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29.04.2004 Diaspora News

African Internet chat takes 'nightmare' twist

By Cullman Times
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Judy Garcia, of 933 Ragsdale Lane, said it all began in late October, 2003, when she began talking with a man who identified himself only as "Roy" from Ghana. It came to an abrupt end on Dec. 17, 2003 when Pulaski Police, using a search warrant issued by Judge John Damron, arrested Garcia at her parents' home. She was charged with obtaining merchandise through the fraudulent use of credit cards. The Garcia case bears a strong resemblance to an international scam that Alabama law enforcement officials warn has been circulating throughout the Southeast. It attempts to take advantage of a person's good nature, according to Cullman County Assistant District Attorney Sara Baker. "But make no mistake about it," Baker was quoted as saying in a recent article in The Cullman Times. "It's not your good nature they are after - it's your money." In the Alabama case, according to Baker, a man from Hanceville, Ala., began chatting on the Internet with a woman who claimed to live in England but had family in Africa. She wanted to help her family by sending merchandise from the U.S. and asked if he would receive the items and then reship the merchandise to Africa. "It is a pretty slick scheme that could end up costing you thousands of dollars when it appears there is no risk on your part at all," Baker said. "And what they are asking you to do seems like a reasonable thing. The problem is, it's not real." In the Alabama case, the potential victim realized what was happening and contacted police, who then contacted the FBI and Secret Service. "Thankfully he wised up before being taken for a ride," Baker said. In Garcia's case, the "pitch," as law enforcement officials describe a potential scam, came a few weeks into her on-line relationship with "Roy." She said he began by describing the difficulty of ordering merchandise directly from the United States because of high duty taxes and other fees charged to residents of Ghana. "Could she help with a favor?" Garcia said she was finally asked, providing details and documentation strikingly similar to what happened in Hanceville, Ala. Garcia said "Roy" then told her that he was trying to help support his parents but was having difficulty in dealing with directly importing the merchandise. She said he asked her if she would mind accepting some merchandise for him and then shipping it on to Ghana. She was told that the merchandise would be prepaid and sent to her address in Pulaski. "The only thing he told me that I would have to do is repack the items and then ship the packages on to him in Ghana," Garcia said. "He made it sound so innocent and said I would be doing him and his family a huge favor." The merchandise started arriving just a few days after Garcia said "yes." She said she followed the instructions given by "Roy" who, she said, also provided both Federal Express and UPS account numbers for her to use for sending the shipments on to Ghana. Garcia said the merchandise ranged from items like 71 pairs of soccer shoes to expensive electronic equipment, such as DVD's, cameras and computers. She said solicitation letters from various credit card companies were also sent to her address with two different names - Abubakar Mahmud or Anderson Petel - printed on each envelope. On one occasion, Garcia said she was asked to send merchandise to one of "Roy's relatives" named "Umar M. Farouk" in Lome, Togo. She said she initially thought it was strange and asked about the address change. She said "Roy" responded with this message: "I will be traveling to Togo. That's why I provided that address instead of Accra, Ghana." Garcia said, as usual, "he had an answer for everything." Toward the end of November 2003, Garcia said she was told that "Roy" wanted to send her a Dell computer "for all her trouble." She said she was excited and planned to sell the computer and to have money for her wedding that had been scheduled for January. Garcia said she also planned to terminate the shipments. "It got to be too much. These things were coming all the time," she said. However, the shipments were abruptly terminated when Pulaski Police Investigator Joel Robison arrested Garcia and sent her to the Giles County Jail where she remained until March 5. She said it was the first time she had ever been arrested, much less imprisoned. "I don't drink or do drugs or even smoke," she said. "It was the beginning of a nightmare for me." Police became interested in Garcia, according to Robison, when they were contacted by Clay Harrell of the UPS fraud and security department. He said Harrell told them a fraudulent credit card had been used on a pickup of packages at Garcia's address for shipment to Africa. "I tried to explain to Robison what had happened but he just looked at me and said, 'We don't have Roy but we do have you.' He wouldn't listen to anything I had to say," Garcia said. Even while she was jailed, Trudy Rich, Garcia's sister, said "Roy" still wanted to continue sending merchandise even though he had been told that her sister had been arrested. Rich produced a transcript of the following conversation in which she angrily wrote him back to stop: "No! Don't you get the picture? We don't want any more of that stuff," Rich said she replied, advising she was angry and frustrated over what was happening to her sister. "Roy" then reportedly responded with a death threat against Garcia and Robison: "I will deliver this message to my spiritual man and one of them (Garcia or Robison) will die." Garcia said she is just praying for this "nightmare" to end. "Please tell everyone that if they are on the Internet and someone asks for what looks like a harmless favor, take my advice and avoid it like the plague, especially if they say they are from Africa," Garcia said. Hanceville, Ala., Police Capt. Steve Conner agreed, warning, "We just need to get the word out to folks that there is nothing to gain and everything to lose in getting involved in something like this." Conner's warning may be too late for Garcia whose case is set for a preliminary hearing at 9 a.m. Monday in Damron's court.