Wednesday, February 21, 2024

#52 / Scams


Kara and Joe Youssef (pictured above) uprooted their lives to embark on a 3-year-cruise around the world. The wonderful around-the-world voyage for which they signed up with Miray Cruises was cancelled at the last moment, after a couple of earlier, last-minute extensions and delays. The $80,000 deposit that the Youssefs paid for their reservations has not been refunded. The Youssefs had sold their two apartments and liquidated all their life savings to pay for the cruise, and they are now facing homelessness. Others who signed up for the cruise are in a similar position. They paid; the cruise didn't happen, and now they're stuck without their money, and with their lives substantially disrupted.

Paywall policies permitting, you can read all about what happened to the Youssefs in a brief article by Ceylan Yeginsu, who covers the "cruise ship" beat for The New York Times. Yeginsu's first article didn't come down hard with an assertion that what happened to the Youssefs, and others, was a genuine scam. Her follow-up article is lending credence to the idea that the advertised cruise was a "scam," right from the start. The more time that goes by, the more it seems that this was not a case of the company just running into unanticipated trouble. It is less and less looking like things wll work out for the Youssefs, and for others who signed up for "the cruise that never happened." 

When I read about the possible cruise ship scam, outlined above, my mind immediately leaped to two indubitably real scams - recent scams - with which I am personally familiar. 


The granddaughter of one of my friends teaches art in a Santa Cruz County public school. Of course, school teachers aren't really paid enough for them to survive in Santa Cruz, so my friend's granddaughter is always on the lookout for other potential jobs that might be better compensated. She found one, online - a potential new job - as an art director for a high-tech company. She would be expected to assist with website design and other art-related duties.

That sounded good, and my friend's granddaughter went through a number of online interviews, submitted evidence of her artistic talents, supplied a resume, etc. Good news, she was hired! All of this occurred online, of course, but no "red flags" appeared. In fact, the company representative with whom she was negotiating (online) said that she would be expected to work remotely, and that she would need new and upgraded computer equipment. The company hiring her was going to pay her to purchase the equipment she would need for the work, and to allow her to set up an adequate "home office." A check in the amount of several thousand dollars was sent to her, and she was told to deposit it to her account, and then to purchase what was needed for her new home office. 

Everything sounded great! However, shortly after receiving the check (and having made a mobile deposit into her account) she heard from the person with whom she had been dealing. He was extremely apologetic, but he confessed that he had sent her about $1,000 too much. She was asked to return +/- $1,000 of the significantly greater amount she had been sent - sending back the "overpayment" by Venmo.

Instead of immediately doing that, as she had been requested to do, my friend's granddaughter went in person to the very reputable bank upon which the check to her had been drawn, just to make sure that the check sent to her was actually good. It was lucky she checked; it wasn't! 

End result: No new job. On the upside, though, my friend's granddaughter didn't actually lose $1,000 of her own money, either.


Something similar occurred to a UCSC computer science student. He learned of a competition for a working internship with the "Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation." If the student were interested, he would need to submit a resume, respond to questions, etc. His local contact would be an actual "professor" at UCSC, overseeing the internship competition. The name of that "professor?" 

I won't keep you in suspense: "Gary Patton." 

A fake Gary Patton oversaw negotiations with the student. Emails sent to the student appeared to be from "Professor Patton," but the email account being used was not an email I ever knew about (I am, of course, a "real" Gary Patton). I was completely oblivious to the scam being carried out in my name. How my name was selected (since I have no connection, whatsoever, with the computer science department at UCSC), is not clear. 

As in the "New Job" scam - Scam #2 - there was a pretty long and extensive set of online email exchanges, but the student who had applied for the internship was ultimately informed by email (by "Professor Patton") that he had been selected. He would need some additional computer equipment, and the "Gates Foundation" would, of course, pay for that equipment. In fact, the Foundation sent him a check for deposit to his personal bank account. He did receive that and deposited it. He was then directed to arrange for the equipment purchase through a vendor designated by the "Gates Foundation." The specifics were transmitted to him by "Professor Patton." The student was directed to Venmo the designated vendor the sum of $2,350 (the same amount he had been granted in the check that he deposited to his account).

Did the student do that? Yes, he did! 

I found out about this scam when the student began emailing me at my real UCSC email address, asking whether I had actually authored the earlier emails to him. He provided copies of the email exchanges, showing the fictititious email account that was used. I am hoping that law enforcement authorities (and specifically the Santa Cruz County District Attorney's Office) will try to track down who owned that fictitious email account, and bring the scammers to justice (and with any luck recovering the money that the student has lost). Just in case you missed it, the check he deposited was a fake, and he never actually got any new money in his bank account. The money he sent by Venmo, though, was "real" money (his money), and he lost it.


The "online" world is not the "real" world. I have been saying that in various blog postings for quite some time. Don't be fooled. If you are going to sign up for a new job, or pursue a fellowship or internship opportunity - or even search for the love of your life - do it in the REAL WORLD. 

Not online!

PS: To avoid being the victim of an online scam, don't send real money back to someone who asks you for a return of money that you have not yet validated is actual, real money. That's what made those "New Job" and "Internship" scams work so well. The intended victims got what appeared to be a very "real" deposit to their account, but the bank's rules are that deposits shown in your account, after deposit, are not funds you can access until after the deposit has "cleared," and that usually takes several days. 

Heads up, folks! And let's try to live our lives in the "real" world. 

Not online!

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