So, who was that family?
Michael Wilson writes on crimes in the city.
When a young nanny named Flavia Wasescha answered a mother named Venus Clemons who was looking for a baby sitter in New York City on Craigslist, the mother sounded very grateful, and in the many e-mails back and forth in the days that followed, she attached professional-looking photographs of her family: her husband, Artis, herself and their son, Jamie.
But the whole thing, Ms. Wasescha realized, was a scam, with the fake mother asking the nanny to wire $2,000 overseas. It was just another version of the various Nigerian scams that fill countless spam mailboxes around the globe. Unpacking this particular scam, however, reveals something quite a bit more complicated, with multiple, unwitting participants whose presence in the scam gave it a specific, authentic air.
Take that family photograph.
The “search by image” feature on Google scours the Internet for copies of a particular photograph, and found a version of the Clemons family photo on the photo-sharing site Flickr. It was from the page of John Styn, 41. Mr. Styn’s captions on his photos identified the man in the picture as his brother, Jim, posing with his family. Jim Styn, 39, a marketing executive and father of two in Carlsbad, Calif., returned my call, and I sent him the pictures in an e-mail.
“That is my son and my family and me,” Mr. Styn said. “That’s pretty unnerving. That’s really unpleasant.”
The photo was taken more than three years ago, in March 2009. “This is before our second son was born,” Mr. Styn said. The family was at Mr. Styn’s parents’ house in San Diego. His brother, John, was there, too. “John would have had his camera, and he would have been taking pictures like a doting uncle should,” Mr. Styn said.
John Styn is a Web celebrity, the host of an online program called “Hug Nation” and the creator of blogs and Web sites that have chronicled his every move for years. He is widely known as Halcyon and has bright pink hair.
But he is also proud Uncle John with a Flickr account, where he posted photos of his brother’s family that day among the thousands of other pictures from his adventures.
Whoever was behind the so-called nanny scam simply grabbed the images — they are not protected by passwords — and attached them to e-mails to potential victims.
“It certainly seems believable when you start to see pictures,” his brother said. “Especially with this super-handsome dad.”
This had not happened before, he said. “Someone rifling through your stuff — it’s not that kind of violation,” he said. “It’s just a little bit creepy, seeing someone use my family and my son, randomly naming them and giving them a different life.”
He considered his new name, Artis. “That is a fascinating name,” he said.
John Styn, the blogger, thought about his privacy settings online. “Is this a risk to my family?” he asked. “If there was any risk to my family whatsoever I would change my behavior immediately. I don’t think my actions are going to reduce the resources for scammers.”
There was more.
When the nanny, Ms. Wasescha, received a real-enough-looking check to cover her first week’s pay, it was from the account of Kuan Chrisopoulos, who the mother, Ms. Clemons, said was her husband’s assistant. This was not a made-up name, and the check itself turned out to be a photocopy of one that was every bit as real as the family in the photo.
The real Kuan Chrisopoulos has the same post office box as the one noted on the check, in California, where she is an accountant. She changed her first name years ago, she said, asking that it not be published.
She said she heard from her bank, First Republic, a few days ago. “They said an account has been tampered,” she said.
The bank told her that several fake checks in her name had been deposited, that all of them were blocked and that the account was closed. She sent me a copy of a check the bank sent her, to another woman, in the same amount as the nanny’s, $2,980, and in the same handwriting.
In the scam, the amount is far more than the agreed-upon first week’s pay, and soon after the check arrives, the nanny is asked to wire the difference back.
E-mails to the Yahoo address that Ms. Clemons used to communicate with Ms. Wasescha went unanswered.
But the so-called assistant who sent the check, using the name Kuan Chrisopoulos, had supplied an e-mail address, too. I sent a note on Friday and got a quick reply.
“What can I do for you,” the person wrote. I asked about the fake check and whether Ms. Clemons was a real person.
“Good questions,” the person replied. “I can help you.”
The person did not answer questions about Ms. Clemons, but said of the scam, “nothing works” and called it “a waste of time.” The person added that he was not “a bad person,” and offered a “huge list” of information in exchange for money. Denied the request, the person wrote, “no free stories,” and went silent.