Jared & Will Talk About the Case, Phantom Love, Chapter 15

Jared glanced at his watch and moved toward the front door. A sharp rap on the front door confirmed that Will was punctual as usual.

“Hey, come on in.”

His friend whistled as he entered the apartment. “This is definitely a step up, buddy. Better than your previous apartment.”

Jared shrugged. “It’s one of the perks of the job.”

Will ran a hand over the leather couch. “It came furnished, right? You’ve never had such nice things.” He eyed the television. “And a HDTV.”

“That was my lone contribution, but no satellite. The rabbit ears work pretty good, though. Do you want anything to drink? I don’t have anything stronger than a Coke.”

“Coke’s fine. No ice if it’s cold.”

Jared rounded the corner that separated the kitchen from the living-dining room combination. He grabbed two soda cans from the fridge and brought them into the living room, where Will had ensconced himself on the couch, his feet on the coffee table and the remote in his hand. He flipped through the TV channels.

“Make yourself right at home, why don’t you?” Jared handed him the soda. He popped the top on his can and sat down beside him.

Will clicked off the television and turned to Jared. He took a swig and reached into his messenger bag. “We’ve uncovered some new information that may have a direct connection to our case.”

Jared sipped his soda. “You gave me all the info about Wildcat.”

“This isn’t about Wildcat directly.” Will pulled out a thick manila folder held together by a rubber band.

“What’s all that?”

Will placed his hand on top of the folder. “Several of our field offices submitted requests for assistance on some fraud cases that were eerily similar. This is that data.”

“Similar to each other or to Wildcat?”

“The short answer is both. The fraud cases are alike themselves and have elements that echo Wildcat’s modus operandi.”

Jared tapped his fingers on the couch arm. “So is this an official investigation now?”

“It is and it isn’t.” Will pulled off the rubber band and opened the folder. “I moved to the fraud division in the FBI after your accident. It’s partly because of blowback from the events leading up to that, uh, incident and partly a promotion.”


“Let me explain,” Will continued. “Most of the cases I’ve received have been, well, routine.” He leaned forward. “When they assigned the Wildcat investigation to me, I knew the powers-that-be were still not ready to forget the last case. Then they dump this on me, and I think it’s going to be more of the same. That is, until I start delving into the paperwork. This one has an unusual twist. It’s run by a well-oiled machine of people who are scamming hundreds, perhaps thousands of people in the United States.”

“That does sound big. I’m trying to track down Wildcat’s identity through Mary—which isn’t going well. I’m not sure what else I can contribute to your other case. I’m a psychiatrist, not an accountant.”

“That’s why I’m here. We have plenty of accountants pouring over the financials and a bunch of techies trying to track down the suspects in cyberspace.” Will frowned. “What we don’t have is any idea of the type of people we’re looking for who would do this sort of thing. Is it only for quick money or are they setting something up for a bigger payoff down the line? Those are the kinds of questions our tech guys and accountants can’t answer.”

“That’s still not relevant to my field of work.”

“I’ve heard you describe someone’s behavior from a set of parameters before. That’s what we need from you—a profile of who would do this sort of thing.”

Jared took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I haven’t profiled anyone since grad school. I’m not sure I can even gain Mary’s trust to find Wildcat.”

“I can’t ask anyone else, Jared, and I can’t do this alone.”

Jared rested his elbows on his knees and stared at the coffee table. He had accepted the offer to work on the Wildcat case because it seemed like the con was small potatoes and not dangerous. Having the chance to talk with Mary Divers again was an unexpected bonus. What Will was asking now could mean a much bigger case, one that had the potential to blow up in his face like the last one. “Tell you what. I’ll listen to what you have and then decide if I can be of any assistance.”

His friend looked at him for a few seconds and smiled. “I guess that will have to do for now.” He pulled some papers from the stack. “Here’s what I’ve managed to piece together so far. I’m certain it’s a group of people running basic money scams, but how many is anyone’s guess at this point. The sad part is that the victims all think they’re donating to a good cause.”

Jared raised his eyebrows. “A good cause? Like to charities?”

Will cocked his finger at him. “Bull’s eye.”

“There’s nothing new about that, though. Every time there’s a national disaster, some lowlife sets up a fake charity site similar to the legit ones and get people to donate.”

“Yes, it’s true that those types of scams are a dime a dozen. However, we think this one has a new twist.”

“How so?”

“As far as we can tell, the scam artists troll Internet chat rooms and social media sites like Facebook to find likely victims. It looks like they start a relationship with the victim, and after a few weeks or months of interaction, mentions a charity that needs extra financial help. It’s generally been for a specific item, like a Boys and Girls Club needing a hot water heater or a food pantry needing to restock its canned goods.”

“That seems straightforward enough.” Jared glanced up and saw the light glowing softly from Mary’s bedroom window. He hoped she wasn’t caught up in some sort of scheme.

“It’s so innocuous that it doesn’t raise any red flags. The con artist says he would donate himself, but because of financial reversals of his own—an unexpected car repair, fewer hours at work, a sick dog, whatever—can’t help. The con artist never actually asks the victim to give money directly, just lays out the problem and then moves on to other topics.”

Will shuffled some papers. “Here’s an actual transcript. Take a quick look.”

Jared scanned the chat transcript, his mind starting to engage with the material. Will was right. This was interesting. “How long do you say the conman interacts with his victims before bringing up the charity thing?”

“As short as two weeks and as long as four months.”

“They invest a lot of time developing relationships with these people.”

“You picked up on that, too. The small-time con artists want to get in and get out fast. In contrast, these guys seem fearless.”

“Why take the chance of being found out and not getting any return on their investment of time?”

Will sighed. “Those are the questions I’m hoping a profile will help to answer.”

Jared continued to mentally piece the puzzle together. “The scammer puts a voice to the charity’s need, then what happens?”

“Typically, the victim requests more information on how to make a donation, which is exactly the way it’s supposed to go down.”

“I suppose the money is sent to a third party, who represents the charity or organization. Does the con artist continue corresponding with the victim after receiving the money?”

“That’s another strange aspect. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.” Will tapped his fingers on the folder. “You know how some online relationships peter out after a few weeks, while others hang around for a few months or longer?”

“Sure, I’ve reconnected with some college buddies on Facebook. We exchange some messages and then it’s like they’ve dropped off the face of the earth.”

“This seems to be the same way. Mostly, the scammers come and go, but occasionally they’ve double-dipped into the honey pot.” Will handed Jared the stack. “We have two victims who corresponded with the con artist for an entire year.”

Jared flipped through the investigative documents, each with a different case number and a description of the scam. His psychological training kicked in as he thought about what kinds of people would fall for such a scheme. Lonely people, seeking attention. Which probably described half the universe. “There must be dozens of victims here.”

“Those are just the ones who complained after they found out the organization didn’t exist or that the charity hadn’t received their donation.”

“How did the victims discover they’d been cheated?”

“Ironically, it was because they lost touch with the con artist and wanted to help the charity again. Either they couldn’t find the charity’s site online, or they contacted the charity directly only to be told the group never received their check or never had such a crisis.”

Jared shook his head. “Pretty slick. It seems like penny ante stuff. How much was the highest scam amount for, anyway?”

“A thousand dollars. Most of the amounts hovered in the low hundreds.” Will paused. “Since the amounts being taken are so low, I don’t think many people even bother reporting it as stolen. I suspect that there’s hundreds of thousands of people being scammed by this group.”

Jared sat back, mulling over the information. As a psychiatrist with an inner-city free clinic, he had come in frequent contact with drug users and drug dealers. He ceased being surprised at how depraved people could become, but it still amazed him how clever criminals could be when they were after an ill-gotten prize. Another question occurred to him. “Why is the FBI interested in this case? Don’t most of these scams originate someplace overseas?”

Will leaned back and rested his arm on the back of the couch. “You’re right in that ninety-nine percent of these online and email scams are conducted by people not living in the United States. But we’re certain this is a U.S.-based group. The English in the few chat transcripts that the victims have sent us has been flawless American, written by a native speaker. And yes, we had a linguist verify that for us. These are people who were born and raised in the good old U.S. of A.”

“Somewhere in this country, a group of Americans are bilking other Americans out of hundreds of dollars with elaborate Internet charity scams?” Jared paused. “Any idea how big a group it is?”

“We gave a linguist the five full chat transcripts and dozens of partial ones. He deduced that the writing style broke into numerous distinct voices.”

“There could be hundreds.”

“Yep, and strewn out across the country. I’m betting that the organization is run by a core group of five or six, given some of the styles of the chat transcripts.”

Jared returned his attention to the folder. “This contains all the notes on the case?”

“My notes, the linguist’s report on the transcripts, the transcripts themselves, and the interviews from the thirty-two victims who have contacted us. I have a feeling we’ll be hearing from many more before this is over.” Will’s voice had an eagerness to it Jared remembered all too well. Just like the last time the two of them started investigating … better not go there. Not if he wanted to sleep tonight.

“You want me to figure out a profile based on this information.”

“And your keen intuition.”

“I’m not sure my intuition is very reliable these days.” Jared fingered the top paper. “They spend weeks cultivating the victims for a few hundred dollars at the most. Doesn’t seem worth it.”

Will stood up and stretched his arms over his head. “It’s really not a big pay-off for some online chatting, but my gut tells me it’s practice for something bigger.” He walked to the door. “That’s why I need you to help me figure out the who behind this. We need to be a step ahead of them, so when they get where they’re going, we will be there waiting for them.”

“And you think that Wildcat might be involved somehow.”

“That’s my hunch.”

Jared thought of Mary and her possible involvement with Wildcat. “I hope that this time, your hunch is wrong.”


Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Phantom Love is copyrighted and cannot be used in any form without permission from Sarah Hamaker.

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