Scammers utilize phone relay system for the deaf

This week, I’ll consider a scam I have some personal experience with.

It may come as a shock, but a small town detective’s salary is pretty modest. With the choice of electric heat or the woodstove to keep the wife and kids warm through winter, I spend more time with a chainsaw in my hand instead of the preferred Sage 9’ 5wt fast action fly rod.

That said, a few years ago I found myself with a surplus of firewood and thought I’d take out a classified ad on the Internet and try to sell some. I got a phone call from a guy who identified himself as an operator for an Internet phone service for the deaf; he told me the guy calling me was deaf. I was curious as to who was calling me and why. The operator proceeded to translate and explained that the guy was typing out his end of the conversation on the Net for the operator to read to me and then the operator typed back my responses to him because, well … he’s deaf.

The guy told me that he is in a foreign country (Lithuania if I recall correctly) and he said that he wanted me to sell him some firewood. This guy said he would pay me five times what I was asking for the firewood and wanted me to ship it to Lithuania!

OK, had this person not been “hearing impaired” I’d have probably hung up on him at this point. But, like most good people, I think that being mean and rude to a disabled person is reprehensible, so I patiently tried to understand exactly why and how this hearing-impaired guy wanted me to ship a bunch of firewood to Lithuania. He said he would make all the shipping arrangements. I was thinking, “Maybe he’s just one of those eccentric rich guys, the kind you hear about on the news who pay a thousand dollars to get a pizza from New York flown to Los Angeles for dinner.” Or, I thought, “Maybe he’s mentally disabled.” Wow, now I’m really stuck; I can’t be rude and hang up on a guy who is both deaf and mentally disabled. Although, at $1,000 for a cord of firewood, (and the guy wanted five cords), I could afford to buy a new fishing boat or at least a new outboard for my old boat. If it made some rich kook in Lithuania happy to pay me an outrageous amount of money for a pile of firewood, why should I stand in the way of his happiness?

At this point, let me tell you the highly-guarded secret to being a world-class police detective. Hopefully it will not be too technical and intellectual of an explanation, but here it is: If stuff don’t make sense, then something’s fishy.

Even though I may be a little slow on the uptake sometimes, one of the things that makes me a decent detective is that it frustrates me if I don’t understand something, so I keep asking questions until I do. If I have all of the information explained to me in kindergartenese, and it still doesn’t make sense, then you must be messing with me.

I went round and round with the guy, trying to make sense of it. I asked him if there was a shortage of firewood in Lithuania and he told me there was. Why hadn’t I heard about this on CNN? Why isn’t the United Nations providing firewood relief? Well, I guess this guy finally got frustrated with me or else his fingers got tired. The poor operator, who I could tell was ready to go on a violent workplace rampage, told me, “Sir I no longer have a connection with the caller.”

I told my wife about the conversation and explained to her how baffled I was and asked her if she’s heard about the firewood shortage in Lithuania. Cheri looked at me adoringly and said, “Hey Sherlock, It’s a scam. I thought you were a detective.” Shame on her for thinking a mentally-challenged, hearing-impaired person would stoop to a life of crime. Sometimes she’s so cynical.

Turns out, she was right. A little Googling proved it. I thought I’d heard at least a variation of every scam out there, but was I wrong. One of the first articles to come up was “Con artists target phone system for deaf.” What is happening is that overseas scammers (apparently with perfectly good hearing) are using publicly-funded telecommunications relay services for the deaf as a tool to run scams. Once again, Nigeria is the No. 1 suspect. One advantage it gives them is that most people are like me and want to bend over backward to help out the handicapped. Other advantages for the scammers are that using the phone service for the deaf makes it harder to trace where the call actually originated; the caller’s foreign accent is concealed and their broken English is covered up. On top of all that, the scammers don’t have to pay for what would otherwise be a pricey international phone call. Most of the relay operators are not allowed to interfere in the calls and are required to translate the calls verbatim or lose their jobs.

Relay operators vent their frustrations on Internet chatrooms for relay operators (http://relayscams.aimoo.com). Relay operators have posted some of the text lines from less adept scammers; “This is Reverend Gabriel of Nigeria orphanage do u carry 50 chainsaws q their for the mother less children.”

How about this call made to an ostrich farm: “okfine would like buy osrickses and ship to Nigeria and I will give yhou my cerdit card info and yu run whie I hold???? “ Some operators are reporting 90 percent of the relay calls they handle are fraud. The sad part is that merchants who have been burned are turning down legitimate orders from deaf customers trying to make a purchase from their business.

The scammers normally target small businesses and mom and pop retailers. Apparently, they also scour the Internet classifieds for potential targets. If your ad is on the Internet or your business is in a phone directory (which is also available on the Internet) they can find you. They typically order large quantities of anything of value that can be resold, from computers to firewood to ostriches.

As in my case, I’m betting many times the scammers don’t even know what they are ordering. They seem to just spot an ad for something of value and try to purchase as many or as much as they can. Normally, large quantities of merchandise is ordered and paid for with stolen credit card numbers. The credit cards may also be cards that the scammer has obtained by opening fraudulent accounts using someone else’s (possibly your) stolen identity information, probably obtained in a “Phishing Scam,” which we’ll deal with in a later article. The “customer” (scammer) may want to use multiple credit cards to complete the payment for their order. The scammer might tell you he’s in the U.S. (to relieve suspicion) and ask you to ship the goods to a U.S. address. Here enters the “Reshipping Scam.” Do you see how many of these scams can be connected together in a complicated tangled web? Maybe, instead of selling firewood, I could make extra money offering Internet courses on “Scamology.”

Even though I’d rather be writing an article on fishing, the next article will be on “phishing.” You’ll learn that phishermen are experts at catching suckers. In the meantime, if you get a call from relay operator for the deaf, get a U.S. phone number where you can contact someone by voice and confirm the customer’s identity. Also try to confirm the shipping address and a phone number at the shipping address. A U.S. address alone is no guarantee that the order is not fraudulent.