Aug. 1, 2008 at 8:00 AM ET
Sue Brown was excited when an order for 60 books came in a few weeks ago. Brown works for The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in New York, one of the nation's largest agencies devoted to drug addiction research. The e-mail order from “Dr. Scott Smith” was for copies of the book "High Society: How Substance Abuse Ravages America and What to Do About It."
Brown often receives bulk orders when a professor is teaching a new class or a new support group is starting. Each one represents a small victory in the agency's effort to spread understanding about addiction.
But this order was different. For starters, the writer insisted on very speedy delivery. He wanted the books delivered to him overseas within three to five days. And the destination for the books -- Lagos, Nigeria -- gave her pause. Still, this was nothing like the Nigerian scams she'd heard about, involving e-mails promising millions of dollars in inheritances, so she began filling the order.
“Dr. Smith” insisted on paying with his credit card. Brown resisted, instead asking for a money order up front. The good doctor ignored her and sent the credit card number anyway. So she ran the number and the charge was approved.
"The cards were in his name," she said. "I thought, ’It could be plausible.’"
Still, Brown had a queasy feeling. Dr. Smith was being awfully insistent that the order be shipped with all haste.
"He kept saying, 'Today. I want them shipped today.' I knew that meant something," she said.
Fortunately, Brown is working on a separate project with Visa and called her contact there. Officials from the company told her the order was most likely a scam, and advised her not to ship the books. Then, she did a Google search on her customer's e-mail address and found another Web site that accused him of being involved in a scam. Finally, she called and asked Dr. Smith to name the bank his credit cards were issued by -- and he couldn't. She canned his order.
'Would have been on the hook'
"I'm glad I didn't get taken to the cleaners," she said. "Visa said that had I shipped the books, (while they were) in mid-air we would have found out the cards were fraudulent and we would have been on the hook."
Internet users have become accustomed to the creativity of Nigerian scams, but Brown had difficulty imagining how a Nigerian con artist could profit from stealing 60 substance abuse books. The oddity of that order almost led her into the trap.
"I knew to be suspicious (of a Nigerian order), but then I said, 'This is not the same thing.' He went to the trouble of going to our Web site, and finding we had a book for sale, then asking to buy it," Brown said. "I started to believe him."
James Perry, a scam expert at the National Consumers League, said that while Brown's story may sound exotic, it is typical.
"These people will try to purchase anything they can get their hands on," he said. "They figure if you can ship it to them they can figure out how to sell it ... and even if they can't sell them, since they are using other people's money they haven't lost anything."
While attempted purchase of drug abuse books might be a new twist, bookstores have been targeted by Nigerian scammers in the past. Four years ago, there were multiple stories of small Christian bookstores being scammed into sending Bibles to Nigeria-based scammers. The scammers were able to sell the Bibles and make a modest profit.
It's not surprising that scam artists would target small enterprises, Perry said.
"Small organizations are not as seasoned," he said. "They can fall for things larger organizations might not. I know a small business that's about to be shut down because they got taken for $20,000."
RED TAPE WRESTLING TIPS
• Don't send money or things to Nigeria. It sounds obvious, but if you are a small nonprofit group trying to spread your message, an order for 60 books can sure sound tempting. Just don't do it.
• When haste is urged in any Internet business transaction, take a step back. Criminals often try to force victims to act before they have time to think. Anyone who doesn't want to give you time to think is probably trying to trick you.
• Visa refused to discuss the details of Brown's attempted scam, but the company offered some generic advice to avoid falling for a similar ruse:
"In transactions in which a card is not physically present, Visa encourages merchants to be alert for potential fraud indicators, including orders that include several of the same item, rush orders and shipping to an international address," the company said in a statement.