Scammers exploiting a helpful service

Relay companies set up to help the hard of hearing communicate freely are also being used to rip off small businesses.

Just ask Niko Flimetakis of Time Out Burgers in Mountlake Terrace. He knows all about it first hand. Flimetakis was the victim of a scammer, although — thanks to fast work and a bit of luck — he only lost $80.

“I’m really lucky,” said Flimetakis, who wanted to tell his story to warn others,

Here it is:

Flimetakis got a call late last week from a relay service, which receives messages over the Internet from people who are hard of hearing and reads them to others over the phone. The service said it represented a caller who wanted to order about $1,500 worth of catered food that he said was for his mother’s birthday party.

“It was a long conversation,” Flimetakis said.

In addition to 150 chicken kebabs and other items, the caller wanted Flimetakis to pay a service about $900 to come get the food and transport it to the party in a vehicle with warming ovens to keep the food warm and safe.

He was to send the $900 to a company by Western Union. Payment was all to be by the caller’s credit card.

Flimetakis said the card cleared, so he wired the delivery money by Western Union.

It sounded like a nice piece of business. But he started having second thoughts when the card company that handles his merchant account called the next morning.

“They told me that was a lot more money than I usually charge on my merchant account,” he recalled. “They wanted to make sure it was legitimate.”

Flimetakis said he called the relay service and was told that his earlier call could very likely have been a fraud. The company said it couldn’t reveal the caller’s identity to him, but said it could to the police and suggested that he call them.

He did call the authorities and he also called Western Union, which said the money he’d left for the delivery service had not been picked up. It volunteered to refund that money, minus the $80 for its service fee.

“They said if I hadn’t called that within the next hour they likely would have taken the money,” he said.

Flimetakis said the credit cards turned out to be stolen. He learned from the authorities that there have been a lot of these scams at area restaurants these days. Typically, the food is never picked up; the scammers are just looking to pocket the “delivery fee,” he said.

I did a little homework on the scam myself and found a number of reports on the Internet going back several years about how the system has been used to bilk merchants out of millions of dollars and a variety of goods and services.

It’s been used by scammers around the country and around the world, typically scammers who pretend to be hearing impaired use the service because they don’t have to pay for a pricey international phone call.

In this case, the Western Union money had been destined for North Carolina. Flimetakis said that gave him pause, but he thought the local delivery service might have been headquartered there so he didn’t dwell on it.

The services used for this scam are generally legitimate operations that have been hailed by the hearing impaired as a great help. They’re typically available 24 hours a day and they give people access to the country’s huge telephone network.

It’s a shame that criminals get the same cheap access, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. Especially in these times, when people are looking for business wherever they can find it. Scammers will always take advantage of that.

Flimetakis was very pleased that his card service called him and prompted him to double check they deal to make sure it was legitimate. “They were on top of it right away,” he said.

The service had noted that the amount of money was unusual, and business owners should be looking for similar things. Large orders are certainly suspicious. So is using a relay service because they can be used to cover foreign accents.

That doesn’t mean businesses shouldn’t take orders through such services, but it does mean they should look at them carefully.

Mike Benbow: 425-339-3459; benbow@heraldnet.com

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