I got an email last night from Craig Johnson. Craig wants a roof, but not just any roof. “I would like to know if you can do a perfect job for me?” he asks in a message that came in via our website and was then forwarded by our CRM system. Here's the rest of the message [original spelling and punctuation preserved]: “i need a Full Roof Repair on my new Home, I Will like to know if you can do this for me and what major credit card do you accept , Kindly let me know and send me your full shop address with cell number so i can text you all the details.”
Even if I didn’t already know the game, I would’ve smelled a rat three rooms away. But I do know it and “Craig Johnson” isn’t even good at it.
Cutting You In
Steve Brack was a lot better. He was, like every one of them I’ve heard from so far, “hearing impaired,” though ethically challenged may be the more accurate description. His impairment had Steve “in the hospital undergoing a surgery” and he would be there for a couple of weeks, he explained, again via email. Safely out of reach. He said he'd just bought a house and needed the roof replaced. “I will want you to give me estimate for the roof replacement,” he wrote, earlier this month. “I will want you to do a perfect job at the house.”
And like our buddy Craig, Steve “will want you do me a favor before you do your site inspection due to my present condition at the hospital so that you can have direct access and authorization to the building.”
That “favor” was elaborated in further emails over the course of about 24 hours. It came down to this: Steve has only paid “92 percent of the house to the owner” and still owes $5,800. He will:
“give you my credit card to charge for the total sum of $7800, and wait till it’s credited to your account then you will have $2,000 as your deposit and help me make a cash deposit of $5,800 to the owners bank account in order to give you the key so u could have access to the house and make an estimate and also get the work done….”
In addition to the $2,000 deposit on the roofing job (yet to be estimated), this transaction, he writes, involves “a tip of $200 for accepting the favor. Reckoning to $8,000 including credit card processing fees.”
Overpayment, Stolen Credit Card
The emails from Steve Brack and Craig Johnson were the fifth the sixth emails like this we’ve received. The first came about two years ago. This grifter’s name was Reverend So-and-So. The Reverend was a little smarter than most of these guys. He had a good story going. He’d just bought a house but the house didn’t have any heat, the heater was shot, and he had to get a new heater installed since his family was just about to move in. But there was a snag. The HVAC contractor didn’t accept credit cards and could we advance him the $5,000 to pay for the new heater? He’d reimburse us when he paid for the roof, plus a $500 “tip” for “helping him out.”
There must be lots of people out there running this con job. They search databases for homes for sale, then contact a renovation company and arrange a method of payment that clips the company for upwards of $5,000 via stolen credit cards, requests for funds to be advanced in order to get the job started, etc.
L. Allen Shaw, president of A. Shaw Roofing in Edmonton, Ontario, describes his experience in a story at his website. The scammer, who contacted him via text, sent him to an unsold house to price out a re-roof. The “disabled homeowner” was unavailable to talk directly, of course, and wanted the company’s bank account number to deposit the final payment. That’d be like handing a mugger your ATM card and PIN number. As Shaw explains, “When the work is complete, in an effort to get paid for the renovation, the contractor provides bank account information which the scammer can then use to empty the company’s bank account.”
Two years ago the BBB of Richmond, VA, issued a “Scam Alert!” telling local contractors to “look out for emails or texts that report to be from a disabled homeowner needing to fix up a home, or potentially for resale.” In the case cited by the Richmond BBB, the “disabled” (also hearing impaired) homeowner wanted to know if she could “overpay for the work on her card and have the contractor refund the balance to her.”
Two St. Louis area contractors were hit with a similar overpayment scam two years ago. According to the St. Louis area BBB, “both recent cases involved schemes to overpay the contractors with bogus checks or stolen credit cards and then get the contractors to return the overpayments via wire transfers, prepaid cash or gift cards or other methods.”
Red Flags Flying
These scams vary in their details but all of them have a few things in common. First, the person contacting you will do so by text or email, not by phone. That’s what tipped me off about the Reverend. It was my first time around, still green when it came to this nonsense, and so I wanted to pitch him on the job and discovered that a phone conversation wasn’t possible, let alone any face-to-face meeting. When they do list a phone number, it’s always Google Voice. About six months ago I called one of these “disabled homeowners” who’d emailed or texted me, and asked a few pointed questions. The person who answered had a strong Eastern European accent. He immediately got nervous and hung up.
Second, they’re all “disabled consumers,” mostly “hearing impaired,” which besides generating sympathy is also the excuse for never speaking by phone or showing up in person.
The third flag is that they’ve just bought (or are about to sell) a house and they need a roof.
The fourth flag is grammar so bad it requires translation. The emails quoted earlier are typical of what you get.
As for the fifth flag, there’s this email exchange. “What you’re asking me to do is illegal,” I wrote back to Steve Brack. “I can only charge you for the work we do.”
“How is it illegal???” he replied.
So the fifth red flag is a certain cluelessness that clearly hopes to find an even greater cluelessness on the other end of the email chain. At which point let the fraud begin.