For Geoff Griffith of Lawrence, the first red flag came when he was asked to send money to James Brown in London.
James Brown? The godfather of soul? That seemed odd.
Griffith, a 20-year-old Johnson County Community College student, waited a few days to send the $2,000, only to learn soon after that he'd been hoodwinked in an e-mail scam.
"They got me pretty good," he said. "I'm really the only person to blame. I fell for it ... I just got to look at it like a lesson learned."
The Kansas Attorney General's office says such schemes, including the so-called 419 scam and a type of racket called phishing, are among the most common Internet scams of the moment.
The office gets at least one formal, written complaint about them a week, spokesman Jan Lunsford said, and the office receives more complaints by phone and e-mail.
'Phishing' and 419 scams
Two types of scams are rampant these days, according to Claudia Bourne Farrell, a Federal Trade Commission spokeswoman.
In what is commonly called "phishing," con artists use bogus e-mails, malicious spyware or other means to pilfer a person's identity and financial account information.
For example, a victim might respond to an e-mail that appears to be from an established company asking for updated account information. But the e-mail address or Web site is a false front for thieves who then steal the victim's personal information.
Then there are 419 scams, also known as Nigerian scams. The one that hoodwinked Griffith was of that type, he said. A common 419 scam message might ask a person to help cash a check and it might promise easy money for the deal.
"If there's one thing that sticks out it's always that the deal is too good to be true," said Charles Green, special agent in charge of the Kansas City, Mo., field office of the Secret Service.
'It seemed a little weird'
Earlier this summer, Griffith advertised online to sublease his Lawrence apartment. He submitted his e-mail address with the ad. In early June, he received a message back from a Ben Mark at email@example.com.
The message read:
"My Dear, I want to rent a studio or any good 1 bedroom apartment that I will use during my stay in the United States. Please let me know what you have and how much it will cost me to rent the apartment. I await your urgent reply. Thank you Ben Mark."
"It seemed a little weird," Griffith said.
But he responded anyway. The scammer said his sponsors would send money for the sublease. But the sponsors would send more than was needed. Ben Mark said he planned to use the extra cash to pay for travel to the United States.
Griffith was expected to pay the landlord enough to cover rent and send the remaining $2,000 to Ben Mark.
Sure enough, Griffith received money orders totaling $3,750 that appeared to be from the U.S. Postal Service. He deposited them in his bank account. The official-looking money orders gave Griffith confidence the deal was real.
Ben Mark's messages were often littered with grammar and spelling mistakes. But that didn't concern Griffith.
"I spell just as bad," he said. "I didn't think it was too much different than mine."
Then Ben Mark asked Griffith to transfer the money to James Brown in London via Western Union.
The name sent up a red flag. Griffith stalled 10 days to make sure the money orders were safely deposited in his account.
At that point, Ben Mark was getting antsy. He wrote: "Please what is the problem you have refuse to send the money and you have also refuse to reply to my mails. Please send the money today..."
Watching out for online con artists
Phishing: Use of fraudulent e-mails, malicious Internet spyware or other means to steal consumers' personal identity data and financial account information. An example: A message purporting to be from eBay which tells the receiver he/she must update account information or else the account will be closed and access to eBay will be suspended. There will be a link to update the account. Some ways to prevent being duped: Be suspicious of e-mails urging you to supply personal finance information. Regularly check your bank and financial statements to make sure all transactions are legitimate. 419, a.k.a. Nigerian, Scams: Advance-fee fraud named after the section of the Nigerian penal code that addressed fraud schemes. Example: In an e-mail, fax or letter, a con artist might ask an intended victim for permission to transfer money - sometimes millions of dollars - into the person's bank account in exchange for a fee. Some ways to prevent being duped: Don't respond. Don't send money or agree to aid in the scheme. If the offer is made via e-mail, send it to the Federal Trade Commission at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Griffith wrote back apologizing and vowing to send the money the next day.
Days later, the money sent, Griffith tried to use his check card and couldn't. No funds. There was an overdraft. He called the bank. The money orders he deposited were counterfeit. He didn't learn until it was too late.
Griffith had to dip into his tuition money to pay for the overdraft. He reported the scam to the Lawrence Police Department. He also called the Secret Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but federal authorities directed him to local police because the sum lost was considered small, Griffith said.
He holds little hope that he will get his money back. He even called Western Union. The money he had transferred to London through the firm had been picked up immediately.
Scammers send out thousands of e-mails. It only takes a few people willing to bite on them to make the scam worthwhile for the perpetrators.
"Their cost of doing business is infinitesimal," Farrell said. "It's profitable even if they only get a minuscule response."
Sgt. Dan Ward of the Lawrence Police Department said the department would at times work with authorities in other jurisdictions to track down suspects outside the state. But in the case that the perpetrator is outside the country, it will contact other agencies such as the FBI or the Secret Service, he said.
Secret Service special agent Green said the schemes were often quite organized. They're not typically one con artist working independently, he said. There are books - which he calls "fraud bibles" - that detail how to carry out these schemes, he said.
"It's an international problem" involving many groups, he said.
Difficult to catch
Green said there were many issues with tracking the cons. They may have broad networks. Just because Griffith's con artist said he lived in England doesn't mean much.
It could be that "it's just a guy in London who gets the money and wires it back to somewhere else," Green said.
The con artists are mobile and move quickly.
"It's very difficult to find these guys," he said. "It takes a lot of manpower and hours."
Often, if the fraud artists are caught in the United States and deported, they return again, he said.
"We throw them out of the country, and they're back in six months," he said.
Though the con artists are difficult to catch and punish and many victims rarely see their money again, Green said it was still important for victims to report the schemes. Reports are kept in a database, and it may take time, but that information can eventually prove useful.
"We can come back and start putting the pieces together," he said.