Fraud attempt prompts warning

A Chilliwack man almost had a costly lesson in an online fraud scheme.

Darren Neilson said his big mistake was being too nice and wanting to help someone.

That’s how he became an almost-victim of a well-concocted scam.

“Being too kind-hearted might have been my deficit,” he said Thursday as he followed an email trail back to where it all began.

Neilson’s ordeal, one that almost cost him $5,000 and could potentially have had criminal ramifications, started Jan. 4 with an innocent email.

“Interested In Earning $500 Weekly From Home,” he read as he opened the message. “Write Back For More Details.”

For many people, that might set off alarm bells. But Neilson is an Internet entrepreneur, and in his world it’s not uncommon to get perfectly legitimate offers like this, right out of the blue. With experience as an Internet systems administrator and a keen eye for phishing emails and scam artists, he claims to usually know when something’s off.

“He wasn’t asking for any wrong info, just basics like my name, phone number and address,” Neilson recalled. “Nothing about credit cards or bank info. This one felt safe.”

“Tell me more,” Neilson wrote back.

Two days later, He got an email from Rogers Smith, a man identifying himself as ‘an international business man.’

“I am looking for someone that can handle my business errands during his or her spare time,” the email read. “I need your service because I am constantly traveling abroad on business. I decided to get a Personal Assistant to help me out when i get my hands occupied.”

In return for receiving packages from Smith and sending them off to other destinations, Neilson was promised $500 a week, plus a brand new car if he proved efficient and trustworthy over one month’s time.

Neilson accepted, and one week later Smith emailed to tell him a cheque was on the way. It arrived looking quite official, complete with a Fedex tracking number. Inside was the cheque in the amount of $9,600. Neilson was asked to confirm receipt with a woman named Sarah Spade.

He was then instructed to go to his bank to deposit the funds.

“Usually, a bank will hold funds for 10 business days while they wait for a cheque to clear, but after you’ve been with a bank for a while they’ll knock off days,” Neilson said. “I’ve been with my bank for six years and they’ve knocked it down to four business days. So they okayed it even though it wasn’t OK, and on Monday I was able to withdraw funds.”

Here’s where Neilson believes he should have heard alarm ringing in his head.

The day the cheque ‘cleared,’ Smith told him to withdraw the money, take it to another bank and deposit it into the account of a man named Victor.

“He said it was an emergency thing where Victor was having some medical problems and I was to send him money to help offset his medical expenses,” Neilson explained. “He was coming at this from the angle of a person needing help, and I’m a person who wants to help people. I was like, ‘Awww. That poor guy.’”

Because of withdrawal limits, Neilson was only able to take out $5,000 that day. He took it to the other bank, put it into the designated account, went home and sent a transaction receipt to Smith.

Then the phone rang.

It was the police.

Neilson’s heart sank as they told him that the cheque sent to him was stolen. They’d been waiting for it to re-surface, and they told him he’d been victimized by a scammer.

As soon as he was off the phone, Neilson was in his car tearing towards the Bank of Montreal.

“I’m a Christian man and I prayed all the way,” he said. “This was going to hurt me and my family. The word says God is a protector, and I asked him to help me.”

The BMO teller was, in Neilson’s words, amazing. His hands flew over the keyboard and he managed to reverse the transaction.

“I was almost crying when he said he got the money back,” Neilson said.

Had he not, Neilson could have been liable for it.

“Honestly, they could have pursued it into the courts, and it would have been up to them to decide just how stupid I was,” the 49 year old said with a half-hearted chuckle.

But even with the benefit of hindsight, Neilson says he’d still travel down the same path, albeit with a lot more caution.

“In my business I’ve had people send me offers, and I’m working with a gentleman now who’s perfectly legit, so I don’t automatically say no,” he says when asked what he’s learned and what he’d advise other people to be aware of. “But I needed to be wiser. In this case, I should have waited the full 10 days for the cheque to completely clear. If the person hiring you doesn’t see the need for that, that’s when you might have a problem.”