When we feature scams in this space, it’s common for readers to wonder how someone could fall for it, whatever the scam.
They sometimes blame the victim. Say the person should have known better. Should have researched better. Should have seen the red flags.
But still, millions of people fall prey to scammers every year.
As long as crooks find victims, we’ll write about how it happened, hoping that you, dear readers, learn something that you can use to protect yourself or to warn your loved ones about fraud.
That’s why Frank wrote to us. He wanted us to tell the story of how he was duped out of $50,000 in a Facebook scam so others can learn from his mistakes.
Frank said he feels “utter embarrassment and shame about the whole ordeal.”
“I was not using correct judgment,” he said. “I have destroyed my life, my self-respect and the trust of my own family.”
So let’s not judge. Let’s learn.
Here’s what happened.
In June 2015, Frank received a Facebook friend request from a woman named Kim. She said she was stationed in Afghanistan as a drill sergeant with the U.S. Army.
“As we were talking on Facebook, she asked me to help her get a couple of consignment packages out of Ghana and into the States to be delivered to me,” Frank said.
He said yes.
She immediately told him how to get in touch with a shipping company called Say Cargo Express Inc.
“The packages contained, according to Kim, $10.5 million in cash and $70,000 in gold bars,” Frank said. “She assured me that once delivery was made that I would receive a percentage.”
Frank was then put in touch, via email, with two men who were supposed to represent the shipping company. Benson Liu Xianfu was the logistics operations manager, and Andrew Critendon was person in charge of the package delivery.
Frank said he was told “in order for things to be done legally,” they hired an attorney named Tony Lithur.
More on Lithur in a moment.
Frank was told to send $3,000 for legal fees via Moneygram, and he did.
That’s when the scammers — probably smelling the cash — kicked it up a notch.
“I kept getting emails from Benson and Andrew stating money was needed for a gold fee from the Ghana government which was $17,000, and an IRS Fee which was another $17,000 because of the package contents,” Frank said.
And he paid.
Next, there was a storage fee of $9,000 for customs.
This dragged on from August until Christmastime, Frank said.
On several occasions, Frank said, he thought he was getting the package, but it never came. Instead, he was told another fee had to be paid for one reason or another so the packages could be released.
“[It] cost me everything. Multiple bank accounts and CDs along with an entire retirement account,” he said. “I am also paying on a loan I made from my work 401(k).”
Frank finally realized he was taken. He filed a police report in January.
“To be honest, when she brought the proposal about the consignment I was skeptical, but in the back of my mind I thought, ‘Why would someone from the U.S. Army want to scam me?'” Frank said.
FOLLOWING FAINT TRACKS
We reached out to the Army to see if we could verify whether the “drill sergeant” who contacted Frank was the real thing.
But given the number of current and former military personnel, having just a person’s name isn’t enough to verify someone’s service.
A spokesman said scams targeting those who have trust and/or sympathy for the military are all too common.
The Army’s Criminal Investigation Command even has a warning on its web site.
So we checked out “Kim” on her Facebook page.
She posted quite a few photos of the military, but we had no way to verify if Kim was a real person a scammer using a real service member’s name and photos to trick people.
That’s why we’ve redacted the names and photos you see with this story.
The Facebook page managed by “Kim” hadn’t shown a new post since August 2015.
So we went a step further, sending “Kim” a friend request, which “she” accepted in quick time. She didn’t, though, respond to our message to chat.
We also sent messages to several men who had wished her a happy birthday on her page. Those who responded had never met “Kim” personally, and they all only had contact with her online. None reported they were ever asked for money.
So reached out to Facebook to verify “Kim’s” identity through Facebook, and to learn what the social media giant does to combat this kind of fraud.
While we waited for a response, we looked at the attorney who was named in the deal: Tony Lithur.
Based on news reports, we determined that Lithur is a real guy — an attorney with a firm called Lithur Brew & Company in Ghana.
We reached out to him over LinkedIn and through his company’s web site, but he didn’t respond to our messages.
We also know it’s not uncommon for scammers to impersonate real people, so we don’t know if the real Lithur was involved in this deal. We’re guessing he wasn’t, but that the scammers simply picked the name of a high profile attorney in Ghana to make the deal look legit — just in case Frank Googled the names of those who contacted him for this deal.
We couldn’t find anything on the other names Frank had as contacts, so we went to Say Cargo Express, a real shipping company based in Anaheim, Calif.
The company’s sales director, Doug Childers, said the company’s name was used in scams several years ago.
“They said someone was claiming they got emails on the same exact scam this person fell for,” Childers said, referencing Frank’s story.
He said that Frank’s contacts, Benson Liu Xianfu and Andrew Critendon, are not and were never employees of the company, and he wants readers to know Say Cargo Express is a legitimate company whose name was used without the company’s permission.
“We had zero involvement in this,” he said.
As we figured.
Then we heard back from Melanie Ensign, who works on the security communications team at Facebook.
She said her team determined that “Kim’s” account violated its community standards, and Facebook removed the profile from its site.
“The account was impersonating another person, which we don’t allow,” Ensign said.
She said users can report questionable profiles to Facebook for investigation.
She also offered that the Federal Trade Commission warns against money transfer scams and encourages consumers to report them to law enforcement.
So, dear readers, let this be a lesson to you. And let it be a lesson that you share with your friends and family, even if you think they’d never fall for such a scam.
“Never trust any unknown person wanting to be your Facebook friend,” Frank said. “Also never go along with any ‘get rich quick’ proposals.”
Check out link from the Army’s Criminal Investigations Command for information on where to report military impersonation scams.
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller atBamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. FindBamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.