Anatomy Of A Scam Investigation

There is a fascinating and informative series of articles by a lawyer and former federal prosecutor about his efforts to unearth information about a scammer who sent a phony “invoice” to his firm. It’s a well-known and simple scam – send something that looks like an invoice for a service that was never ordered or delivered, hoping that it will get paid by someone who doesn’t notice that it’s phony. I used to see variations on this for domain registration scams.

The author describes the series this way:

I’ve decided to dedicate some time and money to investigating this scam and the people and companies responsible for it. I’ve also decided to write about the investigation, and use it as an opportunity to discuss con man culture and how anyone with an internet connection, a few bucks, and some time can investigate an attempted scam — or, preferably, conduct due diligence on a suspected scammer before they can even try to con you.

I’m going to discuss using Google, using PACER (which allows access to federal court records), using state court records, and taking effective action against scammers.

In this case, the invoice looked like this.

Anatomy Of A Scam Investigation

In the articles so far, the author (“Ken”) has covered some very useful things:

  • Chapter One: Background about this particular invoice and why it satisfies the legal requirements for fraud.
  • Chapter Two: How to do a serious Google search! With details of how he applied those principles to this specific search.
  • Chapter Three: Learning how widespread this fraud is and getting hints that the scammers have worked other scams under other names.
  • Chapter Four: Updated info from the Better Business Bureau.
  • Chapter Five: How to search in state court, federal court (PACER), and bankruptcy court records, with specific examples.

Chapter Two has a very powerful description of how to do a Google search. You know how to type in a couple of words into a Google search box and look at the first ten results, hoping for the best. You may not know how to do serious research, the kind that takes time and organization and hard work. Although this discussion is about tracking down scammers, the same principles would apply to anything that requires detailed, methodical research.

Google is far more powerful if you approach it with a methodology:

1. Build a search term list, consisting of entity names, variations on entity names, individual names, variations on individual names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, and key words and phrases from the fraudulent solicitations in question. Your list should account for abbreviations (for instance, UST’s “305 N. Sacramento” may yield different results than “305 North Sacramento.” Your list should also include a few common descriptors to combine with other terms — descriptors like “scam” and “fraud.”

You’re going to add to this list as you search, because you’re going to encounter more entities, individuals, addresses, and key words. If you’re being very thorough and methodical, you may want to create a list of combinations of terms (e.g. “+UST +scam”) so you can keep track of what word combinations you have tried.

2. Build an issue list containing general subject matters, concepts, and ideas for later follow-up. Example: in Chapter One I noted that an early search on UST Development, Inc. yielded a Scam Informer page with a complaint. That complaint was by someone claiming to be a former employee who was promised salary but never paid. The alleged ex-employee asserted that (1) the principals of the company made numerous promises of repayment that they didn’t honor (as we’ll discuss later, the conduct described is classic con-man lulling), and (2) later attempted to evade payment by declaring bankruptcy. That adds subjects to our issue list: salary and payroll issues, false promises of repayment, and bankruptcy. We’re going to use those later — in part by going to PACER to search for bankruptcy court records. We’re going to remember these issues in order to look for patterns and corroboration. Preview: the claims of payroll issues and false promises of repayment are going to be repeated big-time.

2. Learn to use Google search commands to make your searches more effective. Google itself has some good tips, and there are plenty of essays out there on the subject. The main impediment to effective searches is not necessarily that Google fails to tell you about a page; rather, it’s that Google buries the page amongst 20,000 others. Hence UST Development, without quotes, might return different results in a different order than “UST Development”, with quotes. You may wind up trying both. Similarly, the order of search terms can yield different results — scam UST yields different pages than UST scam.

3. Think about how people write and talk about the things they encounter. What words would you expect people to use if they were complaining about a scam like this? What words would you expect the perpetrators to use in prior solicitations? In this context, “scam” and “fraud” are both popular, but sometimes you should consider “refund”, “response”, “answer”, and similar terms to catch descriptions of people’s efforts to communicate with the scammers. This is an art, not a science.

4. Think about connections between terms. As I noted above, you’re going to be combining search terms. Doing so is a key investigative tool in testing hypotheses. Say you find complaints of a similar-sounding scam using a different name. You’ll want to know if they are related. So you’re going to combine terms from the first scam (say, the phone number, or individual’s name) and run it with terms from the second scam (say, an address or name) to see if you find any connections.

5. Be aware of useful sites that don’t tend to show up early in Google results. By design or chance, or because of some barrier to Google’s scary-ass spider bots, some incredibly useful sites have information that won’t turn up in response to Google searches, or at least not in the first few pages of results. Learn about them. For the purposes of a fraud investigation, some key sites are the Better Business Bureau, the Secretary of State of the various states (which often include an internal search engine with which you can find out about entities created or authorized to do business in that state), the Fictitious Business Name registries of the various counties, and WHOIS search engines listing the registrars of web sites. It’s often more efficient to visit these sites first to build your search and issue lists before you start Google searching.

Read the whole series! You’ll learn some useful things to help you recognize the next scam someone tries to run on you; at the least you’ll have good reason to shake your head at the evil that people do.

Oh, and don’t forget the important principle that the author emphasizes over and over: scammers are scum. They are the same lowlife slime that create poisoned web sites and send bogus email messages and distribute malware. Exposing them can feel a bit like killing cockroaches – it’s disheartening because they keep coming back. But it’s still valuable and needs to be done! Ken should be cheered for what he’s done here.

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