In a depressed economy in which traditional jobs are hard to come by, landing a work-from-home job must seem like a real stroke of luck. Who wouldn't want to make extra spending money on his or her own time without having to travel to an office, sit in rush-hour traffic or even put on pants?
It's that mind-set a willingness to accept things that seem too good to be true mixed with desperation for disposable income that leads many Lexington residents as unwitting accomplices in "reshipping" schemes, Lexington police detective Gene Haynes said.
A reshipper, also known as a "mule," is essentially an intermediary who receives items bought online and mails them to their final destination. The problem is, most of the items were bought using stolen or fraudulent credit cards by organized criminals who live overseas.
"We run into this probably about twice a month," Haynes said. "Those are just the ones that we are able to track down and locate and investigate."
What separates reshippers from typical criminals is that reshippers often don't know they're doing anything illegal. Many are recruited after they post résumés on Web sites and are hired under the guise that they are working as part-time assistants. During holidays, reshippers are often hired as "gift-wrappers."
"The reshipper themselves may or may not be aware that they are part of this scheme," said John Breyault, director of the National Consumer League's Fraud Center. "We have heard instances where it is simply a fraud victim who has been duped."
Last month, a Lexington man was caught shipping computers, video game consoles and other electronics overseas. He had signed an employment contract and was paid $50 for each item that successfully arrived at destinations in Russia, Argentina and other countries.
"The contract made it look legitimate. However, all of the items were purchased with stolen credit cards," Haynes said.
Lexington police have intercepted extravagant items, including a bar of silver valued at $7,000, but most of the time, reshippers are hired to mail out computers, books, clothes and consumer electronics.
"It isn't usually for personal wealth," Haynes said. "It's stuff that people will use in other countries, things that they don't have access to as easily as we do."
Reshippers benefit scammers in several ways. First, sending goods through an intermediary or two helps "launder" the items, creating longer paper trails for investigators to follow.
Second, shipping an item in the United States reduces scrutiny by retailers and shipping services such as FedEx or UPS. Some online retailers won't sell to certain off-shore locations where fraud is prevalent, such as Nigeria, Breyault said.
Third, scammers can use reshippers' trust to stab them in the back. According to the FBI, scammers often steal the identifying information of the reshipper while conducting a "job interview." The stolen information can be used to open new lines of credit to perpetuate the scam.
Reshippers are often recruited online through employment postings, email and message boards, although some scammers initiate contact by mail or over the phone.
"Really, there are limitless possibilities," Breyault said. "The most frequent method that we hear about is email."
The dupes also might act as intermediaries for money rather than goods. For example, a scammer distributing fraudulent checks might mail them to a reshipper, who then sends them to a list of addresses all over the country in the hopes of baiting someone into a fake-check scam.
Reshipping scams are typically intercepted when a defrauded bank or person files a report with local or federal law enforcement. Officers check financial records to see where goods were shipped, then pass the case along to police departments in the reshipper's jurisdiction.
In many cases, reshippers already have mailed the stolen items when Lexington police make contact. Still, police typically confiscate about $25,000 in goods each year, Haynes said.
In one case last year, police confiscated about $10,000 in Apple computers. In another case, they secured about $16,000 in clothes and Bibles bought with stolen credit cards, Haynes said.
Scammers are generally more likely to victimize elderly people than young adults, Breyault said. However, in Lexington, the age of reshippers regularly skews younger, Haynes said. Elderly people are typically targeted in scams because they have more disposable income, but reshippers don't need to have any cash on hand to start working.
"With the economic state that we're in, it affects everybody. We've been to people's houses that are 70, and we've been to people's houses that are 18," he said. "It doesn't affect one specific age group, just people who are trying to find a job."