In the summer of 2007, with no job to speak of and no prospects on the horizon, I decided that America was chafing me and it was time to leave the country. I resolved to spend July and August in Italy, a country that seemed like it would look much more kindly on my lackluster work ethic and my burgeoning alcoholism. No matter that the balance of my savings account was lower than my SAT score. I would go to Europe—and I would go there in style.
That’s not all. Somehow I got the idea that I'd travel to Italy in business class—lie-flat beds! Complimentary newspapers! All the Kir Royales I could drink!—and, what’s more, that I’d do so at a discount. Full-fare business-class tickets cost several thousand dollars more than I had to spend. But, God knows why, I figured I could get one for a fraction of its true cost. This idea excited me very much, and I became irrationally confident that I could successfully beat the system. “Paying full price is for suckers,” I informed my friends. “I can find a better way.” As suckers do, I put my trust in the Internet.
Now, I didn't really expect to find cheap business-class fares for sale online. (I was delusional, not crazy.) My plan, instead, was to buy a bunch of frequent flier miles and exchange them for a round-trip ticket. So I searched Craigslist and found some miles for sale. They were offered by someone who claimed to be an airline pilot named Capt. Chris Hansen. He said he had more miles than he knew what to do with, miles that he would never use because he was always traveling for business.
Capt. Chris responded to my email. He also called me on the telephone, where we talked for several minutes about the airline industry and the relative merits of various airplanes, a topic that he knew a lot about, and that I pretended to know a lot about. Our conversation convinced me that he was on the level. (As everyone knows, scam artists don’t use telephones.) After our talk I agreed to pay him $650 for 100,000 miles, which I immediately sent via PayPal.
PayPal rejected the transaction. While a wiser man might have taken this as a sign that the captain was up to no good, I took it as a sign that PayPal was broken. Frustrated, I emailed Capt. Chris explaining the situation and asking if he had any idea what might have gone wrong. He didn't, but he promised to look into it. Then he disappeared for a few days, and didn't respond to any messages, which made sense to me, given that he was apparently flying around the world all the time. (As everyone knows, other countries don’t have email access.)
My travel date was soon approaching and I still didn't have a ticket. So I went back online and found yet another great deal on frequent flier miles. This one was offered by a guy calling himself Franco Borga. This fellow wasn’t a pilot, but he had nevertheless accumulated a lot of miles, which he was willing to part with for a low, low price. So I sent him almost the exact same message I had sent to Capt. Chris, and received essentially the same response. Along with his response, Franco also attached a scanned photograph of his driver’s license. There didn’t seem to be any real reason for him to do this, but the gesture still helped assure me of his bona fides. (As everyone knows, sketchy people don’t have driver’s licenses.) Franco called me on the phone, we had a very nice conversation, and I agreed to purchase his miles, congratulating myself on my extremely shrewd dealing.
He gave me two options for payment. I could send a check or money order to his temporary address in New Haven, Conn., and wait several days for the check to clear. (No thank you!) Or I could send him the money using Green Dot, a rechargeable gift card of sorts that is sold at supermarkets and pharmacies. In the email laying out these options, he helpfully included an explanatory section titled “What is Green Dot?”
Naturally, I chose the Green Dot option, and although my friends all said I was being scammed, I insisted otherwise. "If he was a scammer, why did he call me on the phone?" I asked. “If he was a scammer, why would he give me two options for payment?” Working from those irrefutably logical positions, I went to the local CVS, put $700 on a Green Dot card, emailed him the account number, and waited for the tickets to arrive. And waited. And waited. And waited.
It took about four days before I realized that I had been tricked. During that period, I sent Franco about a dozen emails, which grew increasingly pathetic. (“Dear Franco,” one began. “I continue to believe that you are operating in good faith … ”) I had given Franco every possible benefit of the doubt, but it became clear that he wasn't going to send me the frequent flier miles, and I wasn't going to travel to Europe in style.
Just then, I heard from Capt. Chris—my savior! The good captain apologized for his absence—he had been overseas, he said—and asked if I was still interested in his miles. The answer, of course, was yes, especially since, as I told him, I had just fallen victim to a devious Internet scammer. He was very sympathetic: "If you want to give me the contact info for the guy who you purchased from, I can see what I can do for you," he wrote. I declined his assistance, and we reactivated our deal, wherein I would pay him about $650 for enough miles to purchase a round-trip business-class ticket.
He sent me a contract, which I signed and returned to him at the address he had listed. (An Internet search indicated that the address belonged to a rehab facility in Colorado, which did seem a little strange, but not dealbreakingly so. “Maybe he owns the place,” I said to myself.) Because he was abroad, and because his PayPal account was still out of commission, he suggested that I use Western Union to send him the money in care of his assistant. This seemed reasonable enough to me. (As everyone knows, airline pilots often have personal assistants.) So I sent the money and waited for the tickets. And waited. And waited. And waited.
This time it only took about three days before I realized I had been scammed. (I was getting better at this, in a sense.) The process played out much as it had before: Capt. Chris gradually stopped responding to my emails, which grew increasingly hostile as I realized what had happened. At this point, I was out $1,350, and I was the subject of endless ridicule from my friends and family. I also had no ticket to Italy, where I was supposed to be headed in one week.
Angry at myself, I started doing all the research that I should have done in the first place. I couldn’t find much information on “Capt. Chris Hansen”—which, of course, wasn’t the scammer’s real name. But there was plenty of info on “Franco Borga.” It turned out that Franco had a long list of aliases, most of which seemed like they had been taken from the Sender field of spam emails: Kenji Sukizu, Bobert Ancini, Andrew Bryson, Mathias Ochsendorf, Alan Sasafahi, Hop Chuen, Rajiv, Richard Warrens, Camille Berges. He had been pulling the same scam for a couple of years under various names, always asking to be paid in Green Dot cards. (In an email he sent to one victim, he claimed to be an American tourist in Asia who pulled this scam all the time, under various aliases. This annoyed me. I wanted to be the tourist, not the one being scammed by a tourist.)
On message boards and in the comments sections of various websites, lots of gullible victims had been registering their frustration with “Franco”: “He took me for $180 on two supposed American Airlines Incentive Flight Vouchers which were never received and which probably don’t exist,” one person wrote. “He e-mailed me a picture of his driver’s license and his telephone number exactly as he has done to many other victims to gain their confidence. He also called me and left a message.”
“He have [sic] also stolen the identity of Angel leon molina and scammed us for vouchers,” another victim said. “He finds images on Flickr to back up his stories then sets up the email accounts. If anyone ever gets the opportunity to catch up with him, we’d love to join you chop his balls off.”
Chopping off his balls sounded like a good idea to me, and I vowed that I would someday track down Franco Borga and exact at least $700 worth of justice. (Not long thereafter, I would attempt to ensnare Borga in an ill-conceived sting operation that ended up involving the New Haven bureau of the FBI. But I’ll save that story for some other time.)
My more immediate concern, however, was my trip to Italy. Thanks to my astounding stupidity, I had no plane ticket and no money with which to buy one. The way I saw it, I had two options. I could cancel the trip, move back in with my parents, spend the summer actually trying to get a job, and chalk the whole thing up to a hard lesson well-learned. Or I could abandon all caution and put a last-minute coach ticket on my credit card, thus incurring a debt that, at the time, I had no real hope of repaying.
I bought the coach ticket. On the way to Rome, British Airways lost my luggage. A few days later, I sent the airline an articulate, sympathetic, and supplicatory email, and they responded by upgrading me for the return flight. I ended up flying business class after all.