Beware of the ‘Maggy Lagunas’ of the Phish World

June 2020

Image: Getty Images

Pandemics tend to bring out both the best and the worst in people, and the one we’re current living through is no exception. With almost 40 million U.S. citizens thrown out of paid work within the first two months of forced quarantines, people are desperate to earn income. That desperation did not go unnoticed by Maggy Laguna.

That’s the name someone used to email a freelance copyeditor with a writing assignment. It was a “cold call,” with no prior contact nor relationship established. The editor planned to retire soon and passed along Maggy’s request for a professional ghostwriter to a couple of writers she knew, with a note that she didn’t personally know this source. Still, by blindly sending it along, she instantly gave this Maggy some credibility.

Pat Rarus of Marcom Consulting Group in Oceanside, CA, responded to the solicitation and agreed through a series of emails to accept an assignment at above-market rates to ghostwrite a 2,550-word article on exercise habits for millennials. “I had just finished writing a book and was eager for more work,” Pat explained.

During her introduction, Maggy also claimed to be afflicted by a disorder known as dysarthia that distorts speech. As a result, she did not communicate by phone. Due to cyberbullying, she claimed, she’d denounced social media.

Pat herself had been bullied as a child and sympathized with Maggy. Pat also required a signed agreement and deposit on the project before she’d do any work. This is standard in the media business when working with a new client.

“Also, is there any way that we could talk on the phone just so I get to know you a little better? Where do you live? What is your telephone number?” Pat asked in one of many email exchanges with this new client.

Maggy provided a phone number with an area code for Pat’s region. “The reason why I can’t call you on the phone is that I have a a [sic] speech distorting condition called Dysarthia. Have also told you about this condition in my first email message. That’s why I stopped using social media because I was been bullied because of my condition, So I communicate with text and email messages,” read an actual email from Maggy to Pat.

A week after the initial exchanges, Maggy sent another email and a flurry of texts to let Pat know that not only had she fast-tracked the required deposit but would also include full payment for the assignment and a second one anticipated for the following month. “Kindly confirm with me as soon as you receive the payment and you can start immediately your payment, we have 4 weeks to finish the project now. Proceed to Deposit the check. I hope to hear from you soon,” Maggy wrote.

By now, Pat had begun to question the legitimacy of the assignment—but not the person behind it. “I felt sorry for this woman who was disabled and bullied,” she said. “I thought it made sense why she wasn’t on social media, and I wanted to help her earn a living. She wasn’t clear at times and didn’t communicate well, but that isn’t uncommon with some of the clients I’ve had in the past. In fact, that’s usually why they hire a professional writer or editor.”

A woman of deep faith, Pat spent a sleepless night praying for a sign that she should continue with this assignment. The next day, when an express-mailed envelope with a check for far more than Pat’s initial deposit showed up, she took it as the sign she’d been seeking.

She went to her local credit union and deposited the check and began to work on the assignment, lining up interviews and doing research. She’d noticed that Maggy claimed to be in Los Angeles but the check came from Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston, and the return address on the envelope turned out to be a tool-and-die manufacturer in Michigan. When she asked Maggy about this, she received a prompt response: “I am an independent academic consultant. I work part-time as a researcher and I also teach music on the side. That is how I learn [sic] my living. From time to time I organize seminars and workshops to educate on chosen subject matter and hire professionals to give speeches at these seminars. This absolutely free at no cost whatsoever to the attendees. I approach well-meaning individuals, organizations and large corporations for sponsorship of these programs and present proposals to them. As a giveback initiative, most sponsors want to be part of it. I do not source clients from any online platform. I organize, get a sponsor and meet deadlines.”

Pat may not have considered it a scam, but a branch manager at a Wells Fargo bank in Oceanside did.

The day after Pat confirmed to Maggy that the check was deposited, she received an email letting her know the second article had been cancelled and she needed Pat to refund half of the payment to her sponsor by sending a cashier’s check or ACH payment to a Wells Fargo account belonging to “Mousa Abdoussala.” And, of course, she needed to do it quickly.

Pat would have been an even bigger victim of the scam were it not for that less trusting branch manager who quickly flagged it as fraud.

 “We see this all the time,” he told her.

In our work at Twirling Tiger Media, we write frequently about the latest phishing scams to help people like Pat not succumb to fraud. Not only do these schemes victimize their targets, but they stain the reputations of the names and companies of people they impersonate. They also make it that much harder for startups to land early clients and freelancers to accept solid offers for work.

That’s why it’s critical to do deep research into any potential client. Legitimate sales and marketing professionals do make cold calls, but they’ve got real, verified profiles on LinkedIn and other social media. They are willing, even encouraged, to talk on a phone or over video chats. And, they use proper grammar and punctuation.

Among the lessons learned for Pat: “I will continue to ask for deposits and get agreements in writing. But I probably won’t ever deal with anyone who can’t speak to me on the phone. I’m also going to insist on knowing their funding source, include a company name, and check it out through credible sources to make sure it’s legitimate. I’ll demand they be more specific and look for inconsistencies.”

By the way, even though she learned she’d been part of a scam, Pat did receive another check in the mail that week: her federal government stimulus check.

 

Thank you for reading this,

Anne