A series of curious emails asking a St. John woman about her vacation rental apartment ended with a fraudulent check written on a bank that closed in July.
This incident appears to be the tip of the iceberg.
“If one other person doesn’t get scammed, it will be worth it,” the St. John woman said of her decision to go public. She also asked that her name not be used.
Her story began to unfold in mid-November, when a person calling herself Mattia Napolitano inquired via the unnammed woman’s Hotmail account about renting the apartment for a week while she looked for more permanent accommodations.
“The person said she was relocating,” the woman said.
In the initial contact made through Home Away, a website where many vacation villa owners in the Virgin Islands list their properties, it appears English is not Napolitano’s first language:
"Hello,My name is Mattia,I work for a company here in the mainland USA,My company is relocating me to USVI by first week of December so i am trying to find out an accommodation for myself,will come in with my fiancee,we are gentle people,we are reserved,easygoing and openminded,we don’t smoke but we are light social drinkers and we don’t have pets,Will be happy if you can email me more about this property,do you want to take the rent weekly/monthly and what would be the deposit,will app”
The St. John woman also has a house to rent long term, so she responded with that information. She asked a few questions along the way, but never got a response. Napolitano eventually wrote that her employer would send the check via the U.S. Postal Service.
The clincher came when the St. John woman got a check this week for $5,500 – approximately $4,100 more than the cost of the rental – and a request that the villa owner pay freight charges for her relocation out of the remainder of the check.
“…the amount on the check is meant for my total relocation, so you are to deduct payment for 1 week rental and help send the rest to my shipper so he can bring in my stuffs,” Napolitano wrote to the woman.
A quick Internet search turned up that the bank the check was associated with – Colorado Capital Bank – was shut down by the Colorado Division of Banking for unspecified reasons.
The check was drawn on Parker Jordan Metropolitan District, a legitimate government entity in Colorado, and the stamped signature had the name Bob Blodgett, who is the principal at Clifton Gunderson LLP, a national public accounting firm that handles the books for Parker Jordan Metropolitan District.
“This Mattia is not just using Parker Jordan,” Rachelle Meyer, a senior associate at Clifton Gunderson, said. Meyer knows of about a half dozen other similar fraudulent checks written on entities involved with Clifton Gunderson and most of them, like the one received by the St. John woman, are postmarked Salt Lake City.
Kathy McLaughlin, who serves as president of the St. John Accommodations Council and owns Island Getaways vacation villa company, said she hadn’t heard about this scam, but she occasionally gets emails written by people who appear not to have English as their first language.
“They say they want rooms or a honeymoon for a couple. I just delete them,” she said.
She also said years ago, she followed through on a similar request. She tried to cash the check, but it bounced. Fortunately, she requires payment two months in advance of the rental, so she wasn’t out any money.
Another person sent a check to McLaughlin over the amount of the rental with a request similar to the one recently experienced by the St. John woman. McLaughlin said she turned that check over to the authorities.
Meyer has done the same with the fraudulent checks that came to her attention. The St. John woman said she will contact the FBI.
Harry Rodriquez, who is the FBI spokesman for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, said he is looking into whether there’s been a rash of similar scams.
He also said emails written where it appears English isn’t the writer’s native language should raise a red flag, as well as emails where people are asking for money or they send a check larger than the amount owed with the request that the additional funds be returned to them are definite problems.
“…if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” Rodriquez said.