Northeast Times

Postal Service delivers scam reimbursements

Not snow jobs, or cheats or darkened hearts can keep the U.S. Postal Ser­vice from its ap­poin­ted task. And last week, part of the postal ser­vice’s daily duty of de­liv­er­ing the mail in­cluded bring­ing re­im­burse­ment checks to the homes of people scammed in wide-ran­ging frauds that cost them mil­lions.

In Phil­adelphia, checks worth more than $35,700 went out to 18 con-game vic­tims. In the sub­urbs, 20 oth­ers got more than $76,000, ac­cord­ing to Nick Alicea of the U.S. Postal In­spect­or’s of­fice. Na­tion­wide, 3,440 checks worth more than $14 mil­lion went to the vic­tims of con artists who used the mail and Money­Gram to per­pet­rate a vari­ety of scams.

A Ca­na­dian sweepstakes was the fo­cus of one scheme, said Alicea, a Postal In­spect­or team lead­er.

Vic­tims would re­ceive mail­ings that in­cluded checks for $4,000 and let­ters ad­vising them they had won a $3.5 mil­lion Ca­na­dian lot­tery. The let­ters and the checks were phony, Alicea said dur­ing an Aug. 19 phone in­ter­view. They were bait.

The let­ters in­struc­ted vic­tims to call a num­ber to claim their win­nings. The per­son who answered told them to im­me­di­ately de­pos­it the checks, wait a day and buy a Money­Gram at a re­cog­niz­able busi­ness like Wal­mart or a loc­al phone store and to wire $3,500 to an­oth­er per­son at an­oth­er loc­a­tion to pay for taxes and oth­er fees so the ima­gined wind­fall could be col­lec­ted.

Of course, the marks were pay­ing crim­in­als.

“They use very com­mon names,” Alicea said. One was George Wash­ing­ton.

The con artists who con­trolled the scam usu­ally tar­geted eld­erly and vul­ner­able people, he said. “These people are very charm­ing on the tele­phone and per­suas­ive,” he said.

The fraud­sters col­lec­ted the money by con­spir­ing with cor­rup­ted agents who had con­trac­ted to do busi­ness with Money­Gram, a com­pany set up to do busi­ness much like West­ern Uni­on. A per­son buys a Money­Gram for a cer­tain amount, pays a fee, gets a ref­er­ence num­ber for the money trans­fer, and has it sent to a loc­a­tion the con artists have named.

Fre­quently, in this scam, the vic­tims sent their Money­Grams to Toronto, Canada, Alicea said.

“That trans­fer would be picked up some­where in Canada …. any­where,” Alicea said. All the per­son who got it needed was the ref­er­ence num­ber as­signed to the trans­fer.

“In these fraud trans­ac­tions, the per­son in Canada who is pulling the num­ber out of the [Money­Gram] sys­tem is an agent who has been cor­rup­ted by the fraud­ster,” Alicea ex­plained. The head con­man pays those agents to re­move the num­ber and the money from the sys­tem, take 10 to 20 per­cent for him­self and then for­ward the li­on’s share to someone in Ni­ger­ia, Ro­mania, the United King­dom, Spain or any­where in the world, Alicea said.

It all hap­pens quickly.

“They can get the money in their hands with­in 10 or 15 minutes,” he said.

The money’s first stop isn’t al­ways Canada, Alicea ad­ded. “There are pock­ets in the United States where we know this activ­ity oc­curred, too.”

There had been one Philly loc­a­tion, he said, but he didn’t have any spe­cif­ics. Scores of cor­rupt Money­Gram agents have been pro­sec­uted na­tion­wide and in Canada, he said. One per­son from Ni­ger­ia has been ar­res­ted.

PAY­ING UP

This fraud star­ted in 2004 and con­tin­ued un­til 2009. Since some Money­Gram agents par­ti­cip­ated in this in­ter­na­tion­al scheme, the com­pany agreed to set up a $100 mil­lion fund to pay back vic­tims. Ac­cord­ing to the Postal Ser­vice, Money­Gram it­self profited by the scheme be­cause it col­lec­ted fees for the money trans­fers. The com­pany vi­ol­ated U.S. law by pro­cessing thou­sands of trans­ac­tions for agents known to be in­volved in an in­ter­na­tion­al fraud scheme.

The checks in the mail last week were part of a second wave of re­im­burse­ments, Alicea said. In Decem­ber, the first totaled $46 mil­lion and went to 18,000 vic­tims, he ad­ded. Alicea said au­thor­it­ies no­ti­fied more than 68,000 vic­tims, and more than 22,000 have made claims so far. Au­thor­it­ies knew who had been bilked and by how much. All the vic­tims had to do was sign a simple form to get their money back, he said.

A lot of the people get­ting checks now filed for their money later than those who got paid earli­er or they dis­puted the amounts owed to them.

“A lot of those get­ting checks now are go­ing to people we had to do sig­ni­fic­ant re­search on,” Alicea said.

The phony lot­tery con wasn’t the only one that used Money­Grams, Alicea said.

There were phony In­ter­net sales schemes and the clas­sic “Grand­par­ents scam.”

Eld­erly people are con­tac­ted by someone pur­port­ing to be a grand­child who has been jailed far way or needs money for car re­pairs. The vic­tims are asked to wire the money and “please don’t tell Mom and Dad,” Alicea said.

Al­though the Money­Gram part of these schemes might be new, or new-ish, the scams them­selves have been known for dec­ades.

“It’s prob­ably worse now than it’s ever been,” Alicea said. A lot of these scams used to ori­gin­ate in West Africa, he ex­plained, but now are be­ing taken over by Ja­maic­ans who have got­ten out of the drug busi­ness and in­to fraud be­cause it’s more luc­rat­ive.

Ni­geri­ans, for ex­ample, op­er­ated their schemes like they were busi­nesses and looked at the vic­tims like they were “cli­ents,” Alicea said. “The Ja­maic­ans try to take every bit of money you have.”

He said some threaten people and tell them they’re right out­side their houses. They’ll use the In­ter­net to look at the homes and then de­scribe them to their vic­tims, he said. They have some eld­erly people so frightened that they’ll do just what they’re told to do, he said.

“There’s no end,” Alicea said. “It’s non­stop 24/7 with these scam­mers.” ••

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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