Student maintains holiday spirit despite falling victim to scholarship scam
Friday, December 13th, 2013
Issue 50, Volume 17.
Most of us have heard a scam story, or ten, and say we would never fall for one. Every year hundreds of thousands of Americans get swindled out of hundreds of millions of dollars. But this is more than another scam story, or a cautionary tale, this is John Aguilera’s story.
John Aguilera is a 20-year-old college student holding down two jobs to get by and get ahead. He owns a small car that often doubles as a home, when he can’t find a friend willing to let him "crash". He doesn’t feel sorry for himself, in fact Aguilera is optimistic and excited about transferring from Mount San Jacinto College in January to the Bay Area to earn a degree in biology. He says he doesn’t expect life to be without challenges.
"My life hasn’t been easy, but I kinda just take it as a blessing, just because I think it makes me a stronger person."
Aguilera is confident and calm even when he speaks about being kicked out of his home at 13-years-old and also shares that from the time he can remember, his father has been in and out of jail. He doesn’t judge his parents. The reasons they did what they did, don’t matter much now. But here he is. Just trying to make it on his own.
Aguilera recently applied for student loans and some scholarships. He was able to secure some government funding and a local scholarship, still, he knows he needs to save more money and secure more loans to help pay for his education. Applying for grants is a part of his routine lately. That’s why when his cell phone rang on December 5 what he was hearing didn’t sound so far fetched.
"I got a call from a lady, she said I won a good amount of money (a government grant) and that she was going to transfer me to a guy that worked for the Treasury Department of the government. The guy she transferred me to, his name was Eric Green. He told me I won $8400 and that I’d have to pay a $215 holding fee and that my money was sitting in the U.S. Bank of New York."
Aguilera said that the amount of money the caller said he was being granted was nearly the exact amount he needed to cover most of his schooling. Then, this so called "Eric Green" explained that he would transfer Aguilera to "David Johnson". Johnson was an employee who worked for the bank where his money was "sitting" he would tell him and would finalize the process to get the money wired safely into Aguilera’s account. But first, Aguilera was to go to Walmart to purchase a GreenDot Moneypak card, a prepaid card well-known by scammers because the money is instantly accessible but more importantly, untraceable.
Aguilera says he did exactly as the man on the phone told him. He purchased a Moneypak card at Walmart and loaded the card with the $215 requested by Green to process the transaction. But instead of getting the money wired to his account he got another call. This time David Johnson told him that he needed to buy another Moneypak card in the amount of $499 for a "transfer fee" and then the money would be wired to Aguilera’s bank account.
Aguilera was a little skeptical but did a little digging and quieted down that voice in his head and feeling in his gut that alerted him that something just didn’t seem right. He compared the phone numbers on his caller I.D. to the phonenumbers of the agencies these individuals said they worked for. The phone numbers had the same area code, (202), plus, Aguilera thought it had to be legitimate because he had recently applied for government grants, which they mentioned, and asked for him by name.
So against his better judgment he gave the man on the phone his bank routing number and returned to Walmart to buy another Greendot Moneypak card, for more than double the amount as the first.
With now over $700 in fees collected by this "bank", Aguilera was ready to collect the large sum promised.
He called Johnson with the new Moneypak number on the back of the card that grants access to the money deposited in that temporary account. But instead of receiving money into his account, a different person told him there was an error in the system and in order to get the money Aguilera had to go buy another Moneypak card for $900.
"I didn’t send the last $900, cause that’s when I kinda was like, ‘Ok this is a scam, I fell for it,’… my heart just dropped."
Sergeant Kevin McDonald with the Temecula Police Department’s investigation unit says this story is the typical and without being told the form of payment, he knew exactly how these criminals operate.
"People need to be wary if someone asks you to put money up front, to get something, especially money that’s not traceable, like a Money Gram or a Greendot card."
There are many websites that detail and warn consumers about this exact scam, similar ones and dozens of others, some scams include threats of violence. The Greendot website warns of their card being used in scams and has links to a government website that allows people to report if they were the victim of a scam. Even the Moneypak card comes with a warning on the back of the card highlighted in red. However, information missing on these sites is how to get your money back when you’ve been tricked. The Greeendot website does tell you that they are not responsible for your money if you give out your access code.
The FBI’s website is loaded with information and tips on how to avoid being scammed and how to report fraud. One warning, on a press releases titled, "FBI Warns of Telephone Scam", stood out, not because it was particularly helpful, but because it seems to almost blame the victims, "Telephone scammers cannot take money from you – you have to give it."
The truth is telephone scammers do take money, millions upon millions of it, most of it by lying and threatening the most vulnerable among us.
"We’re just trying to go to school and they’re telling us we’re getting grants, it’s just wrong," says Aguilera.
Aguilera did the right thing, he immediately reported the scam. He was told by every government agency he called that they never ask for money, especially not over the phone. Unfortunately, for Aguilera this information comes too late, he is now one of several hundred thousand victims who get scammed out of money in hopes to secure a student loan or scholarship. This type of scheme alone, allows criminals to swindle parents and students out of over $100 million dollars each and every year.
It’s infuriating to think that even with all of the technology our government is armed with, these heartless cowards who hide behind a phone, cannot be tracked down. Victims are often left feeling ashamed, without their money and worse, without justice.
But all is not lost, thanks to survivors like John Aguilera, who always find a little light even in the darkest of circumstances.
"Even the bad things that happen I just kinda try to take it as a good thing and lesson learned."
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