TRAVERSE CITY — A Grand Traverse County couple almost lost $4,300 in a scam that stretches from Toronto and Michigan to Florida and Nigeria.
Authorities in Columbia County, Florida, arrested an 80-year-old woman, Sylvia Jackson Williams, they said was working with a Nigerian scam artist to dupe unsuspecting business owners and individuals out of thousands of dollars through a check fraud scheme.
A 49-year-old Traverse City man and his wife, who own a cleaning business in Acme Township, were the latest victims.
Lt. Chris Barsheff of the Grand Traverse County Sheriff's Office said they received a complaint from the couple Nov. 19 and immediately contacted the Columbia County sheriff's office. Jackson was arrested later that day with nearly $10,000 in cash and cashier's checks in her possession.
A man claiming to be Taylor Johnson contacted the cleaning company and said he was moving to the area from Toronto, Canada, and needed his new apartment cleaned. Police records indicate they agreed on $500 for the services, but the couple received a check for $4,900.
Johnson told them to deposit the check, withdraw $4,300 and then send a check for that amount to his agent, Williams, in Florida. The couple did so, but the bank soon marked their account as overdrawn because of the fraudulent check. Barsheff said the couple was able to recoup $4,082 after losing $218 in bank fees.
Williams was charged with criminal conspiracy and fraud, but Columbia County sheriff's deputies said she is a victim as well. The police report said Williams met the man on a dating site last year and that he had defrauded her out of money. Williams admitted to receiving checks and then forwarding the money to the man but insisted she never kept any for herself, according to a Columbia County sheriff's statement.
"She trusted this guy as her boyfriend," Barsheff said. "He was able to use her to funnel this money from her to him."
Barsheff said authorities likely will not have any recourse against the man and do not know where he actually lives.
"He could be anywhere. He could be in a hut out in the middle of the desert for all we know on a satellite phone with an internet connection. You never know," Barsheff said. "A lot of this crime occurs from areas that are beyond our ability to prosecute because our government does not work well with those governments. Those people who perpetrate the crime know they're safe because they know nothing is going to happen."