19 January 2009
The vast majority of our customers are honest, friendly and
understanding. I think the vast majority of people are generally
good. Unfortunately there are always a small percentage that you
have to watch out for.
We recently received an email from someone interested in purchasing some
Kona coffee from us. Most
people can manage to order coffee from the website without any problems but
some need a little extra help. In this case, the email request we
received was quite vague and looked like a mass mailing. It seemed a
bit suspicious but I try to give people the benefit of the doubt.
I started with a short email reply stating that we do indeed sell 100%
Kona coffee as they had requested. I also politely pointing out
that using our website is easier, faster and more secure than email.
They ignored that not-so-subtle hint and sent another email requesting
the price of 50 pounds of coffee and a physical mailing address for
"payment issuance." This definitely seemed suspicious.
I responded with our address and an explanation of the different types of
coffee we sell. I included a price but couldn't give an exact total
until I had their shipping information. Their only response was
"We therefore require you to confirm this address prior payment."
Two days later I received a FedEx package that contained a check for $1850.
That was more than three times the amount I had quoted. The original email
had one name in the From field and a different name in the actual email address
which was a free Yahoo account. The check was from a third name with an
address in Massachusetts and had been sent from an address in Los Angeles.
There was no note with the check, no request for any particular item to be
purchased and the memo field on the check simply said "expenses".
Another Kona coffee farmer had received the same original email request and
had contacted me to make sure I knew it was a scam. At this point I
totally agreed with him. Check fraud is nothing new. I suspected
that this particular scam was an attempt to get me to wire them a refund for
the "accidental" overpayment. Either that or an attempt to get my bank
account information. Either way, I wasn't falling for it.
I received another email stating that they had sent payment and, as soon as
the check cleared, their "pick up agent will come for pick and shipment".
I doubted they had an agent on the island and I had no intention of depositing
their check. What I wanted to do was catch them but I decided to give them
the benefit of the doubt one more time.
I pointed out that the amount they sent didn't match anything I sold and once
again asked them for an exact order. Their response was "Our MIS
department made misquote error in favor of the shipping agent." I began
to wonder if they even remembered what I sold. Some scams like this are
actually overseas businesses with a room full of people that simply
cut-and-paste predetermined responses even though they themselves do not speak
The Secret Service is in charge of money laundering and check fraud. I
doubted they could help, especially since it involved a foreign company, but I
figured it was worth a try anyways. I looked through the Secret Service
website. The only advice I found was an FAQ encouraging me to contact my
bank "who will take
measures to protect your account and notify proper authorities".
A call to my bank proved the Secret Service wrong. My bank is normally
very helpful, by far the best bank I've ever dealt with, but on this matter
they didn't seem to care. I hadn't deposited the check so there was
nothing for them to do. They suggested that I call Bank of America, the
bank shown on the check.
The Bank of America representative verified that the check did indeed use a
valid account number but wouldn't tell me if that account had sufficient funds
or if the account name matched the name on the check. She said I should
contact the branch the check was sent from but the check only had a routing
number and, of course, she refused to tell me what branch that routing number
referred to. Her next bit of advice was talk to one of my local Bank of
America branches but there aren't any here in Hawaii. Her only response
to that was "I'm sorry Sir but I can't help you." So much for protecting
me and notifying the authorities.
A friend of ours is a teller at a local bank. She said Bank of America
won't even give her any information when she calls for official bank
business. It's too bad the banks work so hard to protect criminals.
Even if the check cleared it's still possible for the bank to reverse the
transaction several weeks later. Basically, you're at your own risk when
you deposit a check from someone you don't know. The banks assume no
I decided to send another email to the scammer. I very clearly stated
that I needed complete billing information, shipping information and order
details so I could provide an exact total amount. They provided an
overseas address and said "We initially discussed on coffee." They
totally ignored all of my attempts to clarify what they were trying to order
which meant I could not provide an exact total amount to be paid.
Most people would have simply dropped the whole thing by this point. I
didn't want to do that. I don't think thieves, liars and crooks should
simply be allowed to get away with it. The problem is, what can you do
about something like this?
The Better Business Bureau helps protect consumers from dishonest businesses
but businesses are on their own with dishonest customers. Technically,
no crime had been committed yet. I found a website where I could file a
complaint but further inspection revealed that my complaint would simply go
into a giant database and probably never be seen again.
I decided to contact the local police department to ask for their advice.
The dispatcher wanted my name, address, phone number and date of birth before
she'd listen to anything else. When I tried to
briefly explain that I just wanted to know who I should contact she was all
confused. She asked if I knew who had stolen the $1850 from me. I
said that nothing had been stolen yet and tried to explain that it was just a
fraudulent check. She cut me off mid sentence and said "I'll send an
officer out" then hung up before I could say anything else.
About twenty minutes later I received a phone call from the police department
asking for directions because the officers were lost. Even our plumber
has a GPS map that can guide him to any house on the island but apparently the
police department doesn't even know where our road is. I had to give them
landmarks so they could find our place. Maybe the dispatcher should have
asked for directions before she hung up on me.
As suspected, the police officers did nothing but write down a couple notes
and say they'd file a report. Their advice was "Don't deposit the check,
it's probably a scam." No sh*t Sherlock. Did you learn that in cop
school? Thanks for all your help.
I wish there was more I could do. It's not fair that people can get away
with crimes like this yet the banks, the police and the federal government
don't do anything about it. I didn't get ripped off this time but the
scam must work sometimes or else they'd find some other way to steal money from
As frustrating as it is, I have no choice but to let it go. The vast
majority of our customers are good. I'll continue to watch out for
scams but I'll also continue to give people the benefit of the doubt.
So if you want to purchase coffee by check, that's fine. We'll be
happy to spend as much time as we need to figure out exactly what you'd
like to order then we'll provide an exact amount. If you decide to
send us a tip for $1850 that's fine too, just be sure to send a note
along with it.