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A black market whodunit: LifeWay battles Bible scam

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The man on the phone told Cindy Stewart he wanted to order some Bibles for his seminary’s library. Stewart, the assistant manager of the LifeWay Christian Store in Baltimore, Md., didn’t think anything sounded unusual — at first.

“He told me he wanted genuine leather Bibles but didn’t know what kind of Bibles he wanted,” Stewart said of the phone call last August. “He said he just needed two of each kind and that it was very important they were genuine leather.” She tried to help the man be more specific with his order.

“It was kind of frustrating because we have 700 different kinds of Bibles,” Stewart said. “But he insisted he didn’t care what kind they were and told me just to pick out anything.”

Stewart became suspicious when the caller, talking with a thick foreign accent, demanded the Bibles be charged that same day to the credit card number he had given her.

“He told me to just send him whatever, make sure it was two genuine leather Bibles each and it had to be under $500,” she said. “At that point I was pretty sure it was a scam. Anything over $500 that’s stolen is considered a felony.”

It sounds like a whodunit right from the pages of Nancy Drew, but unfortunately for Christian booksellers, the story is real — and potentially costly.

Melissa Mitchell, director of loss prevention at LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the call Stewart received is an adaptation of a con known as the Nigerian scam because the thieves who have been caught all have been Nigerian nationals.

“Someone calls or e-mails a store and requests a large number of the same item, in this case Bibles, to be sent to an address somewhere in Nigeria,” Mitchell explained. “They pay with a credit card, but the catch is the credit card they use is physically in the possession of the cardholder — it’s the number that’s been stolen.”

By the time the merchant realizes the credit card purchase is fraudulent, the merchandise already has been shipped to an address that’s impossible to track. Eventually the merchandise is sold through the Nigerian black market.

Mitchell began noticing early last spring a pattern of “charge-backs” — credit card purchases that are sent back to the store when a customer denies ordering the items. The common thread was a delivery address in Nigeria.

She immediately shut down all overseas shipments through the bookstores and customers were asked to go through the online catalog store so Mitchell and the catalog store team could recognize anything suspicious.

After a few months of seeing no activity, the call to the Baltimore store alarmed Mitchell because the delivery address was U.S.-based.

“We notified CBA [the Christian Booksellers Association] immediately because we knew if they were getting us, they were also getting independent booksellers,” Mitchell said. She quickly learned her hunch had been right and independents and other Christian retail chains also had been hit.

The biggest victims are the Christian booksellers in Nigeria, Mitchell noted.

“The Bibles that are supplied on the black market are the reason for the sharp price undercutting you find in Nigeria,” Justice Okoronkwo, administrative secretary for the CBA in Nigeria, reported in an e-mail to Mitchell. “Genuine importers often cannot sell as they cannot afford to undersell. Sometimes they eventually have to sell below the cost price because they have deadlines to meet from international suppliers. This is a real problem for the CBA Nigeria.”

“You have to think of it as anything that can be sold has a value to it, even Bibles,” Mitchell said. “Their value to us is spiritual value, but to others, the value is monetary gain.”

Since August, LifeWay has prevented more than $150,000 in fraudulent orders. Mitchell credits the diligence of the store managers and the catalog store team.

“The store managers have been outstanding in their attentiveness into looking for potential fraud while staying polite and doing their job serving our customers,” Mitchell said. “Also, one of our direct marketing employees, Andy Young, canceled $30,000 worth of fraudulent orders and put together a spreadsheet and was able to track all of the fraudulent credit card numbers to one specific bank. We’re now working with their bank security to locate where the breach is.”

The latest technique to steal Bibles has been through the use of a relay operator, a system used typically by the hearing-impaired that allows a person to communicate through a telephone operator.

“The scam plays on the fact that our store employees are compassionate and want to help people,” Mitchell said. “The sad part is that they’re tying up relay operators for people who really need them.” A block has now been placed on the stores receiving online relay calls. Customers can still use state-operated relay services.

Mitchell currently is working with the CBA Nigeria as well as the Secret Service to explore new ways to prevent these types of scams.

“To shut this down would probably be next to impossible, but we’re going to keep reporting what we find,” she said.

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  • Sara Horn