If you own a small business and receive a call from a potential customer in Nigeria, just hang up.
That's the lesson Aubrey Goff learned last week when banks started calling about charges her family's business made to credit card numbers supplied by a customer in Nigeria claiming to be a doctor.
The numbers turned out to be stolen so the transactions were unauthorized, which meant the credit card companies would not honor the charges. The six-week lesson cost Goff and the Kenai business she owns with her parents, Joseph and Michelle Frank, an estimated $10,000 in merchandise and shipping and handling.
The man, calling himself Dr. Eric Robinson, initially contacted Peninsula Health and Nutrition at the end of January through an operator for the hearing impaired. He said he was interested in purchasing supplements.
Goff suggested several times through the operator that the man buy directly from the manufacturer, it would be easier and cheaper. The man insisted he'd rather pay more and deal with Goff because he didn't trust big companies, but felt he could trust their small family-run business.
"He didn't want to do it (call the manufacturer)," Goff said. "Right there we should have been suspicious."
However, the man was persistent and played on Goff's sympathies. He told her it was difficult to get the supplies he needed in his country. Eventually, Goff and her parents agreed to ship to him.
"We thought we'd help them out. They're a little country, they need help," Goff said. "It never ever crossed our minds this guy was ripping off credit card numbers."
Goff shipped 153 bottles of creatine, worth $4,900, in two shipments to Ericol Pharmacy, Mushin, Lagos, Nigeria.
The amino acid is popular with weight lifters and athletes as a muscle builder. Goff thought her new customer might use the supplement to help patients suffering from wasting diseases, like malnutrition and AIDS, to put on muscle.
The good doctor also wanted to buy cell phones and laptop computers through Goff. He said the computers were for his business and the cell phones were to be presents for his "hard workers."
When Goff balked at the request, the man thanked her profusely for her help, said how grateful he was, and made her feel guilty for any reservations she might have.
"He kept saying, 'I won't do you any evil. You can trust me. I trusted you,'" Goff said.
Goff decided to see what she could do and discovered that the cell phones sold in Alaska wouldn't work in Africa; however, she could supply computers.
She'd taken three Dell laptops to the post office for shipping the day the first bank called questioning credit card charges. Fortunately, she managed to retrieve the computers before they were shipped, Goff said.
After a second bank called questioning charges, the family called the Federal Bureau of Investigation to report the scam and see what could be done to recoup their losses.
The FBI referred them to the Secret Service.
Scams which originate outside the country are not new, according to Mac Whisler, resident agent with the United States Secret Service.
"We've looked at them for years," he said from his Anchorage office.
Many of the scams in recent years originate from west African nations, Nigeria in particular, Whisler said, although he was unsure why.
Con artists frequently solicit potential marks by e-mail, Internet classified or even fax machine, however, calls through operator relays for the hearing impaired aren't unheard of, he said.
The relay calls are harder to trace and, Whisler speculated, may "add an air of legitimacy" to the caller.
The federal government handles international fraud on a case-by-case basis, but the loss usually has to be around $100,000 and federal laws must have been violated before the government will pursue prosecution, according to Whisler.
In cases with smaller losses there's little the victim can do besides report the incident to the FBI, Secret Service and local authorities.
"It's unlikely they're going to get their money back," Whisler said.
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