Friday, February 11, 2005

Scammed

This morning at 915 am EST, I received a call on my office telephone from a man who claimed that he represented the Government Grant Information Center.

"Is this [my real life name]?" asked a lightly accented male voice on the other end of the line.

"Yes," I said, still exhausted from last night's never ending class and preoccupied with a paper that I was struggling to rewrite.

"Congratulations! I am mumble from the Government Grant Information Center. According to our records, you've always paid your taxes on time, so you have qualified to receive an $8,000 grant," his voice cut through my mental fog. Grant money? Taxes?

"Huh?" I said stupidly, wondering which grant I'd applied for that was actually being awarded to me and why they were calling me so early on a holiday morning when a snailmail award letter was standard protocol.

"Where are you from?" I asked. (Obviously, someone in this agency's granting office was on the verge of screwing up my perfect rejection record while simultaneously encouraging me to believe that I am not totally unemployable).

"The Government Grant Information Center," came the reply. I could hear the sound of many voices in the background as I tried to recall which grant I'd applied for from that agency, but I'd never even heard that name before. Even though I try to forget which universities I've applied to for tenure-track positions (and I often succeed until my rejection letters arrive), I make an effort to remember to whom I apply for grant money.

"Wha .. uh, I don't understand .. can you tell me again what this is about?" I was absolutely confused. I tried to concentrate on what he was saying and could hear the voices droning on in the background: This man works in a very busy office. Do grant agencies employ this many people? If so, then why didn't I also have a job there that pays a living wage?

The man, who had a mild Australian accent and was probably drop-dead gorgeous .. ooo, I'd bet he was a sailor with lovely (but not excessive) muscles .. repeated his generous offer. (I think he had an Australian accent, but I wasn't sure. I should have asked him to repeat the word "beer" several times so I could identify his accent with more certainty).

I could still hear many voices, including female voices, chattering in the background. Hrm, these voices sounded like .. a telemarketing office! My vision of the tall and lean Australian sailor lounging in his underwear while talking to me on the phone suddenly popped like a balloon and was replaced by a short, smelly man with a beefy hand wrapped around a filthy telephone receiver, fingers still greasy from eating a supersized order of McDonald's french fries and a belly that swelled over his belt buckle like a new and very hairy life form.

"Yeah, right! Is this for real? The government doesn't reward people for being good, the government locks people up for being bad," I informed my caller, feeling my alter-ego, Xena, Warrior Princess, begin to stir.

"That's not true. Which government are you talking about?" He asked politely, sounding genuinely interested for the first time since he'd called.

"MY government, the one with George Bush in the White House," I snapped at him. "Which government are YOU talking about?" This guy must be really stupid. Xena, Warrior Princess, was wide awake now, but I resisted the urge to launch my diatribe about short overpaid bullies with bombs, and about Abu Ghraib and the cute little American prison in Cuba used for storing accused Al Qaeda terrorists until their due date had passed.

I was suddenly amused that I was arguing politics on the phone with a total stranger. He wisely changed the subject after a brief, uncomfortable silence. "Can we send the information to you at [my mailing address]?"

I was once more confused. Where did he get my mailing address? For that matter, where the hell did he get my office phone number? Was it possible that he was legitimate? Was it possible that I might .. somehow .. magically .. have been awarded an $8,000 grant? Was it possible that George Bush and his punative cronies were going to have mercy on me and my plight and give me some money so I could finally stop stressing out about preserving my miserable existence while I continue searching for a real job? Eight thousand dollars would certainly solve a lot of problems, starting with my rent.

"You're only sending me paperwork, right?" I asked suspiciously.

"Yes," he said.

"What's your name?"

"John T. Rhodes," he replied, sounding bored now.

"Can you spell your last name for me?" (He did).

"Where do you work?" (He told me again).

"Okay, send me the paperwork," I sighed, wondering about that mysterious $8000 grant, wondering if this guy was instead going to cram my mail box full of junk mail and, if so, why did he call first to ask if he could do so when no one else does this, and then, eventually, wondering what I had really agreed to.

============

Obviously, this guy was trying to swindle me out of whatever trivial sums of money that I still might possess despite unemployment. A quick google search using "Government Grant Information Center" as my search phrase reveals that I had experienced a creative variation of the well-known prepayment scam, otherwise known as the "something for nothing" rip-off. The scam works like this; the swindler, posing as an agent for a reputable agency, convinces the potential sucker (me, in this case) that he or she qualifies to receive large sum of money (lottery winnings, a loan with very favorable rates or a grant) in return for a small initial monetary "investment" on their part. The most familiar variation on this scam is the numerous email spams from distressed Nigerians begging you to temporarily hide their bank funds from their government or other agencies. (Neglecting to mention that you must pay thousands of dollars in bribes and "fees" before the transaction is complete -- an event that never actually happens).

After reading other people's on-line reports of this government grant swindle, several interesting things emerged. First, I discovered that John T. Rhodes was a very bad boy because he deviated from his script. For example, he never asked for my bank routing number nor did he mention a $257 "processing fee" or "up-front fee", as described in other people's accounts. Why? Even though he seemed comfortable with his career choice, it is possible that John T. Rhodes was not a particularly experienced con artist or that my political comments had surprised him and caused him to momentarily forget his script. It is also (remotely) possible that Mr. Rhodes realized he would never get this information from me so he gave up rather than invest precious time into an already lost cause. But none of these scenarios seem very likely to me, so I am still mystified as to why he gave up without a fight.

[Permit me to make it absolutely clear, dear readers, that a request for my bank routing number or mention of an up-front processing fee would have erased all my confusion by immediately alerting me that I was talking with a con artist. Of course, this would have resulted in great peals of hysterical laughter loudly directed into John T. Rhodes' delicate eardrum.]

I learned a few other things about scam artists, too. For example, they often use a fake British (or other foreign) accent because Americans perceive foreigners as being more credible (more trustworthy?), as some market research suggests. Additionally, although I only have anecdotal evidence of this (my experience and several reports of this particular swindle), it seems scammers prefer to use opposite-sex telephone con artists .. maybe to appeal to their potential victims' er, imaginations?

But now that the dust has settled and I am finally fully awake, I realize how incredibly stupid I was. But my stupidity did not begin this morning when I answered my office phone, it actually started approximately one year earlier. How exactly did John T. Rhodes from the mythical Government Grant Information Center get my name, mailing address and office phone number? I never give out this combination of contact information .. except on my CV and resume!

Approximately one year ago, I realized that my employment prospects were dismal at best so to avoid the very real prospect of living on the streets, I expanded my job search to include "anything", and listed my resume with several on-line job agencies. Undoubtedly, this guy and his fellow swindlers discovered my contact information on one or more of these internet job sites, such as monster.com, where I and thousands of others have listed their CVs and resumes. After talking to some people who regularly use Craigslist, I found that on-line CVs and resumes are mined as fertile sources of personal information for identity theft because these job sites do not protect us! Additionally, at least some of these on-line job search services do not allow a person to delete his or her resume after it has been posted. In my opinion, the only purpose for this outrageous "no delete" policy is to sell jobseekers' valuable personal information to scammers and spammers, thereby encouraging and assisting fraud and theft.

As a result of my internet investigations, I also discovered another job seeking identity theft scam: "potential employers" who demand either a pre-interview or pre-hiring background check from "potential employees" as another sneaky and underhanded way to obtain personal information for identity theft. Desperate job seekers, dazzled by sudden hope for a good job, and thinking either that they have no real power to say no under these circumstances or that their risk is minimal when compared to the prospect of a job, typically comply. So depressed and desperate job seekers also pay another hidden cost for trying to responsibly deal with their misfortunes: They are preyed upon by swindlers and identity thieves! Even though I successfully avoided a scam, it appears that I can now add the very real possibility of identity theft to my worry list!

According to some reports describing this swindle, it is possible John T. Rhodes might call back. If so, I will be waiting for him. I probably should thank him for his clumsy (albeit unintended) warning that my identity may have been stolen as a direct result of my job search, but I'd much prefer to kick him in the gonads and then dissect his writhing body with a dull and rusty scalpel. But for now, I have to obtain copies of my credit reports from all three credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) to make sure that I have not already been destroyed by identity theft. Further, I will have to routinely check updated versions of my credit reports (each quarter at least) for many years to come.

===============

More scam source materials

Grant's Boon

Government Grant Scams

Police warn of telephone scam artists hitting area (6 February 2005).

Rip-off Report

Using job seekers' resumes for identity theft

Privacy rights Clearinghouse

Background check used to steal full slate of personal info

Identity theft and your on-line job search

Document and report fraud to

The Better Business Bureau

The National Fraud Information Center

The ID Theft Website to report ID theft and to find useful information

===============



Included with the best of Critical Writing on a Blog, Issue 2.

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© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

9 Peer Reviews:

Blogger Miranda said...

There are some really horrible people out there. I don't know how they sleep at night.

2:13 PM  
Blogger Dani said...

Nice world today, huh? With all the voices you heard in the background, makes you wonder exactly how big is this operation? Aside from your name, work &/or home numbers, and home address, what other information of yours does he/they have? Very scary.
I had a problem with an Internet stalker a few years back... he got all kinds of personal information about me from a high school alumni site (similar to Classmates.com, but less secure). All he had to do was a search of my AOL screen name. I'm a little more Internet-savvy now, but that means little. Criminals are two steps ahead when it comes to identity theft these days.
As for your situation, is there anything you can do? Notify... someone? Some organization that handles this type of scam? I wish you luck.

3:11 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Like vultures gathered around a dying victim and who periodically jump in to attack and thereby hasten death, this sort of thing only serves to punish and permanently damage those who already are most vulnerable in this society.

8:02 AM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

Do you think you can con them back somehow? That can be as good as calling the police and has the added advantage of helping pay your living expenses...

6:29 AM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Hello Alon .. that's an interesting idea but these scammers know the "pay up front" scam too well to be taken in by an amateur like me. But I do know of several instances where the potential suckers scammed their potential scammers. Unfortunately, none of them ever got any money as a result, although they did manage to waste the scammers' time (thereby preventing them from getting money from other people) and really messing with their potential scammers' heads (but to what effect? I have no idea and neither do they!)

But if John T. Rhodes calls back, I will definitely see where and how far I can take this .. and of course, I will happily write blog essays describing the experience, too, heheheh. (So all my dear readers probably hope this weasel calls me back .. I can already see that dangerous glint in your eyes ... )

10:48 AM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

Hello to you too, Hedwig.

Obviously, you can't beat them in their own game. But if you learn about, say, who they are and where they're placed, you can try other kinds of cons. If you have friends who're in as dire a need of cash as you are, you can go for a standard roper/insideman scam.

Mind you, if you talk about it too much here then if they're in any position to complain without getting thrown into jail themselves, they can use Blogger's logs to track you down.

By the way, have you tried publishing a fiction book wherein the main characters undergoes more or less the same nightmares you underwent?

1:01 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Hi Alon, the book idea is interesting and I have thought about it but .. I doubt anyone would believe that anyone could survive all the nightmares I have survived. (In fact, I try not to think about my past very much). If my readers do think such a book is reasonable, then I think my readers would not believe that the heroine does not either (a) roll up in a ball and give up completely or (b) go postal. Hrm. Come to think of it, I am not sure why I don't succumb to either (a) or (b) .. maybe it's because I am (c) crazy?

I guess that my blog is sort of an attempt to say that I am still fighting the good fight mostly everyday, and as long as I have hope that I can pursue my career, I will continue fighting.

But I am not starry-eyed: I hope I never run out of reason to hope.

5:44 PM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

Readers can and do believe that people survive these ordeals. Holocaust survivors tell experiences far worse than yours, and everybody believes them. People survived flogging, starvation, and deaths of close relatives, and still kept their sanity after it ended. If books like Sophie's Choice succeed, then so can yours.

By the way, sorry for the plural s in "main characters" in my previous reply. To think I joke about my professors who always add these superfluous S's when they speak...

4:48 AM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Alon Levy: Do you think that some books, such as Sophie's Choice succeed because we love the characters and because the mystery (and later, after we discover it, the dilemma) is so compelling?

Just asking .. I am an unabashed fan of everything that William Styron writes because he is so insightful and his prose is so darned beautiful.

5:56 PM  

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