“Ma’am, the last year we did a demographic study in your city and state,” said the caller, “and you have been selected for a refund.”
When I expressed surprise, he said it was my money. I’d been overcharged. “You know all the times you went shopping?” he said. “Every time you paid a bill, every time you shopped, your bank overcharged you $2.”
The line wasn’t very good. I tried to pick the accent. Was it Nigerian? I asked him where he was calling from and he said from the Finance Department, which was in Angel Street in Sydney. His name was Austin Nugan. He asked me how I wanted to be paid. I said a cheque would be fine, expecting this to be the end of the call, but it triggered an even more elaborate storyline.
Austin already knew my name and address (Mrs Wat-son of Volkswagen, as he called Wonthaggi); now he just needed my date of birth. He gave me a Sydney phone number and an ID number: “B for Peter, F for sugar, 155”.
“Now after I hang up, Ma’am, you need to ring my department manager straight away. Quote the ID number and my manager will authorise the payment and you will have the cheque in two days.”
I hadn’t intended to call but I’d idly scribbled the numbers down so I phoned while I had my coffee. The man who answered sounded a lot like Austin, but he said his name was Gary Spritz. Gary confirmed that I was owed $7268. “Your payment has been approved by the government,” he said and told me to write down the cheque number: 154215.
In a couple of days “an operative” would come to my home with the cheque. All I had to do was show him my passport and my driver’s licence and he would give me the cheque.
“You don’t need to pay the money back or anything,” Gary said. “And it’s tax-free.”
I said it was a lot for the government to pay out when it was having so much trouble balancing the budget. “Don’t be worried,” Gary said. “You’re not a single person getting that money. There are 10,000 people getting it.” No wonder Mr Abbott is panicking!
“And Mrs Wat-son, there’s one more thing I need you to know. Because the Government has hired a lawyer on your behalf to do the investigation, now you need to pay him $199. You need to pay only one time for this.”
I was to go to the Post Office and collect a Western Union form from the counter. “You don’t need to pay a single penny for this form,” he assured me. “Bring the form back to your own home and call me on this same number.
“And Ma’am, one more thing I need you to know. When you ask for the form at the Post Office, if you let them know you’re receiving money from the Australian Government they’ll charge you $500. Just say, ‘It’s for my personal use and transaction’.”
Gary called early the next day. “Mrs Wat-son. This is Gary from the Federal Government of Australia. I am waiting for your call.” He sounded hurt.
“Have you got the Western Union form?”
“Yes,” I lied.
“I’m here to help you fill in the form.” He told me where to put my name and address, and reminded me what they were.
“Now, at the very top of the form is destination. I will spell it out for you: I for indigo, N for nelly, D for delta, I for indigo, A for alpha. Will you please confirm?” Ah, so that was the accent, or was it another red herring?
The receiver was a Mr Kusam Devi, at No 21 Royal Street, Delhi. I asked who Mr Devi was. Gary said he was the cheap lawyer the Government had hired to retrieve my money. “An Australian lawyer would have cost $800. Now Ma’am you need to go to the post office immediately and pay $199. And don’t forget to carry your picture ID.”
I decided to come clean. “Gary,” I said, “this all sounds a little fishy to me.”
“Fishy?” said Gary. “What is fishy?”
“Crooked. A scam.”
“No Ma’am!” He was offended. “The Post Office is a Federal Government office.”
Like a Mormon missionary encouraged that someone had actually let him in the door, even if it was only to quibble with him about God, he persevered. “Mrs Wat-son, one more thing you need to know. If you don’t get the cheque within 48 hours, you can go back to the post office and get that $199 back. So now you know everything is safe ...”
As I hung up, Gary was still talking, covering every possible objection before I even spoke it. I pictured him sitting there in a little office in Angel Street, Sydney, or perhaps in Mr Devi’s call centre in Royal Street, Delhi, waiting hopefully for the phone to ring, and never understanding why it didn’t.
So much effort for so little reward. All I could hope was that he was a very wealthy crook, perhaps Mr Devi himself, not a desperate man trying to feed his family.