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I am a freelance web designer; I have a website and a Facebook page to find new clients.

A few days ago I received an email inquiring about web design that immediately sounded fishy:

Good Day, Am Tom Williams i wanna know if you can handle (Website Design) for a new marketing and also if credit card is fine to make payment with you kindly get back to me ASAP so i can send you the job details.

The bad grammar and immediate mention of credit cards was strange, but I need all the work I can get so I decided to prod for more details. He told me he was located in Texas (I am in Arizona), told me about his business (agriculture products), gave me a link to a competitor's site as reference and a list of job requirements as well as a budget of $4000 to $6000.

Now, that price range is not out of the ordinary for a professional business website but I myself am I young, self-taught freelancer and I don't usually make anywhere near that per project. And if he's in Texas, why choose an Arizonan web designer? There's got to be hundreds or more that are closer to him. So I really wanted this to be real but I'm now 99% sure that it's a scam.

After a couple more emails back and forth I decided it couldn't hurt to give him a price and ask for a deposit; and if I received the money with no funny business I'd make the website. I told him I wanted $1000 up front and then he replied with this:

I have my credit card available for the payment . But first I want you to pay attention to this .I have been advised to take a long rest for an easy and fast recovery,hence the reason why I need your favor. I haven't payed the project consultant that has the text content and the logo for my website he does not have credit card facility.

Regarding this fact,I will be giving you credit card for the total of $5,080. Once the funds clears to your account $2,000 will be deducted as an upfront payment for the design of the website,$80 for yourself as tip and the remaining $3,000 will be sent to the project consultant that has the text content and the logo for my website. Be rest assured you will be charging everything on my credit card including the 3% CC charges. Below is the final break down of the total charges i will be authorizing you to charge on my credit card.

Website-Deposit: $2,000 - Consultant-fee: $3,000 - Tips & Gratitude: $80 - 3% CC charges?

Basically, it sounds like he wants to transfer a bunch of money to me, and then have me keep my cut and transfer the rest to someone else. I don't know how, exactly, but I imagine that somehow I'll get screwed out of everything and possibly the funds already in my account (jokes on them, I'm broke).

Anyway, I found this article confirming my suspicions that stuff like this does happen: https://www.alvalyn.com/email-scams-target-web-designers/

And I wonder if I should report this somehow? Or if there's any other legal action I could take?

Thanks.

  • Which jurisdiction (country, state) are you in? – jimsug Aug 30 '15 at 4:09
  • 2
    Sounds like a classic "overpayment" scam. – feetwet Aug 30 '15 at 14:34
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Short Answer

This is a variation of the classic Nigerian Prince Confidence Scam a/k/a 419 Scam and you are their mark.

The goal of this con is theft and abscondence. Not necessarily money laundering as others have suggested. Because, ultimately, there is no money on their end except what they seek to steal from their mark.

As others have pointed out, variations on this also include the Overpayment Scam and hat tip to the Spanish Prisoner Scam of the 16th century for historical context.

Banking asymmetry is the key

The basic idea is that funds clear U.S. banks faster than foreign banks. More specifically, money transfers to points inside the U.S. from points outside the U.S. take longer to clear than transfers from points inside the U.S. to outside the U.S. The ongoing success of this confidence scam rests upon that single feature of the global banking system.

This asymmetry will eventually land you in a situation where your funds clear (leave your account) but theirs don't (i.e., never enter your account) — yet at first appear to do so — until you find out later their funds "bounced." By that time, they will be long gone but the bank will come after you for the bounced funds. And, of course, your money will be gone. Thereby leaving you holding the bag.

Best response: stop communicating

The best thing to do is to just stop communicating with them. You can try reporting it to your state's Attorney General but, quite frankly, I wouldn't bother. These are so common you just have to treat it like "background noise."

Cautionary tale: sad and common

This is really sad. But I used to work in a retail location of a large national bank. Our clients were mostly members of a small suburban neighborhood. At least once per week, and sometimes two or three times per week, like clockwork, we would always see a different person coming into the bank asking to withdraw all their funds to send out of the country.

After asking a couple questions it was always clear that this was another variation of the 419 Confidence Scam. The marks were usually older people (who are more gullible and trusting of strangers than the average population. Something to do with simpler times in the past, I guess.) Often times the marks were so convinced by the con that we could not explain to them what was happening in a way they would believe us and got conned anyway. Losing all their money.

It's all very sad, but a cautionary tale and an example of how convincing these cons can be. Also, to illustrate how common it all is, imagine that this probably happened in every retail location serving every neighborhood in the U.S. Very sad. And very common.

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I'd say it's not the 419 scam, but obviously a scam: The "overpayment scam". In the typical 419 scam, you are told to make some "small" payments to receive a large amount of money. Bank fees, lawyer fees, and so on, to get an inheritance, a part of a huge deal, or a lottery win. (Myself, I have won almost two million Euros in lotteries where I never participated, plus one brand new BMW).

In this scam, the trick is to put a large payment into your bank account, then asking you to pay back a small percentage. Sometimes a check is filled out wrong by accident. You might have negotiated $3,500 for your services and by accident they send you a cheque for $5,300 and ask you to cash the cheque and pay back the $1,800.

The trick is that the source of the money is not genuine, and weeks or months later the bank will take the $5,300 away from you. It might be a stolen cheque, a stolen credit card, anything. If someone overpays you in anything other than cash and asks for money returned, it is a scam.

Your scammer was quite bad I'd say, it's too obviously dodgy. The "accidently overpaid" scam is much better, and honest people might feel obligated to return the money. There's actually the tiniest possibility that this might happen with a genuine customer. What happened to you, no, that's not going to happen with a genuine customer.

Here's Royal Bank of Scotland describing the scam: http://www.rbs.co.uk/corporate/banking/g6/online/common-scams/overpayment-scams.ashx

And here is one very, very close to what you reported: http://www.ncdoj.gov/News-and-Alerts/Alerts/New-Variation-of-Overpayment-Scam-Takes-Aim-at-Sma.aspx

3

You're almost certainly being used for money laundering. There's no reason for this person to pay you more than you're due on their credit card. Don't proceed with the transaction unless they're willing to only pay you for your work.

If you're in the United States and you believe this is a scam, you can report this person to the Federal Trade Commission.

However, if you're able to obtain (or have already obtained) the other person's credit card number, you can use a BIN database like binlist.net1 to find out which country the person's card was issued in, and report it there instead/as well, which might be more effective. Of course, it's almost certain that they're using a disposable card, but if you want to spend the time, it could help the authorities.

Civil legal action is likely to be prohibitively expensive, especially as you're unlikely to have incurred actual loss in this type of scenario. As for criminal action, it'll be difficult for you to press charges without at least determining the person's identity, which may not even be possible.


1. I don't have any affiliation with this service

  • This has all the earmarks of a straight 419, not money laundering. The appropriate people to contact are the visa or mastercard (whichever network the cards are affiliated with) network fraud centers. They're VERY interested in clamping this down. – dwoz Oct 24 '15 at 3:32

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