Lee was getting worried about money when he finally got the job opportunity.
Lee, a Montgomery County resident, had gone two months without a steady income since a yearlong consulting gig ended. With two kids to put through college this fall, Lee said he felt anxious about his finances.
That’s when Lee received the text message from “Mr. Williams,” who offered a job opportunity at an international chemical company.
“ConGratulations to You,” the June 13 text said. “Your Resume Posted Online. And you Was Successfully Reviewed By The Human Resources and You have been selected For An Online Interview.”
The poorly written message didn’t dissuade Lee, who thought it could be from a low-ranking employee. He agreed to the interview and thought he landed a job as a financial adviser. An offer letter promised him $45.50 an hour. To build a home office, Lee received two checks worth $9,000.
Except the offer letter was forged. The online interview had been a ruse. And the checks were fake, too, even though he had already wired $8,500, as instructed.
It was all part of an elaborate scam that impersonated an Australian health insurer, forged a check from a Delaware airplane seller, hijacked the phone number of a pharmacist from North Carolina, and cost Lee and other businesses thousands of dollars.
Lee, who said he owes his bank roughly $2,300, is among tens of thousands of consumers who collectively lose millions of dollars each year to fake check scams.
“[I was] feeling a little bit, not desperate, but very conscious of trying to get money started sooner than later,” Lee told The Inquirer. “So [there was] some suspension of what should have been the hair-raising on my neck.”
The Inquirer is not using Lee’s last name to avoid harming his job prospects. He provided his emails and text messages with the scammers, copies of fake checks and phony new-hire forms he received, and communications with his bank and law enforcement officials.
The documents, along with interviews with affected businesses, show the scale and sophistication of a scheme that touched companies around the world before defrauding Lee. It’s part of a trend in so-called fake check scams, in which criminals convince victims to deposit counterfeit checks that closely resemble those of real companies, then wire the funds before the bank realizes the checks are bad.
Scammers seize on a little-known federal law that requires banks to make funds available quickly, before a check has been verified. Once fake checks bounce, banks often demand the missing money from the victims who deposited the bad checks, according to a Better Business Bureau report published last year.
In Lee’s case, someone mailed him checks and told him to deposit them and wire the money to "vendors” through mobile payment apps such as Venmo and PayPal.
Lee and his wife said they now owe PNC bank roughly $2,300 after PNC recovered funds from Venmo. PNC declined to discuss the case in detail, saying it can’t talk about customer accounts. Venmo had also demanded money from Lee, but is no longer asking for the funds after queries from The Inquirer. If Lee and his wife don’t come up with the $2,300 by Aug. 30, PNC plans to close the account and go after them for the funds, the couple said.
“If this happens, you’re alone,” Lee said. “The bank is not going to help you. And they don’t think they should.”
Fake check scams were on the rise until last year. The Federal Trade Commission received more than 27,500 complaints about counterfeit checks and foreign money offers last year. That’s down from about 32,000 in 2017. Until last year, the number of complaints had steadily increased from roughly 25,700 in 2014.
Consumers reported losing $14.7 million to the scams through the first half of this year, according to FTC data.
“The biggest problem is the sophistication of the fraud today. It is not immediately detectable‚ and that hurts the bank and consumer‚” said Dan Mudrick, a Blue Bell-based lawyer representing Lee. “In our particular case here, you had a check with a valid routing number, it was a valid business, and even the check sequence was very close to the company’s actual sequence.”
To scam Lee, the fraudsters forged documents or stole the contact information of six companies or nonprofits from places as far away as Australia and Thailand, records show.
For example, the first fake check appeared to come from Sonoma Speed, a subsidiary of a Delaware airplane seller, which said the phony check closely resembled the real thing. The “subtle differences” include an unauthorized signature and a missing field for the recipient’s name, said Jarrett Van Pelt, of Dumont Aviation Group, a New Castle firm that is a part owner of Sonoma Speed.
“The check number is kind of scary,” Van Pelt added. He said the fake check number was a good guess on how many checks the firm could have written by then.
The checks were mailed in FedEx envelopes that listed a North Carolina pharmacy’s phone number on the return address. Fred Lowry, owner of Lowry Drug Advanced Health and Wellness in Statesville, said his pharmacy has recently received a couple calls a day from people asking about the checks.
“We just tell them right away it’s a scam," he said.
Another envelope listed the real return address of the END Fund, a New York City nonprofit dedicated to ending tropical diseases.
“We have been informed by FedEx that our account was compromised and used for a fraudulent scheme utilizing the END Fund’s name and office address,” the nonprofit said in a statement. “The problem has been resolved with FedEx.”
Not all fake check scams are this complex, according to Tej Srimushnam, staff attorney at the FTC’s bureau of consumer protection. Some can be as simple as a scammer buying a product with a check that is slightly more than the item’s cost, then asking the online seller to wire the difference, he said.
“Ultimately, all of these schemes have two things in common. One, someone sends you a check and two, someone asks you to send them money," he said. “That’s the thing that consumers need to be looking out for.”
Consumers should also know that a check hasn’t necessarily cleared just because they have access to the money. That’s because federal law generally requires banks to make funds available for checks within a couple days, even if the check has not yet been verified.
If a check is bad, the consumer is usually on the hook.
“Typically, the payment system’s liability and responsibility is based on which party is best able to prevent the fraud or the loss," said Nessa Feddis, senior vice president and counsel for the American Bankers Association. “In this case, it’s the person who has the check from a stranger about which the bank knows nothing.”
There were several moments where the scammers almost blew their cover, according to Lee’s messages.
While “Mr. Williams” said he worked for PTT Global Chemical, based in Bangkok, Lee eventually received a forged offer letter that appeared to come from GMHBA Limited, an Australian health insurer. Neither company returned requests for comment.
In one exchange, the scammer seemed unsure whether the person interviewing Lee was a man or woman. At first, Lee was told to interview with “Mr. Donna Wilbert.” Then he was told to contact “Mrs. Donna Wilbert … using his … email address.”
“Is Mrs Donna a man or a woman?” Lee asked.
Later, Lee wondered why he received a check from Sonoma Speed, the Delaware airplane company.
“She is the company accountant,” the scammer said.
“Sonoma Speed LLC?” Lee replied.
“Oh you mean Sonoma Speed LLC,” the scammer said. “They are affiliated with this great company.”
Using Venmo, Paypal, and Zelle, Lee wired the funds to a woman who identified herself as Jayleska Morales, a 22-year-old from New Castle, Del. She claims that she, too, was tricked into thinking she had a real job, according to emails between Morales and Lee’s wife.
After being told that Lee had contacted the FBI, Morales wrote that her job was to take the wired money and buy Bitcoin, keeping a 10% cut as her pay.
Morales did not return requests for comment.
According to the Better Business Bureau, fraudsters use “money mules” who “may or may not know that there is fraud involved.”
Morales gave Lee’s wife two phone numbers for her supposed boss, “Charlene Mills.” Different women answered the numbers when called by The Inquirer. Neither said they were Mills. No one answered emails sent to the addresses that messaged Lee during the scam.
The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, which declined comment, told Lee in an email that it sent a copy of his complaint to authorities in Delaware. Lee also filed a complaint with the FBI in Philadelphia, which said it won’t confirm or deny investigations.
The scammer didn’t take all the money from the fake checks. In a fake act of kindness, the criminal told Lee he could keep $20 “for your lovely son" (who was not feeling well) after he wired thousands of dollars.
“You have done wonderfully great today,” the scammer said.