Isaac Peck, the Editor of Working PI, is my brother. When he first told me he was starting a magazine for private investigators, I was wondering who was going to write all the articles! Little did I know that I would be one of the authors.
As he was putting this issue together, he asked me to write an article detailing a fraudulent scam that victimized one of my employees in the Summer of 2021. You see, for most of my life, I always read about social engineering, cons, and scams and saw it as something that would never happen to me or my business–until now.
Here’s my personal story of what happened and what I learned from it.
I’m the owner of Rosa’s Ice Cream and Fruit Bar, a boutique ice cream shop that also sells smoothies, juices, sandwiches, and other tasty treats.
On the day in question, my store manager and another employee, let’s call her Stacey (I’ve changed her name for privacy), were working in the late afternoon. My store manager’s sister ended up going into labor and my store manager had to leave abruptly and take her sister to the hospital. This left Stacey alone to close the story that evening.
The Phone Call
Later that night, I was called abruptly by my store manager, who had returned to the store after closing. She told me that I needed to come down there immediately. I checked the store camera’s and I could see that Stacey was there and appeared to be crying, and her parents were there as well, visibly upset.
My heart raced! What had happened?
I jumped in my car and raced down to the store. I was worried that someone had assaulted Stacey or that she was hurt. She was only 20 years old.
Upon arriving at the store, I was immediately handed a liquor store BitCoin receipt for $500 and I was told that Stacey had taken nearly all the money out of the drawer and sent it to someone via BitCoin! What?
I didn’t even know you can send BitCoin to someone at your local liquor store!
Stacey was in tears and could barely talk or look at me. Meanwhile, her parents paced back and forth in the store alternating between quietly brooding and yelling admonishments at their daughter.
Apparently someone called Stacey on the store’s telephone right before closing and convinced her that both me and my store manager were engaged in some kind of financial transaction and that we needed her to take $500 out of the drawer, go down to the liquor store, and send it to us via Bitcoin!
Sounds crazy right? That’s what I thought!
Stacey and her family are Cubans who speak Spanish as their first language. Apparently this entire call had taken place in Spanish and early on the caller had gotten Stacey to give him her cell phone number. So he called her back on her cell phone number and talked to her for nearly 20 minutes before she was finally instructed to take all the cash out of the register and head down to the liquor store.
The craziest thing is that Stacey’s parents came to see her as she was closing the store and they actually drove her to the liquor store! Now I understood why they were so upset. Because now they were complicit in the scam. Apparently they had told her repeatedly NOT to do what she did, but she didn’t listen.
The scene at the store was thick with emotion. Stacey was crying, her parents were pacing and yelling, and my store manager was standing there in quiet distress.
I did my best to explain to Stacey that it was ok and that I wasn’t mad at her. That it was only money. At the mention of money, Stacey’s father insisted that he was going to pay me back. He immediately left the store, got in his car, and promptly returned with the $500–thrusting it into my hands.
I then tried to refuse the money, saying that I could not accept it and that it was my business and I was responsible for these types of risks. Surely a $500 loss meant much less to me than it did to Stacey and her family. But Stacey’s parents would not accept my answer and insisted that I take the money.
At this point, it was after 10 p.m. We had called the police but after waiting 30 minutes for them to show up, we gave up.
They all left in tears and I drove home feeling horrible about the situation.
Tracing BitCoin, Checking the Cameras
Once I got back home and my emotions calmed, I got to thinking. I did a quick cash reconciliation of the drawer and concluded that Stacey had only taken $500 out of the drawer. Since her family had insisted on paying me back immediately and I found their behavior in the store to be incredibly believable (you had to be there…), I ruled out the possibility that this was some elaborate scam perpetuated by Stacey and her family.
I then proceed to trace the BitCoin. I had the receipt of the BitCoin Wallet it was sent to. Apparently, the BitCoin exchange rates at the local liquor stores amount to highway robbery because the amount of BitCoin that was sent to the wallet was only $438 based on BitCoin’s current price (or maybe that’s just how it fluctuates!). I noted that the amount was immediately sent to another BitCoin Wallet after it landed in the first one. I copied down the information that I gathered and saved it for later.
Then I moved onto the cameras in the store. I remembered how Stacey had told me that a man came in and was acting creepy, even trying to flirt with her, and then left about 30 minutes before the call came in. The man had asked her if she was there alone. I knew that whoever had called her knew my name, knew my store manager’s name, and knew that she was there alone. A perfect target.
I watched the cameras as Stacey answered the phone with a smile. Almost immediately she took on a more serious demeanor, grabbed a pen and a Post-It Note, and began writing things down. I watched this behavior repeat for almost 10 minutes as she talked on the phone and took copious notes down, switched to her cell phone, and then proceeded to take further notes. I realized that in addition to building rapport with her, the caller must’ve also been using an old manipulation tactic wherein the target is groomed to follow smaller instructions so that when the larger “ask” is made, it is instinctively easier to say yes to.
After nearly 20 minutes, Stacey promptly opens the cash drawer, counts out a big pile of money, and walks out the door with her father. What a thing to watch!
The next day I again tried to return the $500 to Stacey and her parents but they adamantly refused it. I also filed a police report but you will probably not be surprised to learn that the police have not done anything to-date. The officer I finally did end up speaking to was cordial, but was upfront with me that a result on this was unlikely. He did tell me about another recent scam that had been reported where an employee was instructed to buy $800 in gift cards and then drop them off somewhere.
The main lesson for me is that this type of thing can happen to anyone, or at least to anyone’s employees. I have a military background and have also worked in high security jobs where that kind of training is mandatory for all employees.
For my part, I had not trained my employees on how to spot and avoid these types of scams and cons. And I had not established clear rules that no employee is to EVER take, pay, or send money anywhere, to anyone, without speaking directly to me first. Some of my employees are younger like Stacey, in their late teens or early 20s. I realized I had done a disservice to them by not giving them any training in this regard. I had assumed that they knew better. These were my mistakes.
And so that’s my big lesson for other small business owners. If you have employees, be sure you set specific rules about cash management and train them on how to avoid and spot scams and cons. Don’t assume that they know better–because they might not!
I know private investigators are not the type of folks that would ever fall for a scam like this. On the contrary, I imagine some of you are occasionally hired to find the perpetrators of such scams. In that, I wish you all the best! I hope you enjoyed my story.
About the Author
Travis Peck is a small business owner and real estate investor. He lives in San Diego, CA with his wife and two children.