Las Vegas Sun

December 19, 2014

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Online scam turns honest citizens into fences for stolen goods

By the time Scott Wilson realized how badly he'd been suckered, there was already a warrant out for his arrest and boxes of stolen Bibles piling up in his guest bedroom.

Wilson had fallen victim to a reshipping scam, an Internet confidence crime authorities say costs retailers more than a half-billion dollars annually. Hired to send and receive packages, the 38-year-old Las Vegas father had unwittingly become a fence for stolen merchandise; his townhouse a depot of purloined goods.

It would take Wilson weeks to realize he'd been made a fool.

The job seemed legitimate, and so easy. Wilson would receive numerous small parcels in the mail. He would inventory the parcels and gather them into bigger boxes, cardboard behemoths he scoured from behind fast-food restaurants. Wilson would then ship the big boxes to someone else, whomever his bosses instructed.

Now he's a crime victim who's afraid of calling the cops because he's also a criminal dodging police.

Wilson found out about the job in an Internet chat room. Reshipping scams, also known as postal forwarding fraud, almost always transpire over the Internet. Con artists can pose as earnest employers online, wooing their marks with well-crafted want ads for "correspondence managers," "shipping assistants" and other trumped-up titles.

In May, Wilson was approached online by a man named "Kenny" who claimed he was from the United Kingdom. Kenny said he was hiring for a work-at-home job that paid about $400 every two weeks.

"So, stupid me, I bit the bait," Wilson says.

He was hardly hired for his shipping savvy. He was hired to be the dirty-working middle man, a blind mule who creates a comfortable facade for thieves - transporting goods purchased with stolen credit cards. Typically it's small electronics, digital cameras or computer components.

But not in Wilson's case.

Wilson was reshipping Bibles. Scads of them, shrink-wrapped hardbacks with gilt-edged pages. Soon, he was sending and receiving dozens of boxes a week - not just Bibles, but other religious reading materials, DVDs and Catholic children's coloring books.

Slipped into the packages, Wilson found receipts that ran into the hundreds of dollars.

Kenny instructed Wilson to ship one box, containing several copies of the book "Growing in God's Word," to Nigeria, "attn. Mr. Ayinde Taofoko." The international address was a red flag, one of several Wilson missed - a parade of warning signs he all but ignored.

Wilson needed the work, and he figured the stuff he was sending vouched for itself.

"I didn't really see much harm in it," he said. "I mean who is going to steal cases of religious materials? I looked at the stuff and thought everything seemed fine. I'm not too religious, but you're messing with the wrong junkyard if you're stealing Bibles, for crying out loud."

But the world's best-selling book is stolen for just that reason; there's a demand, and the Good Book is easy to unload on the black market.

Julie Fergerson has had her share of encounters with bewildered Bible reshippers.

"I've had conversations with people shipping boxes of 500 overseas," said Fergerson, co-founder of the Merchant Risk Council, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing fraud in online commerce.

"It's a successful scam that is hard to prevent," she said. "The more people they recruit, the better off they are. The better off they are, the harder it is to shut them down."

In 2003 the council and FBI teamed up to conduct Operation Cyber Sweep, a 120-day study of reshipping scams. The council discovered scam artists fraudulently purchased more than $1.7 million in goods from Internet retailers during the four-month study. More than 5,000 U.S. addresses were used by scam artists in furtherance of the reshipping scheme - addresses that belonged to unknowing victims such as Wilson.

The council estimated reshipping scams cost American merchants about $500 million annually. Today, Fergerson thinks that number is low.

"It's getting worse," she said. "I think our numbers are conservative."

By June, Wilson had quit his job as a nightclub promoter to reship full-time. The boxes had taken over his kitchen and were spilling into a guest bedroom. His house was a holy mess.

"It got to be where it was kind of like quicksand," Wilson said. "I was in it, and Kenny kept promising me, 'You've got a check coming to you.' "

Because it's a crime conducted by mail, reshipping scams fall largely upon the U.S. Postal Inspection Service to investigate. The scams are particularly difficult to police, however, because con artists can do so much to make themselves appear legitimate.

Scam operators have been known to create convincing Web sites for fake reshipping companies, complete with 800 telephone numbers and screenings for job seekers that seem straightforward: give us your name, address, date of birth, home phone, Social Security number and a copy of your ID. We'll review your information and get back to you with an offer.

"They really do believe they are doing a real work-at-home job," postal investigator Pat Armstrong said. "The goods ultimately end up where they're supposed to go, and that middle person has no idea what he's ultimately involved in."

Wilson worked without payment for weeks. He complained to Kenny in multiple e-mail exchanges until a paycheck finally appeared in Wilson's mailbox in July. The envelope had no return address, but its postmark indicated it came from Minneapolis.

Inside was a standard payroll check, but from a business in El Paso, Texas. It was signed by someone Wilson never heard of, but most importantly, it was for much more than Wilson was owed: $3,000.

"I couldn't believe it was so high," he said. "I'm like, 'What's wrong here?' I'm straight out the door and into the bank."

Wilson had unknowingly entered the second phase of reshipping scams: Criminals overpay their employees, pretend it was a mistake and request the excess payment be wired back to a company bank account. Before the victim realizes it's a sham paycheck, he's already sent his own money to his bogus boss.

Wait, there's more.

The personal information victims provided while applying for a reshipping job? It's stolen by the bogus bosses to obtain more credit.

If everything goes according to plan, the crime becomes a perfect circle: The reshippers are not only moving the stolen merchandise, they're paying for it.

"There's no need for anyone to reship anything for anyone," Armstrong said. "There is never any need for that. Unfortunately, people don't know."

Wilson knew nothing, but got lucky. He attempted to cash his check in person, and learned from a bank teller that it had been issued from a closed account. Now Wilson knew something was wrong; he never wired Kenny the "overpayment."

But Wilson's problems were far from over. All he had to show for three months' work was a bogus check and several boxes of religious books.

Moreover, without any income, he had missed two months' child support to his ex-wife in Mississippi. A warrant was issued for his arrest - Wilson was now a dead-beat dad.

Meanwhile, the books kept coming.

"I'm sitting there with this check and four or five huge boxes of these materials," he said. "I don't know how to return them, I don't know where they should go. I was stupid and naive."

Shame is a way to keep people quiet. Some victims won't report the crime out of embarrassment, said Tim Johnston, president and chief executive of the Reno Better Business Bureau.

"It's sort of a pride factor," Johnston said. "When people get taken, they don't want to talk about it."

The National Fraud Information Center ranked Nevada among the top five states for victims of Internet scams per capita in 2004 and 2005. Johnston believes that Nevada's residents are receptive to the hollow promises of work-at-home jobs, which are seldom what they seem.

"With cost of living going up and paychecks not keeping pace, you're looking for ways to make ends meet," he said. "You're susceptible."

Johnston gets inquiries about work-at-home scams almost every day. He has to tell the callers they probably won't be making the money promised.

"If it sounds too good to be true," he says, "our experience is you are not going to make that money."

Wilson hasn't called the police or the postal inspector because he's worried about getting taken in on his warrant. He hasn't applied for a new job because he's afraid the warrant will pop up on a background check. Lately he's been working as a part-time painter, eking out an existence .

Wilson is so afraid of retribution or arrest that he has moved his disabled son to his grandmother's house. Reshipping scams are often orchestrated from out of the country, but that's not to say Kenny doesn't have stateside operatives. Kenny knows very well where Wilson lives.

"This has cost me my freedom, my employment, my time, my money, my fear," he said. "My child."

Reshipping scam artists are hard to pin down and punish. Online, nobody needs to use their real name, and the Internet trail is hard to trace. Scammers want it that way; they like their victims a world away.

"The scam artists don't want to dirty their own back yard," Johnston said.

And there's still the possibility Wilson's personal information will be stolen and used to access credit. He doesn't think it's happened yet, but he can't really be sure.

The Sun's attempts to contact Kenny were unsuccessful. Wilson no longer has any documents that contain Kenny's last name, and Kenny's Internet activity suggests he lives in a drastically different time zone.

"This whole thing just snowballed on me," Wilson said. "I wish I could just put it all in reverse and back it out."

His only upper hand is a handful of Bibles - merchandise Kenny is eager to get back.

In e-mails over the past five weeks, Kenny has offered money, designer clothes, shoes, electronics and other goods in exchange for the books.

Wilson's not interested.

"I won't budge," he said, eyeing books wedged into boxes of packing peanuts.

"Stuff don't come for free."

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