Web of Lies

by Beth Ann Bovino

[For information about 3QD and what we are all about, click here, or here for our main page. Also, after appearing on 3QD, this story was picked up by several news organzations, and even the FBI commented on it. For example, see this from the front page of the NY Daily News.]

Bab0A man called the other night and asked to speak with Beth Ann Bovino. Not interested in a conversation about the midterm elections or whether I need a new phone service, I considered “She’s not home”. Instead, I asked “whom may I say is calling?” He said his name (correctly, I had caller ID). He then ran into a series of statements about me: that I live at 304 West XXth Street (I do) and that I have a one bedroom with a fireplace (yes again). He asked if I am renting my place (I’m not). That’s when he told me that someone had placed an ad on Craig’s List in my name.

According to the ad, I live on the 5th floor of an elevator building (an upgrade from my 5th floor walkup). It comes at the low monthly rent of $1500 including utilities. (Later I found out they also had it listed at times for $1190 and $1100.) It has a deli, a grocery store, and a laundry room. I have a washer/dryer in my apartment, so maybe they could have charged more.

I had it delisted from Craig’s list, but decided to apply. I know from experience it’s a pretty nice place, and even at $1500 it’s a steal. I applied to the ad’s email Annbovino@aol.com. Ann Bovino (she said “Beth Ann Bovino is my full name.”) got back to me. She wrote “I have available the apartment but now I’m in Fremont – CA. This is the reason that I want to rent it. To start this deal you have to send me 1 month in advance and I will ship you the keys overnight. You can move in the apt in the same day when you receive the keys.”

Bab1_4She included pictures of “my” home: http://pictures.aol.com/galleries/annbovino. [All photos here are taken from this site.] Aside from the picture of my building, the rest are fiction. The bathroom fixtures received a lot of attention. The tub made it in over half the photos, while the modern faucet got a close up. However, I already have furniture and since there wouldn’t be any moving costs, I asked for a discount if the place comes unfurnished. I also asked if there was anyone else at the building who could show me the apartment? A super or someone else?

Ann Bovino wrote: “I understand your position but the keys are with me and the only option is to ship you the keys. I have an idea for this deal. First you have to send me money on your friend or relative name via MoneyGram because I want to be sure that you are a serious person and you really want to rent my apt. In the same day I will ship you the keys via UPS and after you will see the apt and you make a decision you have to resend the funds on my name for pick up the money.” She generously offered to support all MoneyGram fees. She also cut the rental price to $1400, unfurnished.

I responded that I was concerned about sending money without talking to someone over the phone. The same “I understand your position” piece was sent in reply, but it added “PS. I would love to speak with you by phone but I can’t because I’m a deaf-mute person and I am teaching in CA for a deaf-mute school.”

Bab2So there it is. I’m a deaf-mute person who moved to Fremont, California to teach deaf-mute children. I understand other people’s positions and will even bend on the price. I may even be able to pro-rate the agreement (though that was unclear). While this was entertaining, my real self got concerned. Ann Bovino reposted the apartment rental. A number of people came by to check out this dream apartment. I let them know just that. It was a dream. And a fraud. I called 311 to find out how to stop this. 311 didn’t have the facts to help much. Though they were supportive, they sent me to the N.Y. State Attorney Local Office, who sent me to Consumer Affairs, who told me, for some unexplained reason, to contact my local post office. However, an intensive internet search gave me some information to act, or at least know what I was up against.

I found out that this kind of fraud is a variation of the “Four-One-Nine” (419) or “Advanced Fee Fraud,” which has been around since the early 1980’s and that we have all seen. Emails sent with the SUBJECT: URGENT!!! in the header undoubtedly lead into this kind of fraud. It was dubbed “419 Fraud” after the relevant section of the Criminal Code of Nigeria. Usually it operates as follows: the target receives an unsolicited fax, email, or letter, usually from Nigeria or another African nation (though not always), and contains either a money laundering or other illegal proposal. Or you may receive a Legal and Legitimate business proposal. Variations of Advance Fee Fraud seem endless. At some point, the victim is always asked to pay an Advance Fee upfront.

There are a number of web sites that look into this. One particularly interesting and very funny site is http://www.scamorama.com. Together with the book, scam-o-rama, it is designed specifically for scam busters (or those that support their cause). On their site they ask the question: “Can a scammer pretending to be an orphan from a Sierra Leone mining town find happiness scamming people? Well yeah, if he gets away with it.”

Their research, on an admittedly small data set, suggests disturbing trends: Travel and banking in West Africa are fatal to imaginary people. Airplane crashes have the most fatalities overall, while the Sagbama Express is most dangerous road. They write “the ‘bank customers’- all foreigners (European, Asian, Arab, American) – have died, usually in ghastly (air, motor) accidents. The banks may exist. The victims’ names may belong to real people who probably want them back. (I do.) Some names belonged to real people whose tragic deaths were lifted from obituaries. Some victims have died multiple times, not learning from previous experience. Some died from combinations of natural disaster.”

The book and the web site detail the ‘419’ advance fee fraud scam and the damage it does (hundreds of millions of dollars yearly). They also document the people who try to get back at them. On one side are the scammers, those who commit the fraud. Then there are the ‘scambaiters’- those who write back to lead the scammers on with stories and waste their time. There is one scambaiter who actually got money FROM the scammer (about $3). It inspired my game.

It has now been over three weeks since I first heard that my name has been used. Given the stats, my name has now likely been involved in a few more devastating accidents/illnesses/natural disasters. I could suffer still more virtual tragic ends if I do nothing. I contacted the local police department with no luck. However, one web site finally offered a chance to redeem my name. The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) http://www.ic3.gov/faq/ is co-sponsored by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C).

The IC3’s mission is to serve as a vehicle to receive, develop, and refer criminal complaints regarding the rapidly expanding arena of cyber crime. The IC3 aims to give the victims of cyber crime an easy-to-use reporting mechanism. The web site receives thousands of complaints each month. The complaints filed are all processed and may be referred to the appropriate law enforcement or regulatory agencies for possible investigation. Ultimately, however, investigation and prosecution are at the discretion of the receiving agencies.

If you’re a victim, keep any evidence you may have relating to your complaint, such as payment receipts, mail receipts, a printed copy of a website, or copies of emails. Keep phone numbers or addresses of anyone connected, either the culprit or other targets. You may be requested to provide them for investigative purposes. While it seems farfetched, there have been arrests. Most recently, the FBI and Spanish police have arrested 310 people in Malaga, Spain in connection with a €100m bogus (email) lottery scam run by Nigerian gangs. The gang also offered rewards for those willing to stash money taken out of Iraq by the family of Saddam Hussein or money found after the 9/11 attacks. It was the biggest 419 bust in history, and may result in drastic reductions of scam mails.

The scammer posted my apartment again. I remain a Californian deaf-mute. As of this date, my horrible airplane or automobile death has not been announced.

Beth Ann Bovino is a new columnist at 3 Quarks Daily. She will be added to our About Us page presently.