YORKTOWN, N.Y. – How difficult is to track down an online scammer?
Put it this way: Trying to find a needle in the haystack would be preferable for Det. Timothy Tausz.
For more than a year, one of the Yorktown Police Department’s most senior investigators has been tasked with not only tracking down scammers masquerading as a legitimate local mom-and-pop shop but also trying to find charges that can stick.
As reported by Yorktown News in February, Yorktown Plumbing and Heating, owned and operated by Colleen and James D’Alessio, was the victim of stolen identity.
Until mid-January, anyone searching the D’Alessios’ business on Google found a phone number not associated with Yorktown Plumbing and Heating. Inadvertent or not, the owners of the other business, with the nearly identical name, took advantage of the confusion by accepting the jobs anyway.
The D’Alessios insist the scammers performed shoddy work, which in turn harmed their professional reputation. Additionally, the lost jobs probably resulted in lost earnings, but Tausz said that is difficult to calculate and prove.
Another problem, the 38-year veteran of the department told Yorktown News, is that these scammers leave almost no digital footprint.
How the Scam Works
They operate under dozens, perhaps hundreds, of phony business names, which are created by following a simple formula.
1) The name of a city, town, hamlet, or street name;
2) Followed by some variation, alone or in combination, of plumbing, heating, cooling, etc.
Like anyone looking for a nearby hotel or restaurant, a person looking for a local plumber is likely to search the words “Yorktown plumbing.” Following this formula allows the scammers to cast a wide geographical net.
In Yorktown alone, there were at least six examples of phony businesses:
• East Main Street Plumbing Co.
• Yorktown Plumbing, Heating & Cooling
• Yorktown Heights Plumbing and Heating
• Yorktown Heights Sewer and Drain
• Yorktown Plumbing Co.
• Yorktown Plumbing and Heating (the same business name as the legitimate one belonging to Colleen and James D’Alessio).
To complete the ruse and make the businesses seem legitimate, the scammers build websites (usually ending with .info) and list fake addresses. But they have no brick-and-mortar offices, so all the addresses predictably lead nowhere. And all of the typo-ridden websites, which provide no cost estimates and offer scant details about the companies and their services, are registered to one person: a David Miller out of Yonkers.
Tausz said no such person exists.
“They leave no trail,” he said.
Websites for the fake Yorktown businesses have since been taken down. However, they still exist in places like Rye (“Rye Plumbing Co.”), Purchase (“Purchase Plumbing and Heating”), Port Chester (“North Main Plumbing and Heating”) and Great Neck (“Great Neck Sewer and Drain Cleaning”).
In addition to their websites, the scammers own dozens of different phone numbers, often in sequential order. Dialing any of them connects the caller to an automated answering service. When asking for the owner, Tausz said, he is given a different name every time. The numbers, purchased through Optimum, also provide no leads.
The bottom line, Tausz said, is that it has become remarkably easy for someone to create fake identities, and fake businesses, without ever having to give personal information to anyone, even to government agencies.
“Absolutely,” Tausz said.
That’s a bit more complicated.
Even if he discovered the identities of the scammers, Tausz said, he’s not sure on what charges they could be arrested.
“Yeah, they’re scumbags,” Tausz said. “The question is, what can we do with that?”
The best-case scenario for his investigation, Tausz said, would be for these scammers to accept money and not perform a job. In that case, he said, he could charge them with larceny.
But performing shoddy work and charging exorbitant prices isn’t necessarily a crime, he said. Nor is it a crime to perform that work under a name similar to a business that already exists.
But Colleen D’Alessio, who owns the real Yorktown Plumbing and Heating, said shoddy work might be illegal if it puts someone in danger. For example, she said, a customer who hired the sham business told her that equipment had been installed incorrectly, causing carbon monoxide to leak into the house.
“This is getting out of the hand,” D’Alessio said, “because imagine if something did happen fatally.”
D’Alessio said she understands the difficulty of Tausz’s job and hopes the new development could lead to criminal charges.
At the very least, Tausz suspects the scammers are not licensed to perform work in Westchester because none of the business names are on file with the county.
Unlicensed plumbing work, however, would result, at most, in a county-code violation. In that case, he said, the scammers would pay a nominal fine and suffer no other penalties.
“I’d like to lock somebody up, without a doubt,” Tausz said. But he would settle for a violation at this point.
Despite hitting a dead end in his investigation, Tausz has refused to close the case, saying he owes it to the D’Alessios, whom he calls for his own plumbing needs.
Most likely, Tausz said, he’s going to need the scammers to slip up. So far, that hasn’t happened.
Ultimately, he said, it’s up to consumers to do their homework and to make sure they’re hiring a reputable contractor. They can do that by reading reviews, asking for cost estimates, or asking whether they are licensed.
The websites for the sham businesses, for example, are a dead giveaway because they read as though robots had written them. However, the language on ryeplumbingandheating.info stands out, in that it seems strangely lucid.
Ironically, in their four-paragraph entry, the scammers complain of negative online reviews and warn potential customers of falling victim to lies on the internet.
“For example, people who are upset with the job that has been done by a plumbing company may go to the Internet to vent their concerns,” the website states. “However, that may not necessarily be an accurate reflection of what took place. Therefore, you need to make sure that you are not necessarily putting too much emphasis on negative reviews that you read online.
“What you should instead be doing,” it continues, “is thinking about whether or not there is a way for you to figure out if a particular plumbing company has done good work for others in the past. One way to do this is to try to speak to as many people as you can who have used the services of a specific company.”
On that point, Tausz and D’Alessio would probably agree.