I can see the headline now: Struggling freelance writer catapulted into a deadly game of fraud and foreign assassins. Mercy! Remember the good old days, when the worst thing that could happen in a business-client relationship was that the goods or services would go unpaid? I’ve had this occur in my own business, although rarely, because I take certain precautions and am generally a good judge of character regarding prospective clients. But apparently, I’m still naive to the wiles of cyber-criminals, a group growing in number these days due to ever-expanding communication technology. I’ve fallen into a well-disguised techno-trap and, unfortunately, I’m still squirming in its grip.
It all started with Craigslist, the Internet’s trading hub for anything that anyone might be looking for: houses, roommates, cars, s*x partners, and of course, employment. With the effects of a down economy continuing to be felt, many of us are out there pounding the cyber pavement searching for work. As a freelance writer, I am certainly no exception. This was how I came to answer an ad I found there for a “Story Guide Writer.”
I had to request an application, which they sent. But who were “they”? The company – I’ll call them Predator International for now, since I don’t know what horrible things might happen if I identify them – is supposedly an international dating site where people from all over the world can hook up with an intercontinental pen pal, boy/girlfriend, or even a potential marriage partner. My job would be to “edit” emails from users who were poor at English, but sending messages to English-speakers with whom they wanted to connect. Strangely, I could not find any information about the company or their dating site when I tried to research them, but a link they provided in one of their initial emails opened what appeared to be a typical dating website.
I completed their very simple, generic-looking application and returned it to them with my resume. Surprise, surprise, I passed their review of my qualifications and was sent a contract. I noticed that the emails to me from Predator International itself were written in very poor English, but I figured this why they needed my services! The contract, which read like it was composed by foreigners, gave an address in Berlin, Germany as their office location. The contract stated I would be paid per kilobyte of edited text, after a period of 21 days from the first assignment.
The work was easy and basically consisted of rewriting intimate email messages sent from people using the service – all appeared to be women from Germany – to men in the U.S. Some of the messages were so confusing due to misused words and lack of sentence structure, that I had to basically guess what the individual was trying to say and then put this into intelligible language. I felt like I was playing cupid sometimes, because the way I interpreted the mixed-up language could be quite different from what the writer intended. Nonetheless, it was paid work (I hoped), and Predator International praised my work often in their subsequent emails.
I noticed after a while that their messages to me were never signed by a particular person, just the name of the company. I also finally noticed that in their emails, the sender was listed as “Predator International” followed by a period, as in Predator International “.” In my experience with spam and obvious on-line scams, a period after a sender’s name is some sort of code for “This is a fake. Don’t even open it.” I wish I had noticed that period sooner, but I suppose that’s what criminals count on…the victim not noticing.
Anyway, before long I was due to be paid. I had had some uneasiness about the whole gig from the start, but had decided that if they didn’t pay me, I could live with losing about $300. On the other hand, if they were legitimate and paid me, then I would have a great new regular client!
The Predator International “Team” told me that they would wire my salary into my bank account, so they needed the account number and routing number. With even more trepidation, I supplied this information. But after all, I reasoned, hadn’t I had one client before from out of the country? And I wasn’t supplying them any passwords or security codes.
The wire appeared several days later than initially promised, and during this time I was positive I was not going to be paid. However, the company kept in contact with me, assuring me the delay was due to issues at the bank. Finally, slightly over a month after I had begun working for them, I was sent not one money wire, but two! Each wire was an amount about four times what they owed me for my work, for a total of slightly over $3,000. At the same time, I received another email from them, stating that they had overpaid me accidentally, and would I please forward the overpayment to an individual in Odessa, Ukraine. They alleged that this person was another employee, and they had sent me her wages by mistake.
At this point, “FRAUD” screamed in my head, but I didn’t know what to do! Being human, my first thought was to cut off all communication with them and keep the money. After all, why should I be forced to deal with crooks and scammers? I talked to a representative of my bank’s fraud reporting department, who told me this sounded like a money laundering scheme. He didn’t comment on what I should do with the money – whether to keep it or return it – but at the end of our conversation he told me not once, but twice, to “have a nice weekend.”
After a few more days of living under the delusion that I had luckily netted over $2,500, I was reminded by a couple close friends of possible consequences. Predators International was, after all, crooks and scammers…hmmm. Perhaps keeping the money was not such a good idea, I began to think. What if they had eastern European operatives in this country who would threaten me at gunpoint? Or beat and rape me outside my bank? Or hurt my family? Anxiety set in. And besides not wanting to piss off crazy people, was I not being a thief as well if I kept money that was not mine, no matter where it came from?
But I didn’t want to send the money to the address in the Ukraine, as doing so would accomplish exactly what they wanted if this was a money laundering operation. I thought about sending it to the address in Berlin that was on the original contract. In the meantime, Predators had begun sending poorly-worded emails that still relayed a clear message: return our money to us, or “big trouble await you.” This was only one or two days after they had notified me of the overpayment, and I hadn’t responded. Anxiously I sent them a response to the effect, “Hey guys, my computer has been broken for a week, and I just got your emails! Wow, I’ll get your money back to you and sorry you’ve been so worried.” At least I could buy some time this way, too.
I decided to take the matter to my local police department. With print-outs of Predator International’s sketchy contract and latest threatening email in hand, I explained the situation to an officer there. The female deputy was clearly unimpressed by my story, wearing a bored, we-get-this-all-the-time expression on her face. She asked me if I had lost any money, and I told her “no.” At this point, the company’s only “crime” was intimidation, I suppose. And since, as the officer reminded me, U.S. law enforcement has no jurisdiction outside the country, there was nothing they could do. She then asked me why I would give my bank account and routing number to people who couldn’t even write in proper English. I didn’t answer her. Clearly, I was not only a victim of intimidation, but a stupid one at that.
The deputy told me she could almost guarantee that the funds in my account were no good, or would somehow be contested by another victim in the near future. Instead of a money laundering scheme, her opinion was that Predators International was attempting to steal my good money using their counterfeit money. When I explained that I did not want to hold onto the money of criminals, she told me if I was worried about “stealing” (she used both index and middle fingers to make quotation marks in the air) their money, I could advise them that I would return the overpayment after 30 days, if it was still undisputed or not alleged fraudulent by anyone. This seemed like a reasonable idea. I would worry about how to send the money later.
That night, I sent them another email laying out my 30-day plan. I received their response a day later. Apparently, they didn’t like either of my emails, and their “experts” had determined that I was a thief trying to hold onto their money longer. They then demanded my social security number, and copies of my driver’s license and passport so that I could be somehow prosecuted. As I mentioned above, I am a stupid victim, but not quite this stupid…
This is where I’m at now, waiting 30 days and hoping I’m not assassinated in the meantime. I reported the incident on a government website for reporting international crimes of this nature called www.ic3.gov. On this site I learned about all the various types of internet scams out there, as well as how one can avoid being involved. It was far from comforting when I read the highlighted warning on the report site: “If you think your life is in danger, contact your state or local police immediately!” The site indicated they get thousands of reports every month, and basically do what they can to investigate and track down the perpetrators. It is nice to feel that I’m not alone, but I’m still wondering about the danger part.
At the suggestion of a very smart person, after 30 days – and hopefully I will still be alive at that point – I plan to wire the overpayment back to the account from which it was wired, then close out my account. But for now, I continue to receive creepy emails from Predators International. They even phoned me twice, but I missed the calls, thank goodness. In addition to being uneasy, I’m angered to have been roped into this stressful situation while just trying to do what I do, write and copyedit. As if having to find work and trust clients to pay is not bad enough…
On the bright side, this whole drama has motivated me to write the story you have just read. And isn’t that what every writer wants – inspiration and a good story? I just hope this blog doesn’t become my last.
Well, readers, I am fortunately still alive to write an ending (hopefully) to this story. A few days ago, I wired the amount of the overpayment, less my “wages,” my bank’s international wiring fee of $45, and an extra $100 for all my time and anxiety, to an account Predator International provided in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Once my account balance was at “zero,” I immediately closed it in an attempt to remove myself and my money from the international fraud radar. I did learn that in the case of wire transactions, money wired between accounts managed by two financial institutions is always “real” money. Criminals can forge checks or money orders, and even counterfeit currency, but wires between financial institutions cannot be falsified.
Obviously, I’ve learned to exercise much greater caution in answering job ads and providing information to clients or prospective clients. I choose to regard this whole ordeal as a valuable lesson. And the best part, other than the fact that I haven’t been murdered, is the dramatic satisfaction I get when friends ask me how this worked out and I tell them, “No problem. I’ve paid off the Russians…”
Christine E. Miller, M.S. has been a professional writer and editor for over 17 years, with her expertise evolving from marketing and business projects to articles/blogs, book proposals, ghostwriting, and comprehensive copyediting of book manuscripts, reports, dissertations, and anything else requiring an experienced and knowledgeable review. Christine lives in San Diego with her youngest daughter, a black cat named Turnip, and her excessively pampered Bichon Frise. To learn more and read her blog, check out www.TellMeWhatYouWantToSay.com.