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December 9, 2004

Stevi candy store averts credit card con game

From: The Missoulian, MT - Dec 9, 2004

Stevi candy store averts credit card con game

By ROBERT STRUCKMAN of the Missoulian

Last Friday evening, the telephone rang at Charbonneau's Chocolates in Stevensville.

An operator for a special phone service for the hearing-impaired relayed a message to the clerk, Sheila Schiwal, from a customer on the other end of the line.

"It was for 30 pounds of chocolate to Nigeria. I was thinking, 'Okay, his wife would be passing it out to friends and family,' " said owner Sally Johnson.

The confectionery, family-owned and operated, creates gourmet hand-dipped chocolates from scratch, Johnson said.

Schiwal is Johnson's daughter; her cousin, Nina Packer, works there, too. The three pride themselves on customer service.

An order for 30 pounds of gourmet chocolate is not altogether rare, especially during the holiday season, Johnson said, and the customer did say the shipment was to be sent to his wife.

"It was hard to understand the order because the English was broken, but we thought we were dealing with a deaf person, and we didn't want to be offensive," Johnson said.

Johnson and her daughter didn't realize it at the time, but they were becoming entangled in a scheme that has become sadly common.

Over the past year, scam artists - many from Africa or the Caribbean - have used the Telephone Relay Service to bilk businesses out of computers, cellular phones and a wide variety of other goods.

The phone service was mandated by the 1989 Americans with Disabilities Act and opened in 1990, said Renne't Sarbu of the Montana Department of Health and Human Services in Helena, which oversees the service.

Montana's relay service is operated by Sprint Relay, a division of Sprint. The service provides access to the worldwide telephone network to 514 deaf individuals in Montana and another 4,839 people with hearing or speaking disabilities, Sarbu said.

The services provided vary depending on the needs of the customer. In some cases, a person might get a special telephone with a high volume. In other cases, a Sprint Relay operator - for Montana, they're usually located at a call center in Fargo, N.D. or St. Louis, Mo. - uses a computer or other specialized equipment to help the customer.

The operator can carry on a conversation with the recipient of the call by reading typed instructions or interpreting the deaf person's speech or even by reading sign language through a video camera, Sarbu said. The service is also available through the Internet.

For customers, local calls are free and long-distance charges cost a dime a minute. The calls through the Internet are free.

It's that Internet connection that makes the service so easy for crooks.

The FBI published an alert about a spike in fraudulent use of the relay service last February. Since then, Cort Jensen of the Helena-based Montana Consumer Protection Office has heard six reports of Montana businesses targeted by the scams.

The most common targets are auto parts and computer supply stores, Jensen said.

"Have we heard complaints? Absolutely," he said. But for every complaint, Jensen figures there are nine more victims who were too embarrassed to report a scam.

In one case, someone tried to order thousands of dollars worth of tires from Billings and have them sent to a warehouse in New Jersey, Jensen said.

"But very few people are eager to report it if they lost money," said Karen Powell of the Montana State Auditor's Office in Helena.

That makes it hard for officials to estimate how much money is lost yearly to scams. Both Powell and Jensen said the yearly loss for Montana could be as much as $2 million.

The crimes are also difficult to prosecute. Even scams involving local victims and perpetrators are tough to prove. When the victim is in Montana and the perpetrator is in Nigeria or Sierra Leone, it seems hard to imagine that justice could be served, Powell said.

But something can be done. In April, Sprint Relay erected safeguards to "protect the integrity" of the telephone relay system, said Stephanie Taliaferro, a spokeswoman for Sprint.

Those safeguards are "adjusted as necessary, almost daily, to provide the best possible protection against unauthorized users accessing Sprint Relay Online," she said.

But the best defense is healthy skepticism on the part of the intended victim, Jensen said.

That was what saved Johnson from a loss.

The conversation over the relay system picked up on Monday, again through the operator. Some e-mails came, too.

"We got a Visa card number. It was declined," Johnson said.

Then the phone rang again, and Johnson tried a second Visa number.

"It was approved, but the zip code was phony. But it still went through," she said.

When the phone rang again, it was the relay operator asking on the scam-artist's behalf if Johnson would put a cellular telephone into the order.

"Well, you know, we called Visa. It seemed fishy," she said. It turned out the Visa numbers were fraudulent.

Two days later, Johnson is still miffed. She's bothered that the criminal played on her sympathies.

"We try to be helpful for whoever comes in. We try to give personal service, especially if a person needs extra help. I wanted to make sure he got exactly what he wanted," she said.

After the talk with Visa representatives, Johnson said, she was nervous. She might have lost $1,300 plus the cell phone.

"Then it was like, 'Oh, we were almost taken.' I don't walk around swearing, but I'm pretty irritated. That much money would have hurt us," she said.

How to get help

If you have experienced fraud involving the Internet, telemarketers or identity theft or have a fraud-related complaint, call the Federal Trade Commission toll-free at 1-877-382-4357.

Reporter Robert Struckman can be reached at 523-5262 or

Copyright © 2004 Missoulian Tel: (406) 523-5200 a division of Lee Enterprises