Even smart people can get fooled by a well-planned scam. Here’s how it happened to me and what steps I took. I hope my hard-learned lessons will help others.
In addition to being a seminary professor and ordained minister, I am also a professional harpist. I have been playing gigs for decades, so I’m certainly not wet behind the ears. But I fell victim to a scam. This is not an easy thing to talk about. But I’m sharing this story in the hope that others might learn from what happened to me and avoid what I went through with this scam.
Here’s what happened.
I received an email from a man asking if I would be available to play the harp for his wedding. He and his fiancé were getting married in their home and wanted harp music for their big day. He gave me his address and phone number. I checked the address online; it was local and not far from my home. We agreed on a fee, and I sent him a contract. He signed and emailed it back. So far so good.
He said that a family friend would be paying for my services as part of their wedding gift to the couple. That’s not unusual; I’ve been paid by third parties before, such as parents or grandparents. He said I should expect a check in the mail in the coming week. Great!
Then he texted to tell me that his friend made a mistake.
He made the check out in the amount of both the photographer’s fee and my fee. Would I deposit the check, keep my portion, and send the rest to the photographer?
Now this should have raised a red flag for me. And it did. Why not just cut a new check and have me shred the incorrect one? But he told me that the friend was going on vacation and the photographer required the fee to hold the date for the wedding. I was a bit annoyed; however, I wanted to be helpful, so I agreed.
The cashier’s check arrived, and my husband and I deposited it to our account with our credit union. But a hold was placed on the check. That’s not unusual. It’s standard procedure to make sure that a check is real and will clear. We were informed that the hold would be in effect until June 18. I texted the groom, and he thanked me for letting him know. He asked that I notify him as soon as the check cleared so he could tell the photographer that the money would be coming their way.
The morning of June 18, I looked at my account. The check was now showing up as a deposited amount. Great! The groom gave me the name of the photographer and the email address so I could send the money through PayPal. Phew! All done!
Not so fast. A few days later, my husband looked at our account and saw that the check had actually bounced. It was now being listed as a fictitious check. But the money I had sent to the photographer through PayPal was already gone.
I called the bank and explained the situation. They said there was nothing they could do since I sent the money through PayPal; I would need to work with them to try to recover the money.
I called PayPal and explained the situation. They said they would investigate the situation and get back to me. A day later they notified me that there was nothing they could do.
In the meantime, I called my local police department to report the crime. The detective investigated and found out that there was no such person listed at the address on the contract the groom had signed. We also did a bit more digging about the photographer. The website seems legit, but when you look at the fine print, you see that they are located in the U.K., not in the city where this wedding was to take place.
So: fake groom, fake photographer, duped harpist, and a loss of nearly $2000. I was the victim of an overpayment scam. But the police would do something, right?
Wrong. Because this was an internet scam, it was out of their jurisdiction. The detective recommended that I file a complaint with the federal Internet Crime Complaint Center, https://www.ic3.gov/. But there was nothing else he could do.
So I had struck out with both PayPal and my credit union and now the police. No one was willing to help.
Let me pause here and describe how I was feeling about all of this.
The primary emotion I felt was shame and humiliation. I felt so stupid. My brain kept replaying what had happened, and I was kicking myself for not catching on. I was embarrassed that I was so gullible. Angry that I had been a mark, taken advantage of, fooled. That I had lost so much money. And that no one seemed willing to help me.
I lost sleep, mentally beating myself up for having been so dumb. My husband (who is also a professional musician) and I were confounded that someone would design such an elaborate scheme against an unsuspecting harpist. There were just enough details to make the whole enterprise seem legit; but the real address, the signed contract, and the story were all a ruse to lure me in.
And I was angry at my credit union. If they had suspected the check was fake, why didn’t they contact me directly? Why did they allow the check to show as a credit at all before swiping it away and docking me with a fee? The timing was unfortunate. If I had waited just a few more hours, I would have seen the notification of the fraudulent check. But because of they way they handled the situation, I didn’t find out until it was too late.
That’s when I lost hope.
I wouldn’t ever get my money back. The system is so convoluted, no one has to take responsibility or try to make things right. I’m left feeling like an idiot while someone somewhere has my hard-earned money, laughing at my stupidity. I was had, and there was nothing I could do.
I didn’t want to tell any of my friends or family about this because I felt so foolish. How can an educated professional fall for something like this? It was so embarrassing.
However, I did tell one trusted friend who has also been a professional musician.
I told her the whole story and she gasped when I got to the part where I realized I’d been had. Without missing a beat, she said, “I would have done exactly the same thing in your situation. You’re not stupid. You’re a good person and a professional who wants to do right by your clients. Also, you’re a harpist, not a detective nor an expert in bank fraud. There’s no way you could have know what was happening. This is not your fault. You need to go back to your bank and to PayPal to make this right. They deal with fraud all the time. They have departments to handle this sort of thing.”
But I was so spent, emotionally and mentally. I was ready succumb and resign myself to the loss. The whole ordeal had put me through the ringer.
“I get that,” my friend said. But she told me about a situation she had dealt with involving fraud and the story of another person she knew who had gone through a scam situation. “You have to keep moving up the chain of command until you find the person who can do something about this. Also, get that police report and send it to both PayPal and the bank to verify that you were the victim of a crime. And if your bank still refuses to help, withdraw your money, close your account, and write a blog to publicly shame them for the way they handled the situation.”
Bouyed and a bit more energized from her sympathy and helpful advice, I went online to obtain the police report. After paying a nominal fee and waiting a few days, the report arrived. I also filed a complaint with IC3 and made a copy of the report. Then I called my credit union to try again.
They looked at my file and said they had already told me there was nothing they could do. I had to take it up with PayPal. So I called PayPal. The person said they would investigate, but they needed me to submit a charge back case for an unauthorized transaction with the credit union. This would allow them to work with the credit union to resolve the situation.
So I called my credit union back again and asked to submit the claim. The woman said that they would not allow me to do this because they had already notified me that the check was fraudulent, and they have no responsibility. I asked to speak with the supervisor. “I AM the supervisor,” she said.
“Well, then, may I speak with YOUR supervisor?”
She said she would have someone call me.
This time things shifted. When the next supervisor called me, I explained the situation yet again. I said I could send her the signed contract, the police report, and the IC3 report to verify this was a crime. This person sent me the electronic form to fill out, sign, and submit. She warned me, however, that if PayPal declined to refund the money, there was nothing more they could do. In the meantime, I also sent the police and IC3 report to PayPal. And then I waited.
The good news is that PayPal did indeed refund my money. And it showed up in my credit union account the next day.
The bad news is, I have spent an enormous amount of time, energy, and emotional capital to resolve this. I have no idea if the criminals have been caught. And my letter to the credit union with my recommendations for changing their protocols to better communicate with and protect their customers has, so far, gone unanswered. And I still have residual feelings of being stupid and gullible.
Nevertheless, I’m sharing this story of being a victim of a scam so that if this has happened to you, you’ll know you’re not the only one.
I’m also warning my fellow musicians and other service providers that these overpayment scams target us as well.
If you get a weird feeling about a payment situation with a client, or if they ask you to agree to an unusual payment arrangement, beware. If I had it to do over, knowing what I know now, I would have cancelled the gig and ripped up that damn check.
[Also be aware that if you do this, the person may threaten to sue you for breaking the contract. These scammers are relentless. They know how to push the right buttons, exert just the right amount of pressure, and use psychological tactics to manipulate their targets. If you are suspicious for any reason, contact the police. Also, consider adding a clause to your contract stipulating payment protocols and the right to terminate if the protocols are not followed.]
Also, I want to summarize the steps I took to advocate for myself and get my money back from this scam.
1 – Contact the police right away. Have all your documents available to give them all the information. Be sure to obtain a copy of the report. You will need this when working with your bank or payment service.
2 – If you have been the victim of an internet or email scam, file a complaint with the federal Internet Crime Complaint Center, https://www.ic3.gov/. Be sure to save a copy of the report before exiting out. They do not save what you send them. You need to save it as a PDF and print it out on your own. If they get enough reports, this may trigger them to investigate. But don’t expect to hear from them. The reason to file the complaint is to document what happened to you.
3 – Save all documents and record all conversations. This includes emails, texts, contracts, and recollections of phone calls. You will need this for the client, the police, and for your financial institutions.
4 – Don’t give up. If the first tier at your financial institution won’t help, ask to speak to the supervisor. And if they won’t help, ask to speak to the next person above them. Send them all your documents to verify that you were the victim of fraud.
5 – Try not to beat yourself up. Even smart, experienced people can fall victim of a scam. Remember that these criminals make it their job to concoct schemes that fool and hook unsuspecting victims. You may feel like an idiot and want to kick yourself for not recognizing the scam. But the fact that you’re a good person who works on the basis of trust and common decency does not make you the problem. The problem is with the criminals who devise the scam — and with our financial and legal systems that put the onus on the victim.
Finally, here are the recommendations I shared with my credit union. I want to be clear that Service1st Credit Union based in Danville, Pennsylvania, did eventually help to resolve the situation. But they didn’t make it easy for me.
Recommendations for financial institutions to help customers who have been scammed:
1 – Communicate more clearly and directly with customers when there are issues with a possibly fraudulent check. If a deposited check is flagged as suspicious, don’t just send a letter (which can take several days to arrive) or list it on the account as a general hold. Call the customer and let them know that there may be a problem. This is one of the reasons we chose to bank with a credit union instead of a commercial bank. We had hoped for more personal attention to matters such as this.
2 – If a customer has been a victim of fraud, the process for addressing it and helping to get their money back should have less obstacles than what I encountered. I felt I was stonewalled multiple times. While I realize that working through PayPal presented an issue, there should have been more willingness to help, make recommendations on how to handle the situation, and steps to follow to recover the funds. Even when I tried to explain that I was working with PayPal and they wished to work with Service1st, my request was initially dismissed. I felt that my dilemma was not taken seriously, that I was regarded as an annoyance, and that, until the person higher up the chain worked with me, there was no willingness to help me resolve this issue.
3 – Reconsider how funds are listed in online banking. If a check is being held (especially because of potential fraud), it should not show as a deposit. It should never show up in the register in the first place.
4 – Reconsider the timing and protocols for communication when a check bounces, especially because of fraud. There must be a better system for reporting suspicious activity and protecting customers.
5 – Discontinue charging a penalty fee for a fraudulent check. To add insult to injury, I was assessed $20 for the fraudulent check. This is unjust. There was no way I could have known when I deposited the check that it was fraudulent. If a financial institution detects a check may be fraudulent, it should never be deposited in the first place.
6 – Educate customers about fraud schemes on a regular basis. I had no idea that I was being targeted with an overpayment scam. I’m a professional harpist, not a detective or an expert in bank fraud. However, if materials about fraud schemes would accompany regular mailings (print or email), and if information had been sent to me about scams as soon as the check had been flagged, this could have helped me avoid this situation.
I am breathing much easier knowing that the money has been returned to my account.
But the situation was made even more distressing because of my experience with the financial institutions I dealt with. I have learned a great deal from this scam. I hope my story will help others as well.
The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky and ordained in the ELCA. Dr. Schade does not speak for LTS or the ELCA; her opinions are her own. She is the author of Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) and Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the co-editor of Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). Her latest book, co-written with Jerry Sumney is Apocalypse When?: A Guide to Interpreting and Preaching Apocalyptic Texts (Wipf & Stock, 2020).
She is also a professional harpist whose recording, Shall We Gather, can be downloaded here: https://www.amazon.com/Shall-Gather-Leah-Delight-Schade/dp/B0019EBK0A/