Chris Melton was just looking for a job — any job. Out of work since August, he spent endless days responding to ads on online job site Monster.com. Finally, a few weeks ago, he got a nibble from a firm claiming to be a mail forwarding company. He was told he would get $70 per package to help a company ship overseas. But last week, police were at Melton’s door threatening to arrest him for online auction fraud. Melton had helped someone steal $12,500.
The ad looked real enough, as does the company’s Web site, Postforward.org.
“We specialize in priority courier service by hand-carrying of your valuable items, both worldwide or nationally,” the site says, indicating the company specializes in “the Balkan and Eastern European countries.”
Melton said he answered a Monster.com ad in mid-March, and a person identifying herself as Ellen Sherman wrote to him the next day, offering him the job. At the time, Melton thought he would be part of a distribution chain that helped expedite international package shipping. But a few weeks later, he found himself as the financial middleman in what he now describes as an elaborate online auction fraud, and he blames Postforward.org.
How it worked
Soon after signing a contract with Postforward, Melton says checks and money orders ranging from a few hundred dollars to $2,500 started to arrive at his Arkansas home. Melton says he was instructed via an Ellen Sherman e-mail to deposit the money in his own account, and then wire it to a Western Union office in Eastern Europe. In about one week, $16,000 arrived.
The police arrived soon after. Criminal charges had been filed against Melton in New York and Massachusetts, he was told. It was only then that Melton learned that the checks he had received were from Internet auction buyers who had paid for their purchases but never received the merchandise. What’s more, the buyers had never heard of Postforward and believed they were making purchases directly from Melton.
Arkansas State Police special agent David Lafferty, who is investigating the case, says that Melton “appears to me to be the guy stuck in the middle on this.”
Lafferty said his office “probably had enough information to obtain arrest warrants” against the individuals who picked up the money wired by Melton, but since it was picked up in Estonia at a Western Union branch office, and no ID was required to get the money, attempts to prosecute would be futile.
“Even if we obtained an arrest warrant and the names we had were real names, we couldn’t arrest them unless they came into this country,” he said.
Attempts to contact Postforward’s Ellen Sherman went unanswered, as did e-mails sent to people listed on Postforward.org’s “contacts” page.
Postforward.org’s domain registration indicates it is owned by Peter Doucet of Watertown, Mass. But Doucet, who does live at the address listed in the registration information, told MSNBC.com he had never heard of Postforward.org and owned no Web sites.
The phone number listed in the registration is inoperative. And, according to the registration, the Postforward.org site had been created on March 14, just a day before the Postforward ad initially appeared on Monster.com.
Never used an auction site
That ad said nothing about online auctions, and Melton said he was surprised to find the job had anything to do with auctions.
“I’m dead against buying anything online,” Melton said. “I have never even used an auction site.”
He said angry buyers began calling him, demanding their money back. As they spit fire at him through the phone, he quickly pieced together what was going on.
“I’ve had to explain this over and over and over again to people,” he said. “It’s very uncomfortable. All I can do is let them blow off some steam.”
Melton believes he unwittingly became the middle man in an auction scam. His role: since many auction buyers are reluctant to send money overseas, the sellers could use Melton’s home as a domestic address, then get him to forward the money overseas.
Auction sellers with aliases like “sswappers007” and “usyevill” put a series of laptop computers, Rolex watches, digital cameras, and other high-ticket items on Yahoo auctions, but never shipped the items. Auctions still viewable on Yahoo’s site include several complaints from buyers who sent their money, but never received their goods.
One alias, “meltoner34,” was even designed to sounds like Melton’s name.
Yahoo spokesperson Nancy Evars confirmed that the three user names — sswappers007, usyevill and meltoner34 — have been suspended by Yahoo.
After the sellers closed the auction, they impersonated Melton using a host of fake e-mail addresses, carrying on correspondence in Melton’s name to gain the victim’s confidence, Melton said. Eventually, 19 bidders were tricked into sending money to Melton’s Arkansas home.
Concerned about reputation
“I’m pretty concerned about my reputation,” he said. He’s already seen bulletin board posts on the Internet calling him a criminal. “They’re gonna post my name as scam artist and there’s not a thing I can do about it.”
Fortunately, he had yet to forward some of the money, and returned about $3,500 to the auction bidders. Still, 16 people were out $12,500. Melton set up a Web site full of information about the incident, including the names and e-mail address of the companies he suspected were involved. Melton also said he gathered up his paperwork and called the FBI, the Secret Service and police.
“He is very concerned about the situation. If there’s an agency with initials, he’s contacted them about this,” said Arkansas police agent Lafferty.
Melton also contacted Monster.com, where he initially hooked up with Postforward.
Monster.com spokesman Kevin Mullins said the advertisement that Melton replied to was removed when it was deemed “a suspicious job posting” by company employees who regularly review ads, because it requested bank account information.
Russell Dick, who says he lost about $1,000 in the scam thinking he was buying a laptop computer, said he believed Melton’s explanation after he talking to him on the phone.
“He said he was part of a scam as well,” Dick said. Another purchaser, who requested anonymity, said he was lucky enough to have Melton return his money before it was sent along to Eastern Europe.
“I felt he was sincere when he explained the situation in full to me,” the buyer said. “He was duped, as I was. I certainly would not have sent the money if it would have been a ‘buy now’ price of $740 for a $4,400 watch. I thought I just got lucky, at a 3 p.m. auction during the week. I reckon I did get lucky after all though.”
There’s still a handful of victims Melton hasn’t heard from, who might just assume they are victims of fraud, and there’s nothing they can do. He’s trying to contact them by getting attention to the incident with his Web site. Meanwhile, he’s doing his own investigation of Postforward.org, which was still operating on Tuesday, and still seeking job applicants.
“But I’m more concerned about this just going on and on and no one doing anything about it,” he said.