pegged into the red zone before this it was now.

  • Why retain my services this early for a project with a much later deadline?
  • For that matter, why retain my services for a larger project before I completed the smaller project? Didn’t it make sense to see if I could actually provide what they were looking for first?
  • For that matter, why were they so concerned with the next project when they had not even sent me the one which we had contracted for?

I brought the check to my financial institution and discussed the situation with the fraud department. As a result of that discussion I deposited the check with the reassurance that they would keep me updated on if and when it cleared.

The problem is that this is all starting to sound a lot like a variation of the Spanish Prisoner con. In the original version the con artist convinces the mark that they have contact with a fabulously wealthy individual and for a small investment they can free this royal who will then reward them. I know that most have you have been contacted by a member of the Nigerian royal family at one point or another.

The variation of this is to take something of stated value and use it as collateral. The marks pay the con artist, knowing that they will either get their money back with interest or get to keep the (actually worthless item). I was fully expecting to get instructions to send back the difference minus an extra amount for my troubles. Then I would discover that the check had bounced like a piece of flubber.

So I put off this part by politely stating that I knew that Reinhard was concerned about the impending deadline and asking him to forward the document that needed editing. We could discuss future projects after this.

This seemed to frustrate him a little, given the number of phone calls I received.

It should be noted that I
never answer the telephone. I will reply to messages left almost immediately, but unless I am waiting for your call, don’t expect me to answer.

I’m not even counting the flags anymore. I’ll just list all of the hinky things which happened at this point.

  • Reinhard stated that his e-mail account had been hacked and that attempts to contact him via that technology might not go through
  • He stated that his accountant had assured him that the check had cleared (despite the fact that I told him my financial institution would not be able to verify this until Tuesday at the earliest).
  • He began texting and calling insisting that I call him back6 so we could discuss how to rectify the financial discrepancy.
  • The document to be edited was only sent after a number of texts and e-mails in which I stated that I would be unable to discuss the financial situation until next week but would be able to at least start looking at the work they required.
  • The document I received was not 18,000+ words but around 5007.
  • The document appeared to be something copied from the middle of an article about racism.

I can only assume that he wanted me to call because it would not have been as easy for me to deflect him as it was when texting or e-mailing.

Well kids, we all know how this story ends, don’t we? The Fraud Department at Michigan First called me and informed me that the check was indeed counterfeit. We had a very productive conversation about preventing fraud from a small business standpoint. She said she would send me the check express mail so I would have it should I need it for my own records.

I sent off (to Reinhard) what I believe to be a very professional sounding e-mail, given the circumstances:

I was just contacted by my financial institution's Fraud Department.  They informed me that the check which you sent is counterfeit.  Please consider this our last communication.

When I checked my phone I found a text from Reinhard which had come through while I had been on the phone with the Fraud Department which read:

(1/2) I need an urgent update on the check,kindly get back to me asap,i have sent you series of email and you have refused to answer me..i
(2/2) wont be happy to call the feds into this

To which I replied less professionally:

Please check you email. My financial institution has discovered that the check is counterfeit. Please feel free to contact whatever law enforcement agency you like. I would love to have the opportunity to explain how you attempted to get me to work without pay.

Granted I don’t believe that this was the nature of the scam in question, but the rest is speculation on my part since I did not give him the opportunity to request money.

Moral of the story, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Trust those gut feelings. Never start working until the check clears.

1 I would like to state for the record that everything in this post is true, that nothing has been exaggerated, and unlike
Dragnet no names have been changed.2

2 This is probably not the best practice on my part, but eh screw it.

3 This is one of the approximately kajillion e-mail addresses that I have access to. It is different from the ones I use for
Dragon’s Roost Press and for the submission of my own work and is not linked to them or the addresses I use for personal correspondence.

4 Um, Halloween. Duh.

5 I also have a new appreciation for the professionals at the Michigan First Credit Union (formerly the Detroit Teachers’s Credit Union).

6 For those keeping score, the 770 area code is not associated with Houston Texas or Brampton Ontario but for Atlanta, Georgia.

7 Which meant they
really overpaid my deposit.