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Help, I’ve been scammed

Being scammed is a really shitty thing for anyone to go through. Losing a fortune, or losing it all, is devastating, and it can ruin lives. Victims have taken their own lives rather than live with the guilt or shame of having been duped. Even if the losses weren’t significant, the feeling of having been taken for a ride is awful. I know how it feels because it has happened to me too. Twice.

shockedNo matter how you look at it, its almost impossible not to take it personally. I felt stupid and embarrassed talking about it. I was also angry with myself (for a long time) for not having picked up that I was being scammed. Looking back on it, the signs were there. Its obvious now, but at the time, I didn’t suspect a thing.

When I first realized that I had been conned, I panicked. I remember feeling totally helpless because I didn’t know where to turn. When I eventually started taking action, that helplessness started to grow. It seemed like nobody was interested in helping me. My bank said that there was nothing they could do to get my money back, but that their fraud department would investigate. They referred me to the police. At the police station, I realized that there really was little hope left.

A fat lot of help they were

Don’t get me wrong, the police were friendly, interested and helpful, but given how little information I had about the scammer, they told me to prepare for the worst. Reluctantly, perhaps, the police opened a case of fraud, and the next day I got a call from the investigating officer. He wasn’t optimistic at all. My bank also called, and to say that they weren’t optimistic would be like saying that dog turd doesn’t smell like roses. No, it doesn’t smell like roses, it smells like crap. Apparently, the bank’s preliminary investigation has determined that there is no way to recover my money through the banking system.

tantrumIts gone. Forever. Unless the police can identify the criminal, locate and arrest him or her. The bank’s fraud investigator added that a criminal prosecution, even a conviction, won’t get my money back. I’d have to sue the criminal in civil court, and i’d have to be quick about it. Any suspect they arrest will need lawyers, perhaps an advocate, for their defense. There’s also the possibility of asset forfeiture. Either way, I wasn’t the only one standing in line.

Better call Saul

I found an attorney, paid an upfront retainer (which, I might add was larger than the amount I lost) and had my first consultation. The attorney advised that I should consider hiring a private investigator. It was obvious that he didn’t share my faith in the police detective’s ability to catch my scammer. Who was I to argue? The lawyer deals with these things all the time. I was given a number to call and I set up a meeting with a private investigator.

I can’t give out his name because i’m now suing him too (i’ll get to that in a moment). He, too, required an upfront retainer. Only, his was even larger than the attorney’s. By this time, i’d lost R7,500 to the scammer, paid R24,000.00 in retainers to an attorney and a private investigator, and spent an unknown (but substantial) amount of money and time getting here.

I was still no closer to identifying the scammer or getting my money back. Had it not been for a careless mistake on my part, I wouldn’t have discovered that I had just been conned a second time. This time by the private investigator.

Wait, what??

scammer note Yes, the very private investigator that was supposed to help me find the scammers and recover my money had now disappeared with more of my money – almost twice as much as I originally lost.

Let me back track a little to explain what went down. At the end of my first (and only) meeting with the private investigator, he asked me to email him the scammer’s phone number, email address and the bank details I paid the money into.

I had the information with me, on a sheet of paper. I had written down the scammers details on the left and on the right I had written down my details. For example, where I had the scammer’s cell phone number on the left, on the right I had the two cell numbers I had used when communicating with the scammer. I thought it was important to keep a record of that.

I didn’t feel the need to provide the private investigator with my personal details so I tore the page down the middle. We were still chatting about something else so I didn’t immediately hand it over. When I did, I accidentally gave him the half page with my details on it. Rookie mistake, I know.

The midnight flit

scammer emailI didn’t realize I’d done that until a few days later when the private investigator called to say that he had uncovered solid leads and needed a further retainer amount paid so that he could continue. I was skeptical to say the least.

I asked the private investigator to send me whatever information he had already uncovered so that I could decide if it was worth going further. A few days and a few calls later, I received an email that brought back that same panicky feeling and sense that i’d just been taken for a fool.

When I confronted the private investigator and let him know that the cell phone numbers, email address and bank account he’d traced all belonged to me, and that his information was rubbish, he got very angry. At first he laughed at me when I said I wanted my retainer returned, but when I threatened legal action he got really nasty and threatened my life.

Well, he’s being dealt with appropriately, because unlike my first scammer, the private investigator wasn’t very smart.

Going for the “hat trick”

I cancelled my mandate with the attorney that referred me to the private investigator, because I had lost all faith in them for putting me in the position to be scammed again. After a bit of a fight, I got my entire retainer back (less bank charges) and paid that amount straight over to another attorney so that I could take action against both scammers. The second attorney also advised a private investigator, and yes, I got the number and called.

I know what you’re thinking. I thought it too. This time, though, the attorney put my mind at ease. He showed me reports from these private investigators going back over a decade. They weren’t fly-by-nights. They also didn’t ask me for a retainer. That said, they also didn’t commit to taking my case. They asked me, as did the first investigator, to provide them with all the relevant information. They would then assess the case and get back to me with their opinion about the best way forward.

Light at the end of the tunnel

As luck (or fate) would have it, the new private investigators not only knew exactly who the skelm private investigator was, and where to find him, but they were also working on a fraud case involving the exact same scammer that initially ripped me off. Their client, the other victim, had also opened a police case which was transferred to the commercial crimes unit for investigation. The private investigators arranged for my case to be transferred to the same police detectives. It made sense.

In the meantime, my new attorneys had sent summons to the crooked private investigator. He contacted me one evening with an offer to pay the money back if i’d withdraw the case against him, but that was the last I heard from him before he was arrested by police for an unrelated matter. The commercial crimes unit, in cooperation with the private investigators I was now using, had set a trap for the scammer and had planned to make an arrest on the Friday afternoon.

Take that, you motherfuckers

They were successful in making the arrest, but it wasn’t the guy they were hoping to catch. The person that showed up was a low-level foot-soldier who had been told to collect an item that had been paid for. He apparently had no idea that he was smack bang in the middle of a scam.

Nonetheless, when police searched his place of residence, they recovered stolen property and arrested two others that were present. One of those scumbags was the low-life that originally scammed me.

fingerprinting scammerI got to meet him at the police station. They were taking his fingerprints at the time. The other two were sitting on a bench waiting. It wasn’t what I expected. The detective was briefing me discreetly while I watched them being charged. I actually felt quite sorry for them.

All three suspects had apparently been very cooperative and told detectives as much as they could. They weren’t the masterminds. In fact, they had no idea who was really in control. They named a few names and pointed out some addresses which the detective said will be followed up shortly. Between the three of them, they earned a measly R2720 the last month (thats around R30 each per day) for all their effort and risk. They independently confirmed the amounts they earned and that this money was spent on food and tobacco, and nothing else (rent was paid for them). And I believe them.

sad kittyThey looked hungry and dirty. And scared. Not at all like people who had thousands of Rand lying around. The detective called my scammer over and told him that I was one of his victims. I wanted to be angry but I couldn’t. I just asked “why?”.

It was awkward, and my heart was pounding. Then he broke the ice and put his hand to his chest and said exactly what I was feeling. “Sorry, my heart is beating so fast”. He said he was sorry, many times, and that it was nothing personal. Maybe he was right about it being nothing personal, but man, it sure feels personal. Very personal. He might not have thought so. Perhaps to him, someone stupid enough to practically give their money away can’t really value it that much.

Happily ever after, the end.

Will I ever see my lost money again? Probably not. Will I get the money the private investigator took? It looks like I might. But I did get something that is priceless. Closure. I thought that I wouldn’t rest until I got my money back, but between you and I, I’ve let it go. I no longer feel helpless or guilty or blame myself. The private investigators that helped me in the end invited me to a workshop for victims of fraud. I now know exactly what to do in situations like this, and even more importantly, how to prevent being scammed in future. I’m a few grand lighter in the pocket because of this, but you couldn’t buy an experience like this for double the money.

For those of you who are interested, the attorneys who I used in the end (update: and who have now managed to get most of my money back – plus costs) are Dickinson & Associates and the private investigators who actually did what they promised, and led police to the culprits, is Intertel Investigations. I may publish the details of the crooked investigator at a later stage if i’m allowed to.