HOWTO track down a con-artist

Ken, a former "fed" (of some description) on the group blog Popehat, received a "toner-scam" (a scam whereby someone sends you an invoice for a service you never ordered or received in the hopes that you'll pay it without noticing) solicitation in the mail at his business. This pissed him off, so he decided to track down the scammers and document, in lavish detail, the process by which he ran them to ground. The series of posts is up to part four now, and it's fascinating reading.
For some reason, this one seriously pisses me off. Maybe its because the fraud is so blatant. Maybe it’s because the weasel-worded disclaimer designed to give them a defense to fraud claims is so perfunctory and lame. Maybe it’s because after I sent an email to the scammer’s lawyer, the scammer himself called me and tried to run a con on me. Like I’m a fucking rube.

So. I’ve decided to dedicate some time and money to investigating this scam and the people and companies responsible for it. I’ve also decided to write about the investigation, and use it as an opportunity to discuss con man culture and how anyone with an internet connection, a few bucks, and some time can investigate an attempted scam — or, preferably, conduct due diligence on a suspected scammer before they can even try to con you.

I’m going to discuss using Google, using PACER (which allows access to federal court records), using state court records, and taking effective action against scammers.

Anatomy of a Scam Investigation: Chapter One

Anatomy of a Scam Investigation: Chapter Two

Anatomy of A Scam Investigation, Chapter Three

Anatomy of A Scam Investigation, Chapter Four

(via MeFi)


    1. On the minus side, though, also not the kind of guy who is likely to deliver a dose of amateur kneecapectomy to the deserving party…

  1. Oh these toner scammers infuriate me.  I remember about 20 years ago working in a small office (3 people in whole company) and whenever I answered their call it would go like this:

    Putrid Scammer: “Hello, I’m from the fulfillment desk, I just need to double check your copier model to ensure proper toner”
    Me: “Sure give me a second while I go check…”

    I then put the call on hold, and run a timer to see what idiot would stay on the longest.
    [We only had a thermal fax for a copy machine–I KNEW they were scammers]

    1. Best response ever. Would love to know if there’s a way to mimic corporate “on hold” music/info with home setups. Would work great for telemarketers: Just answer the phone, say “Wait one sec…” and put them on hold while you go and do anything else.

      1. I used to do this with telemarketers (back when I still had a landline phone that is). They’d ask for “Mr Ncinerate” and I’d tell them yes, he’s here, I will get him on the line for you – please hold. Then toss the phone down next to a speaker and que up some music.The trick to REALLY keep them on the line is to periodically pick up the phone and say “who are you holding for? Oh, ok, please hold”.After awhile you can throw in the always entertaining “Thank you for holding, your call is very important to us, current wait time, 74 minutes, PLEASE STAY ON THE LINE”.Of course, the award for BEST RESPONSE EVER to a telemarketer goes to Tom Mabe. If you haven’t heard this phone call – you need to click this link right now and laugh your rear off for the next five minutes :).http://howtoprankatelemarketer

  2. Oh, I just got one of these today (for computer stuff) at my work address. I’d never seen anything like it before. Slicker and more polished than the usual scams — it even made it past our pretty darn good spam and junk filters and into my inbox.

    I now have a bit of a crush on Ken. 

  3. I love reading this kind of thing!

    This seemed to be the most juicy part though, and I couldn’t find where he follows up on it:  Maybe it’s because after I sent an email to the scammer’s lawyer, the scammer himself called me and tried to run a con on me. Like I’m a fucking rube.

    Maybe a future installment?  Or maybe it’s behind one of his many links, and I just missed it.  If anyone can find the full story of this on his site, please post the link.

    1. He’s doing so in parts. First he needs every possible bit of information he can get his hands on…

      Then he drops a dime to people after the dude for money.

      Then he drops a dime to the Feds (some of whom he used to have lunch with).

      Just follow along, young man – not everything gets resolved in the hour it takes for a Law and Order episode.

  4. I remember having to deal with one of these scams back when I was in college and set up a personal website. The scammer sent my registered address (i.e. my home address) a notice stating that my web hosting was running out, and that I needed to reregister with the “webhost” who sent the letter. My dad, not knowing anything about my website, just blindly paid it. I didn’t find out about it until I started getting emails seeking to move my website to a different host, and it took me a while for me to get through to my technophobe dad that these particular invoices shouldn’t be paid.

    It’s good to hear that this guy is taking steps to combat a toner scam.

    1. There isn’t a hot-enough corner of Hell for “Rachel from Cardholder Services”. How that scam is able to continue is beyond me, seeing as how so many people get that robocall now. I know to hang-up on them when I get a call, but I’m always afraid my mom (who has Alzheimer’s) is going to get a call from “Rachel” some day and fall victim.

  5. Perhaps a bit more satisfying than conning Nigerian scam artists, although the tales of those who have been successful may be a bit funnier than this one at times.

  6. Here’s another nasty one to watch out for, perhaps harder to identify at first glance- there are several companies out there who proclaim themselves to be official business registries. One of those sent an invoice for ‘registering in the small business database’ to a friend of mine, who started her own company mere weeks ago and is overwhelmed with the paperwork. She thought it was one of the government tax office bills (skies know they charge registration fees for every little thing) and since the paper has a very close payment deadline (as most government fees do) she paid it. 

    Only days later when things calmed down did she look over the bill again, check the company and figure it out. Sure, they ARE a database, they perform exactly the services advertised. Only they’re not affiliated with the government, they’re neither mandatory nor official, nor even particularly significant on the market. They just scam people who are green and drowning in the sea of paperwork that starting a small business creates.

  7. I’ve recently run up against this kind of scam with the people who gave me my flu shot last year. They’re swearing I didn’t pay for it (they took my card number and waited 9 months to tell me it didn’t work!) and now want another $25 for something they should have asked for when it happened. I even tried to pay cash at the time, and I have changed my address since then but they had my cell number and called to offer me a “discount coupon” to be sent to my new address for this year’s flu shot. Disgusting behaviour? Yes, I think it is!!

  8. An office I worked in paid off one of these scammers once. It was a slight variation–they were charging our small music school for a paid listing in some directory somewhere. The directory physically existed, but it would have been completely worthless as an advertisement. When I got the “past due invoice,” I called the scam outfit to say no dice, and the scammer’s response was to play me recorded audio of him sealing the contract with my boss. So, something like this:

    HIM: Okay, Ms. (Boss’s name), I’m required to let you know that I’m recording this part of the phone call. Is that okay with you?
    MY BOSS: Sure, that’s fine.
    HIM: So, just to confirm, you’re (name) and you work at (school) and you’re ordering our deluxe listing package for $500, right?
    MY BOSS: That’s right.
    HIM: Fantastic, we’ll invoice you (30 days ago).

    Of course, everything she said was spliced in from some pretext call. When he came back on the line, I got about as far as, “Now, listen–” before he started into the riot act and demanded to talk to our lawyer, etc. I transferred him to my boss, figuring this would be a harder trick to pull with the actual person herself. “Hello, what’s this about an incorrect bill? Uh huh… uh huh… sure, play it for me… I see… okay, we’ll pay it today.”

    After she hung up, I tried to explain to her that she’d never had that conversation, because (a) she’d remember it, and (b) she would never have been so stupid as to spend money on this. But we paid it off anyway, because she didn’t share my confidence in her memory or intelligence. To her way of thinking, she really might have been that stupid.

    In retrospect, that was a warning sign!

  9. I realize the series isn’t finished yet and he’s working on it, but he says at the start:

    “I’m going to discuss using Google, using PACER (which allows access to
    federal court records), using state court records, and taking effective
    action against scammers.”

    So far, all he’s done is use Google and the BBB website (and similar), whereas it seems to me the most interesting stuff will be from the others as those aren’t things people typically know how to do.

    So, I’m hoping he follows through – I’d like to see where a look into court records leads, and what he means by “taking effective action against scammers” – is he planning on pushing for a criminal case against them, or what?

  10. Also, speaking of classic scams – yesterday in the Target parking lot, two frat-boy douchebag types pulled up next to me as I was walking toward the store and tried the classic “white van” scam on me. That’s where they try to sell you “high end” stereo systems that “fell off the back of the truck” or whatever, and they turn out to be utter garbage (if they work at all).

    They were obviously (to me) scamming, but they were rank amateurs – so where Ken here says it’s rare to catch a first-time scammer, I think I probably met some. I doubt they’ll get far, though, as they were so awful at it. As soon as they got my attention (it seemed like they might have wanted directions or something), it turned into a used car salesman pitch – “Hey man, do you want a HOME THEATER?!”

    I realized about five seconds after I gave them my “fuck off” look and walked away that I should have feigned interest and tried to gather their information (license plate, at least)! Oh well.

  11. Here’s my favorite way to respond to telemarketer:

    “Oh, yes, daddy is home and he is so sorry he missed your call– he does want to talk to you. Can you hold just a moment? He uses a walker now and he’s upstairs so it will just take a bit to get to the phone, is that okay?  ….

    wait one minue…”he’s just getting into his walker now….coming down the hall”…..

    another minute…”we’re bringing him down the stairs….oh he so loves doing business and being part of the world still…thanks so much for being patient”

    later….”just about down the stairs”

    later…”oh, we’ve had just a slight setback..a small accident…yes, dad, she’s still on the line…you’re not going to hang up are you? see…she’s a nice lady, not going to hang up….”

    ….”honey, can you grab Daddy’s wallet…it’s over at his chair…just a moment…almost here…just about around the corner”


  12. I’d try to take the scammer down just because he wrote ”preventative” instead of preventive … yawn. I just hate that. 

  13. I had one of these recently.  

    My dad had a small life insurance policy about 30 years ago, and it matured.  It was worth around $1000 and I didn’t know about its existence until mom mentioned it.  This policy had been handed around in the junk trading of the late 80’s, and finally around 1995 I was contacted by a company that wanted to cut me a check. Talked to the fast-talking con-man agent for 30 minutes before he agreed to send me the paperwork.  

    So I carefully read, signed and sent the paperwork and got my check.  

    But they didn’t go away.  They kept my info on record as somehow needing to pay into premiums for a continuation policy, which I never agreed to or signed for.  I receive bogus premium statements to “bring my policy up to date” or some B.S., for about $500.  In the trash.  I never signed anything to the effect of continuing a contract, and they can’t prove it.  Ignore.  

    So watch out, folks.  The oldest scam in the book is to stick someone with something they didn’t want and then play the numbers game to make money off the ones who actually pay up.  DON’T.  If you don’t want something DO NOT GIVE THEM MONEY FOR IT and do not take it.  If you are right that you never agreed to do something, then stick to your guns and do not cave in.  Our world is full of hucksters.

  14. Ken, I want to thank you so much for all you’ve done. I’m just joe citizen and I always feel powerless when stuff like this happens to me. You’ve given me some tools, and I’m now better informed.

    I’ve been in my own small repair business for 22 years now, and I’ve gotten so frustrated with sales calls, especially Visa card merchants (at least 2/week), that I now answer my phone not with my business name, but with my first name. I know it’s unprofessional, and real customers sometimes hang up on me, but I can’t stand these people and tell them they are not calling a business.

    Since my customers pay by check, I just stamp the back of them and deposit. One check came to me in the mail and I did the stamp on the check. I didn’t know I was signing a contract by cashing the check. Finally checking my checking statement, I realized over the years I paid these scumbags over $1700.

    Here’s a post I blogged, getting ripped off by tow truck service:

    Thanks again Ken, you’ve done a fantastic service.

  15. P-p-p-p-l-easeeee won’t somebody, the esteemed Ken {at] popehat [daht} com or some other beneficent soul, start a takedown of ‘Cardholder Services’?

  16. The last time I got one of these, I was honestly surprised that they were still running it. I think the earliest similar call I can remember going was in about 1977. So when the lady asked me for the serial number, I just straight out asked her if it still worked, being such an old scam. I suppose it must, or they wouldn’t still do it.

  17. This reminds me of the “renewal notice” that the Domain Registry of America sends to customers of other registrars.  How is deceptive marketing like that not illegal?

    1. This reminds me of the “renewal notice” that the Domain Registry of America sends to customers of other registrars. How is deceptive marketing like that not illegal?

      I got rid of my fax machine because they used to spam fax me those things every day.

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