I run a small computer business in Arkansas. For privacy reasons, I won't use her name, but a woman I'd done previous web work for called me, and said she'd been hired by a large corporation named "Investment Loans, Inc.", to start a new branch office for them in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The corporation had instructed her to have a web site created as part of her advertising, so she was going to "toss some business my way". I said fantastic, have them contact me! I waited several days and was never contacted, it was Friday, so I called the woman back to see if perhaps she'd changed her mind. She said, no - in fact, she'd arranged for a 3-way conference call between the owner of "Investment Loans, Inc.", herself, and I for the following day. I thought a Saturday business conference a bit odd - but I agreed to participate, and I was verbally introduced to a woman claiming to be Suzanne Waters, owner of "Investment Loans, Inc.".
Ms. Waters gave me a basic idea of what the site was to include, and instructed me to get the rest of the information I'd need and discuss the remaining details (including my price) with the other woman opening the branch office. The woman opening the branch office agreed to supply me with this information the next day. Ms. Waters then ask if I could produce a working "prototype" of the web site and have it ready for her to view on-line within 2 business days, and I said absolutely - providing I receive the information I need. BUT, I made sure Ms. Waters understood that if the prototype were to be built and viewable in 2 days - and this was a Saturday - I'd be calling people in on a weekend to work and the price would be higher. Ms. Waters expressed her complete understanding and said this would be fine, as long as we made the 2 day deadline. She then exited the 3-way conversation, and I was left to discuss the remaining details with the woman opening the branch office. Based on what both ladies instructed me to build, I gave the remaining woman a verbal price quote, and told her I'd prepare a regular billing once she'd viewed the prototype and given it her approval (price subject to change if the prototype required modifications). She understood and verbally agreed.
I called in another developer to work that Sunday (over time wage, I might add) and construction began. This site was a complete custom package, all original graphics, all hand scripting, no use of templates or editors such as Front Page - in other words - the works! My first red flag went up when we received a fax containing the basic business "plug" they wanted featured on the main (opening) page:
"We at Investment Loans, Inc. are a financial company that helps people like you get all their outstanding debts paid and get their finances back on track. By working directly with private investors, we are able to secure and grant interest free loans that can be used to cover almost any legitimate debt! With branch offices nationwide and Agents available to take your phone calls 24 hours a day, 7 days a week... Investment Loans, Inc. is dedicated to helping you get out of debt today! Investment Loans, Inc. works directly with private investors who wish to invest their funds as a means of diversifying their assets and lowering their tax bracket. It is our goal at Investment Loans, Inc. to help you alleviate all of your outstanding debt with one simple loan. This can include (but is not limited to!) credit card debt, home mortgages, auto loans, personal loans... even your utilities and rent! After reviewing and signing our "Agreement", Investment Loans, Inc. will pay all of your outstanding debt with one simple interest free loan. The loan is to be paid back at the interest free rate of $55.99 per month until paid in full. Yes - you did read that correctly! Investment Loans, Inc. will extend a loan to cover the total amount of the debt you are in... and all you have to do is agree to pay the interest free loan back at the rate of $55.99 a month!
You may call our nationwide toll free number and speak directly to one of our Agents, or you may begin right now by filling out our easy on-line application. You may even sign the "Loan Agreement" on-line and speed up the process! Once we receive your completed application and signed "Loan Agreement", an Investment Loans, Inc. Agent will contact you via the method you specify within 1 to 2 business days to finalize your loan."
This sounded a bit too good to be true. But, I assumed there were probably fees and hidden costs, and strings... and decided to continue onward with the construction. Things came to a screeching halt however, when the next fax came with the criteria they wanted their on-line application to contain. Nothing had been said about needing a secure server, no one had instructed me they'd be accepting credit card payments, and their application required both. There was a "one time" filing fee of $255.00 to be paid on-line via credit card, and the application ask for all sorts of personal information. That's NOT something you simply fill out and send via an e-mail form! Having worked with the local woman in the past, I knew she was very inexperienced with the internet in general, so I contacted her in order to find out how to directly contact Suzanne Waters, "Investment Loans, Inc." and discuss this matter with her instead. The number I was given was a cell phone, but this was a Sunday, so I assumed the woman was simply not in her office. A small red flag went up when my caller ID identified this number as belonging to a Veronica Santiago, however. But again - Sunday - not in office - maybe her kid's phone? I let it go, and discussed the problem at hand with her instead. She instructed me that she was aware of the need for the secure server placement, but hadn't thought it that important to display the prototype. In all honesty, it's not, for a prototype... but I explained that I'm simply not comfortable placing anything on the internet that has even the most remote chance of being viewed - and used. We finally agreed I'd build the prototype and display it on an unsecured server for her to view - but I'd password protect it's access. This I could live with, and construction resumed. I met the deadline of 2 p.m. eastern time for viewing of the prototype, and again had a 3-way conference with the local woman and Suzanne Waters of "Investment Loans, Inc.". Both women said the prototype met with their complete satisfaction, no changes were needed, so I confirmed my original quote as the final price. Ms. Waters instructed me I would receive a check within 3 business days via Federal Express. I said I would publish the site once payment had been received, and the 3-way conference was ended.
The more I thought on their application, and the very little I actually knew about this Suzanne Waters, I finally decided to contact the local woman again and ask some questions. She explained to me that she's personally used their service. She'd found their advertisement in a national magazine, applied for their loan over the phone, and so far they'd paid off over $500 on one of her credit cards and over $2,000 on another. I was skeptical, I wanted to know what the "catch" was, but she assured me there wasn't one. All she had to do was make her $55.95 payment each month, and they'd continue to pay off her debts. She claimed to be receiving a huge check to pay off her home mortgage in a few days from them as well. When I ask how she became an Agent for them, she explained that during her application process she'd mentioned to her "Agent" that she wished there was a local office that she could take her information to, because she really didn't feel comfortable giving her whole life history over the telephone. To her amazement, they apparently transferred her call to a "Supervisor" who suggested she become an Agent herself. (Now here's where I made my huge wrong assumption!) I know this woman, personally, and I knew she'd had a highly successful real estate business for years and years... so I ASSUMED they'd offered her this agent position and office to manage based on her qualifications. WRONG.
To this day, she has never filled out anything even close to an actual job application for these people. For all they actually know about her, she could be a recently released convict! This is also where she made her biggest wrong assumption. She'd assumed since she'd given them her personal information on her loan application, they MUST have done some sort of background check on her and offered her this job based on that. She honestly didn't realize they'd offered to set her up in an office as an Agent - no questions asked.
The day before the check was due to arrive, I began the preliminary steps to get the site ready to publish. As routine procedure with any site I build, I do a quick key word search across several search engines to see what combination of words brings up the best environment for the site I'm listing. In this case I was trying words such as "loan, interest free loan, long term loan, etc." trying to get a combination that brought up results similar in nature to the site I was about to publish. When I published the site, I'd construct their meta tags accordingly. At one point, while searching on Dogpile.com, I tried "bill free" and "investment loan" in combination as key words. The 3rd result looked familiar. "www.billfree.8k.com/index.html"....""We at Investment Loans, Inc. are a financial company that helps people like you get all their outstanding debts paid and get their finances back on track." I naturally assumed this was probably the site of one of their other offices, but I clicked on it out of curiosity anyway. WOW... my shock and amazement was too complete to even describe.
There, in living color and full blown functionality was MY site. The site I'd developed, word for word, image for image, application included - completely unsecured. The only thing missing was the ability to accept on-line payments, that section had been omitted. I'm not the type of person to just automatically assume the very worst, so I spent considerable time sitting there trying to figure out some way that this could be a simple mistake, a misunderstanding, wires crossed... anything, something. But when I went to the top of my browser and clicked to "view source", it left no doubts as to what was going on. Someone had copied and pasted my source code word for word from the prototype - and directly linked to my graphics. They'd used a virtually hidden "frames" environment in order to make the application appear and function on their site by dividing their site into 3 different html pages, target tagged to display in a certain location. In other words, they had a page 3 set to display in the main body of their site, until someone clicked on "Apply Now!", at which point they were directly (a href) linked to MY page 3... so it was my page 3 that displayed instead. I guess they couldn't figure out how to directly link off the credit card payment page, because they'd removed that section. I immediately called the local woman I'd been originally contacted by, and wasn't entirely surprised to find her in tears. The business is a complete fraud, and this particular scam is only a small fraction of their operation. This poor woman is now receiving calls and threats from all over the world, because "Investment Loans, Inc." is bogus, it's not even legally incorporated, and the branch office she worked so hard to set up is an illegal identity theft operation. There is no Suzanne Waters, there is no Bill Free Inc., there is no Investment Loans, Inc.
But they DO actually pay a little on people's credit cards and they DO actually send checks! Problem is, the checks aren't worth the paper they're written on, and when you attempt to cash them, it's YOU under investigation. The payments they make on your cards are being made with other's people's cards... and it's just a matter of time until they use YOURS to pay on someone else's too. That balance will only go down for so long, then it's suddenly up - up - MAX! For every person who fills out that application, these con artists get that person's life - literally. Banking info, credit card info, social security card info, full name, birthday - everything. Then these cons pay their bills with checks they've created using these people's identities, or using these people's credit card information. And if you fall for becoming one of their "Agents"... they actually WILL set you up in an office! They'll rent the space you pick out, and they'll send you out to purchase the office equipment you need locally, and they'll have your utilities and phones turned on. By the time the rent check bounces - they're long gone. By the time the stores in your town figure out the credit card you paid with is stolen - they're long gone. By the time you realize they turned the utilities and phones on in YOUR name, they're long gone. And by the time it hits you that within those 2 weeks you were up and operational, processing applications for those creeps, you were helping them steal 100's of innocent people's identities - it's too late. And when crap hits the fan... it's YOU people remember, it's YOU people know where to find, and it's YOU people will attempt to sue for damages.
From what I've been able to gather, apparently, this is the first time they've ever used a real computer business to design their web site. I suppose since this woman recommended me, and they'd told her she had complete control over her local advertising as part of their scam to lure her in, they had little choice but to go with who she'd chosen. Once I'd developed it, I'm also guessing they figured - hey cool - we have a REAL web site now that actually works, let's copy it and use it in as many places as we can! So far I've found it on 27 different servers, some free, and some not. I've managed to contact almost all the server owners and have the site removed, and I "sabotaged" the remaining sites. Since they'd directly linked to my images and the application existed only on my server... I deleted it all. Even if a surfer runs across a cached copy of that application, it won't work, I removed the php file, it can't be processed. For the moment (and I use that term VERY literally) MOMENT, they are unable to take applications over the net, they're limited to phones and fax. But there's no telling how many people's identities an hour they're scooping up over the phone. These creeps need stopped before they get a chance to start!