Scam uses newspaper job ads to con victims

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Relatively small, the March 26 classified advertisement in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette nevertheless intrigued Ricky Sprague of Brentwood.

"Security Officer -- For Pgh. based corp. FT exc salary & benefits. Call HR Dept. 213-403-0415."

Mr. Sprague, 27, of Brentwood, a former McKees Rocks police officer and a security guard, had been looking for work and this seemed promising.

He called the Los Angeles-based number and a recorded message said a company was looking for security guards to work weekends at a luxury resort, all expenses paid, including weekly round-trip airfare, at a salary of $2,000 to $3,000 a month.

Now the job seemed almost too good to be true -- and, of course, it was.

After several telephone conversations with a man posing as an executive from "Island Resort Travel Club," Mr. Sprague complied with his request to wire $289 to cover part of the airfare to San Diego for an interview (where the expenditure would be reimbursed). Mr. Sprague complied, wiring the money and then calling to give the identifying number for the transfer.

He waited for the promised return phone call with his airline ticket confirmation number. And waited. And waited.

Still no call, even after a full day had passed. Mr. Sprague called the number in the ad but got the recording -- over and over and over. He left message after message but received no call back.

And then he had no choice -- he realized he'd been had.

Mr. Sprague has many people with whom to commiserate -- from all over the United States and beyond. He is but one person caught in a slickly run, well-planned international scam in which hundreds of unemployed or underemployed people have had their desire to better themselves preyed upon.

The scam melds an old-school medium -- newspaper classified ads -- with the high-tech attributes of untraceable cell phones and prepaid calling cards, high-speed electronic wire transfers and the convenience, and anonymity, of automatic wire-transfer machines, similar to ATMs.

An investigation has shown the scam is centered in Orlando but this is no Mickey Mouse operation. It's so sophisticated that Orlando police Detective Steve Wilson grudgingly admits his nemeses have outwitted him thus far. People are being lured by the seeming professionalism in the recorded message and in the telephone "interviews."

"Whoever is doing this is doing a really good job with it," he said yesterday. "I can guarantee that people are calling right now and there's not much that can be done to stop it.

"I have no video, no fingerprints, no eyewitnesses, no evidence."

What he hasn't lacked, since he began his probe last month, is victims. And the list is ever-growing.

He became involved when a police department in Illinois contacted him to report several of its citizens had been scammed by sending wire transfers to Orlando.

He unearthed a crime spree that had begun by January 2005 or earlier. He contacted Western Union, whose security personnel did their own digging and provided him with a list of nearly 50 people who may have likewise been tricked. He began the still-continuing process of calling everyone on the list and learned that all lost money in the same way.

The victims hail from all over -- from Roanoke, Va., to Hawthorne, Calif., from Augusta, Kan., to Louisville, Ky., from Glen Burnie, Md., all the way to Russia. Detective Wilson said there's no way to estimate the number of victims but guessed he knows of only a fraction.

Generally, this is how the scam works: In newspapers across the country, classified ads have been placed offering jobs ranging from security guards to airline flight attendants to hospitality positions for private resorts. Just as in Mr. Sprague's case, several phone conversations take place and then the request is made to wire money, usually a figure just below $300, to a fictitious person in Orlando.

Among the aliases that have been used are John Mason, John Davis, John Holt, John Wells, James Ross, and Thomas Cassey. The name doesn't really matter, however, because IDs aren't necessary when the wired cash is being retrieved through ATM-like machines in convenience stores that handle money transfers. As long as the person has the Western Union control transfer number -- victims are told to call back with that identifying number -- the machine will dispense the money.

No ID, no video, no fuss and the suspect remains a phantom.

Sherry L. Johnson, Western Union media relations director, said she could not comment on a specific investigation. But she said the company provides consumer groups and customers at its windows with tips to prevent fraud. Indeed, one specifically tells customers never to send money to someone they don't know or whose identity cannot be verified.

In addition to contacting the victims, Detective Wilson is contacting the newspapers that have run the ads in an attempt to find who placed them. Most newspapers, like the Post-Gazette, require a subpoena to provide information about advertisers. Detective Wilson said he will obtain the necessary legal documents to get that information.

In the meantime, the Post-Gazette is conducting an internal investigation, according to Randall Brant, vice president of advertising.

"We take these issues very seriously," he said. "We have a process in place that minimizes the occurrence of these scams by requiring potential employers to give us certain types of information. Unfortunately, people who do this have become very creative over the years and occasionally one of these gets through.

"We are investigating this matter and looking into other ads that potentially could be like it so we can prevent further occurrences."


Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.


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