Robert Hitt Neill column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Big book order turned out to be a scam

About two weeks ago as I write this, I slit open an envelope one morning and took out a check, from the University of Washington, for $1,850.15.

Glory! They had obviously adopted my newest book, The Holy Ghost Has A Funny Bone, for their Writers’ Program, although the attached stub didn’t specify what the check was for. In the book business, it’s not uncommon for a check to come in before the actual order invoice gets here, so I stuck the envelope on the dashboard to await the accompanying order.

Two days later, I still hadn’t gotten the order, but was going by the bank anyway, so I took that envelope in to deposit. I handed it to the head teller and asked her to verify it, and Dean immediately declared, “There’s no return address!”  

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That is apparently a tip-off for scams, to those who know the ropes. She called the Bank of America, whose check it was, and they verified that it was a real account, but she strongly urged caution on depositing it, so I didn’t.

Then down in the envelope I found an inch-wide slip of paper saying for me to contact Lisa at for further details on earning the check. I had missed seeing that when I slit the envelope and saw the check the first time.

Well, durn! Apparently the University of Washington was not naming me as their paid Writer-In-Residence for 2012. Then it occurred to me: if the scammers have a real check on a real U of WA bank account, surely they are scamming more folks than one li’l ole Mississippi Delta farm boy! What if a few dozen folks across the country actually deposited these checks without checking first?

So, since I had to consult with Lisa on-line anyway (she came immediately back with my instructions to deposit the check, keep $300 for myself, then wire $1,550.15 to a fellow “Feedback Specialist” by Western Union, so as to check on “anonymous customer complaints” that WU wasn’t doing folks right, the details of their service I was supposed to take notes on to e-mail her immediately). I went to the U of WA website and clicked on “Controller.”  By golly, she answered in person! I told her about the check and thanked her, but suggested she ask an English professor for confirmation on what I still hoped was a Big Book Order.

Naaahh! She was a real nice lady, but she knew the Writers’ Program had not ordered $1,850.15 worth of Robert Hitt Neill books. However, she asked me to fax her a copy of the check (which was looking worn by now), while she contacted the Bank of America to watch out for similar checks trying to come through. I did that, and got myself thanked enthusiastically by her and the B of A guy.

For the next week, “Lisa” e-mailed me several times a day wanting to know if I had “accomplished my duties,” while I taxed my writer’s mind to come up with excuses, so as to keep them on the hook while the Fraud Squad began tracing. Each day I faithfully forwarded her messages and my replies to the U of WA lady, who was sending them on to the B of A guy, who was checking Fraud Laws.

“Have you accomplished your duties yet? We have give you much time to get this done. I await your report on Western Union, along with the $1,550.15.”  

Lisa was impatient, because some of her messages were being sent at 3:00 a.m.! Well, competent help is SO hard to find these days!

After nearly two weeks of our four-way correspondence, I finally got a call one morning from the Bank of America guy, who once again told me how much he and the U of WA lady appreciated me keeping the scammers on-line, but I might as well end it, because since I had never cashed the check, no one was actually out any money, therefore the law had not yet been broken.

They had been able to forestall any other checks coming through on that account, so no harm was done.
No harm done??!! What about pulling the rug out from under an author whose heart was beating faster because of an unexpected Big Book Order??!!

Oh, well; easy come, easy go. You haven’t gotten a big check in the mail from U of WA without a return address, have you? Better go slow spending it!