Web browsers beware – Is it real?

Posted Wednesday, March 27, 2013 in Investigation

Web browsers beware – Is it real?

by Avery Hunt

Yikes, I’ve been “slammed.” Or whammed. Or otherwise compromised by a scam website. 

Until lately, I was blissfully unaware that my home address was being used as the contact point for a sleazy website that promised to lend money to people with poor credit.  Clueless, that is, until I got several notices in the mail from the Better Business Bureau of New England. They accused me of running a questionable website that had scammed some poor lady in Virginia out of a lot of money: $800 to be exact. She had lodged a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, which is how I came to get those mildly threatening letters and postcards. 

So I looked up the website, Ancaster Solutions, and sure enough, right there on its slick home page was my address. My street. My house number. My town; tiny West Bath.  At least the site did not list my name. But it was enough of a shock to make me mad and send me to several consumer watchdog groups to try to find some answers. 

First, I contacted the BBB of Eastern MA, ME, RI & VT, based in Marlborough, Mass., to lodge my own complaint: that my address was being used without my permission to tout a clearly fraudulent website. It took a while for them to get back to me, like a few months. I also had to re-send my initial email protest and follow up with a couple more phone calls.  

In the meantime, I contacted William Lund, superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection. Although he said that there was no legal way to get this elusive scam operator to drop the website, the state had the power to place a cease-and-desist order against them, which indeed it did. Maine, I am proud to say, was more on top of this than the Better Business Bureau. 

The wording in part says: “WHEREAS the Bureau determined that the address in West Bath, Maine is not occupied by an entity known as Ancaster Solutions and no company by the name of Ancaster Solutions is licensed as a supervised lender by the Bureau or registered as a business entity with the State of Maine in any capacity; …

“Ancaster Solutions is hereby: ORDERED to cease and desist all advertising and contact with Maine consumers or any consumers while purporting to use any Maine address; and it is further ORDERED that Ancaster Solutions shall not offer loans to Maine consumers or from any address in Maine; and it is further ORDERED that Ancaster Solutions shall forthwith refund, within 30 days of the date of this Order, any and all payments or downpayments, collected from Maine consumers or from any consumer while it has purported to use any Maine address …”

In fact, now when you Google “Ancaster Solutions,” the first thing that shows up is the scam website. The very next thing that comes up is the cease-and-desist order from Maine’s Consumer Protection Bureau. 

Lund also has lots of advice for consumers. While it is nearly impossible to do anything to help once some gullible consumer (quite often elderly) falls for a scam, and sends advance money – or a bank account number – off to some unknown person in exchange for a promise of some sort of low-cost loan, the basic advice is: Don’t do it! Any kind of financial loan-for-fee, no-credit-check-required exchange that demands money up front – especially over the Internet – is a scam. It just doesn’t pass the smell test. If your credit is rotten and it is tough to get a bank loan, why do you think these bogus companies want to lend you money either? They don’t. They just want your up-front money, usually a relatively small percentage of the promised loan amount, and then they disappear. No loan money appears magically in your mailbox or your bank account, and you are out some serious “down payment” money that you will never see again. 

Lund admits that these scammers are really good at pressuring people, saying things like “This deal is only on for a short time” and that “You must wire money quickly.” With any “deal” like that, he says, “alarm bells should go off.”  

While loan scams that ask for advance fees have been around for decades, using toll-free telephone numbers, the Internet has made them more global and to appear even more legitimate. The operation could be based anywhere, although Lund says that many of them these days come from Canada. (In fact, the odd name Ancaster is the name of a town in Ontario.) 

And interestingly, since Maine is a state that is well known for honesty and Yankee thrift, scammers like to say they are from here. There are multiple ways the scams can run.  Lund cites a very sad case of an elderly woman in Lewiston who got an official-sounding call, purportedly from the FBI, saying that a dishonest teller at her local bank was attempting to steal her retirement funds, and that they needed her help to catch the guy. She was told to go to her bank and withdraw her funds – over $10,000 – and send it to the FBI. They coached her all along the way, so she felt she was really helping out a government agency and that, of course, her money would be returned. “Now this was a very bright, sharp woman”, says Lund. Yet, her savings were wiped out. Gone. It had disappeared into the ether, with no legal recourse available.

As if these scams were not horrible enough, there is another trick called “reloading.” That’s where after someone has sent off some advance loan fee and seen nothing in return – i.e., already scammed! – a second scammer appears on the scene, purporting to be a private detective, sympathetic to the scamee, who promises that “we can get your money back.” For just a small fee. Yeah, right.

In fact, the scammers tried to hit up the poor woman in Virginia whose complaint to the BBB triggered the dunning notices to me, not once but twice: once with the initial scam and then with a “reload." Here is her story, told in her own words:

“Ancaster Solutions contacted me stating that they received my information about a loan. I called them back and was told I was approved for $5,000. They sent me a loan agreement as well as a promissory note. I signed the paperwork and was asked to make a down payment of $800 because of my [poor] credit. I wired the money to a Kyle Nelson in Canada but spoke with Patrick Madison in Maine at 1-855-230-6578 Ext. 105. I then checked my bank account and found that the money was not posted. I was told the money will be there in two to six hours. Well it wasn’t.

"The next day I called Patrick to see what was going on and where was my money, only to hear that it was picked up, but not by the company. I contacted Western Union and asked about where my money was sent and they couldn’t give me that information because they don’t have it. Now I have just been scammed by some professionals. … Now I am constantly being told that the money wasn’t received and that I can’t get it back. The 'supervisor' told me that either I come up with additional funds ($600) to have my money refunded in 30 days [note: reload]. I am very upset and frustrated and wish I had known better."

The Better Business Bureau of New England has also now weighed in with advice. Here is a comment from its vice president of operations: “This is a classic advanced fee loan scam. We see them every day. They use a fake address or an actual address of anybody – it doesn’t matter if it is a residential home or office building. They advertise online and on other web and print mediums, offering loans to people with bad credit. All you have to do is wire money (for insurance or downpayment) to another address, usually in Canada, and they will deposit your loan into your bank account.

“Obviously the scam is you wire money to them – they take the money and never give you a loan – and now they also have your account info, which is ID theft.   

“It happens all of the time. Over the last three years we have identified over 300 scammers doing this. Ancaster Solutions is a perfect example of this scam.”

The BBB has responded to my complaint that I have nothing to do with the scam outfit and they recently removed my address from their Business Review list, which doesn’t mean much except that I won’t get any more dunning notices. The watchdog outfit has added my email complaint and description of my problem to their business remarks file on this case. However, the Ancaster site is still up and running.

Bottom line? Having my address on a scam website has been a bother. And the fact that I have found no recourse to have Ancaster remove this website is disturbing. (Whoever and wherever they may be, they are elusive; after all, it costs peanuts to put up a website and anyone can do it, and there are virtually no controls.)  But I haven’t lost any money. The folks who believed that they were getting a good deal, with promises of no-hassle loans, aren’t so lucky.

If some deal on the web sounds too good to be true, trust your instincts. It probably is a scam. 

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