NOB HILL--Like many people in the neighborhoods surrounding the University of New Mexico, Marcia had an extra room she rented out to UNM students...grad students usually, many of whom were from other countries. Marcia and her late husband Joe had been doing that for many years. It was no bother really, the room was in the basement and the stairway to it led directly out the side door.
She advertised her room on the Off-Campus Housing
website at UNM. There are over 100 units for rent
on that website. Some are close to UNM, some aren't. Marcia's place is less than a mile from the classrooms.
A Phone Call
She got a phone call a couple of weeks ago from a woman in Europe, an incoming graduate student looking for a place to live near campus. She asked about the location, size, furnishings and such. How soon would it be ready? And how could she reserve it for the coming year. Marcia told her that she would reserve it for her when she had the money in hand. "Okay,"
said the woman. "I'll tell my father and he'll send you a check."
Marcia talked with the father on the phone and they exchanged several emails.
Marcia did indeed get a check from the woman's father. But instead of the $450.00 she expected the check was for $4500.00! So Marcia emailed the father explaining that she deposited the check and would withdraw $450.00 for the rent and would use the rest of the money as the year progressed.
said the father. "My agent in the U.S. made a mistake. He should have only sent you $450.00! I need the rest of that money for my daughter's airplane fare. Please send the extra amount back to my agent."
Marcia thought about that for a day or two. She looked in her bank account. The $4500.00 was in there all right. Still, she smelled a rat. For one thing, that check was a corporate check not a personal check or a cashier's check. For another, Marcia knew that there was a difference between money showing up on-line in your account and the money really being there.
You see, Marcia is a retired lawyer, a bank lawyer. She knew that a few years ago Congress passed a law that said banks could not hold on to your deposits for weeks and weeks without giving you access to your money. After a few days they have to make it available to you, no matter what. This leaves something of a hole in the system.
Marcia called up the bank. She asked whether the check had in fact cleared. The bank looked into it, and according to their back office, the check had not
cleared. In fact it had been determined to be counterfeit.
There was no $4500.00 deposit in her account no matter what the on-line statement showed!
Marcia had been a phone call away from losing over $4000.00. It was a smartly executed scam that ran into an even smarter woman. Who knew that the $4500.00 that showed in her account might not actually be there? Marcia knew. I wouldn't have. I just might have sent the money.
As of yesterday, Marcia had not called the UNM Off-Campus Housing to tell them her story. However their home page now contains the following caveat:
WARNING! If you receive e-mails from people in foreign countries who want to send you money orders to pay for rent/deposits, be forewarned, this is possibly a scam and you should proceed with caution. Contact us at och.unm.edu
Notice that the warning says to watch out for people who want to send you money! That's the hook. You are made to think that you have their money...a lot of their money. Perhaps someone else was the victim here and told UNM about it. I don't know. In any case, be careful.
There are some lessons to be learned here. And one of them is that just because your on-line bank statement says the check was deposited, that doesn't mean it's really there. In the case of Marcia's room-for-rent, it took some very perceptive thinking and a phone call to figure it all out.