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Scam artists drain funds from savings

By Matthew Jackson Staff Reporter

HUNTSVILLE — Christmas very nearly didn’t come for Janelle Valera.

A scam artist managed to drain her family’s entire savings, and her bank was unable to help her recover her funds. Her bank accounts were in the red, her checks were bouncing, and she wasn’t able to bring her daughter home from school in New Mexico for the holidays.

Little more than a month ago Valera was moving to Huntsville to take a position as children’s coordinator at the Huntsville Public Library and attempting to rent out a room in the house she shared with her husband in Houston to cover extra expenses.

Valera posted the room for rent on the popular free classified site, and found an interested party identifying herself as “Florina.” The two began a long email correspondence, and Florina eventually agreed to take the room for rent and begin the process of moving to Houston.

She sent Valera a large check to cover the deposit for the room, the first month’s rent and, she claimed, an extra amount of money so Valera could help her pay the movers who would be bringing her personal items to Houston.

Valera received the check on Nov. 10 and cashed it on Nov. 12. Her bank gave no indication that it may have been fraudulent, and Valera used some of the money to open a new savings account, while wiring the rest, approximately $2,400, to Florina’s supposed movers.

Things began to grow suspicious when Valera was given an address in the Ukraine to wire the money to, and then grew more suspicious when Florina emailed her to say that the $2,400 wasn’t enough, and that the movers were going to keep all of her belongings if another $700 wasn’t wired to them.

“Every day a little story kept popping up,” Valera said. “Looking back at this point, red flags should have gone up in my head, but they didn’t. I felt that we were creating a bond. I guess I’m really naïve to human nature.”

Valera attempted to help Florina, withdrawing $700 and wiring it to the same address in the Ukraine. Florina promised her a check to reimburse her for this expense, but the check never came.

Shortly afterward Valera attempted to buy lunch at a Huntsville restaurant and was told that her debit card was declined. She checked her bank account and found that she was suddenly more than $1,000 overdrawn. The bank had discovered that the check was fraudulent and removed the full amount from her accounts as a refund charge. On top of this, she was incurring fees of $35 a day from her bank due to her overdrawn status.

“I thought the bank would recognize that it was a fraudulent check,” Valera said. “When they realized it was not a real check, they took it out of my account, and they said they couldn’t do anything about it and recommended I go to the police.”

Valera filed a report in Harris County reporting the theft, but the police advised her that there was little they could do, in part because she had technically committed fraud by cashing a fraudulent check, even though she was not at the time aware that the check was fraudulent.

“We got into a really deep hole,” she said. Rent checks bounced, mortgage payments on her home in Houston bounced, deposits for basic utilities on her rental property in Huntsville bounced, and all of her family’s income was going toward paying off the mountain of bank fees.

“For about a month we had no income coming because it was all going back into the bank,” she said. “We have no savings now, but we are back in the black.”

As for getting her daughter home for Christmas, Valera said her mother agreed to pitch in to make it happen.

“That’s probably about the greatest Christmas present I could have,” she said.

Though she’s still dealing with the after effects of the scam, Valera sees her experience as a way to teach others about the dangers of modern financial crime.

“I feel so silly because you always hear about the Nigerian prince scam and things like that, and you think ‘I would never fall for that,’ but the truth is that when you’re in the middle of it, you can’t really see what’s coming next,” she said. “The police gave me good advice. If you don’t see them in person, don’t do any business negotiations. Don’t trust emails. The police said that during the holidays they see even more of these scams. If I can stop one other person from making these same mistakes, that would be great. Basically I’m never going to see that money again, so I just have to close that chapter in my life and move on.”


December 24, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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