LAKE PLACID - A local nonprofit organization that supports a school and orphanage in Kenya recently lost thousands of dollars to an email scam.
Keela Dates Grimmette is founder and executive director of Reason 2 Smile, a Lake Placid-based organization that was founded in 2009 to promote philanthropy locally and worldwide. The group primarily works with the Jambo Jipya Academy and Children's Home in Kenya. Grimmette told the News recently that her organization was targeted last fall by at least one person who used fake email accounts to steal about $17,000.
The ordeal dates back to October 2012, when Reason 2 Smile sent $17,000 to Jambo Jipya to help fund a planned capital improvement project. The money primarily came from a single donor, although Grimmette said a small portion came from the organization's general fund.
The funds came from Reason 2 Smile's account at NBT Bank in Lake Placid and were deposited at Barclays Bank near the school in Kenya, Grimmette said.
"We transferred that money (and) checked to make sure the transfers had gone through properly and that they had received the funding and everything had gone through just as it always does," she said.
Over the course of the next month or so, Grimmette exchanged several emails with who she thought was Jambo Jipya's founder, Christine Mwende. In those emails, Grimmette was told that the money was received and that the capital project was under way. Grimmette planned to speak with Mwende over the phone, but the person who sent the emails continued to delay that conversation.
"So for about a month, we didn't talk," Grimmette said. "When I finally did call her, she said, 'Yup, things are going fine here, and I transferred the money to Uganda that you wanted us to transfer to Uganda.' And that was not anything that was in the plans. That wasn't anything that was agreed upon. We don't have any affiliations with anyone in Uganda. No projects whatsoever."
It turned out that Mwende had been receiving emails from a person she thought was Grimmette, just as Grimmette was receiving emails from someone she thought was Mwende.
Grimmette said Mwende first wired $6,000 via Western Union to a person in Uganda to supposedly help support widows suffering from HIV/AIDS. Additional emails urged Mwende to purchase an incubator from a dealer in Nairobi for $10,000. The emails were convincing, and Mwende made the purchase. The incubator never arrived.
"When we finally touched base on the phone, it was early November," Grimmette said. "Right away, I didn't know if she was lying to me or telling the truth. I had been receiving these emails from who I thought was her kind of putting me off. So I went back through these emails and ended up finding out that there was one letter missing from the email address. It was a fake email address that had been created by a total hacker."
In an email, Mwende wrote that initially she wasn't comfortable with the emails she was receiving. She said she repeatedly responded to the emails asking Grimmette to call, but the responses always said she couldn't.
"At last I sent the money, but my heart was not in peace," Mwende said.
When Mwende finally spoke to Grimmette, she learned that she had been duped, so she contacted local police in Kenya to file a report. The case was handled by a fraud unit specializing in computer crimes.
"Basically, the Kenyan fraud police did a big investigation," Grimmette said. "They did things like confiscate computers from the local Internet cafes that (Christine) had been working on because she doesn't have a laptop, so she had been working in public spaces. So it was unknown if she had left her account open and somebody had hacked in or what exactly happened."
Grimmette noted that since the crime originated in Kenya and Uganda, U.S. law-enforcement agencies couldn't investigate. She did, however, file a report with the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Albany-based cyber squad in hopes of subpoenaing the emails that had been exchanged from the fake accounts.
"Yahoo and Google can provide you with where those emails are coming from, but they won't just do that for any individual," Grimmette said. "The FBI basically ended up telling us that '$17,000 isn't enough money for us to get involved in.'"
Grimmette eventually got some help from FBI Special Agent Jeffrey Barrette, who traced the emails to Uganda. Grimmette said Kenyan police came to the same conclusion.
"This is an individual who has done this before: opened bank accounts within Kenya (and) has acted like they're a business," she said. "They get people to transfer money into their account and then take off. They've done this before apparently."
So far, the person suspected of scamming Reason 2 Smile hasn't been found. Grimmette said police suspect the individual is involved in a larger fraud ring.
"We don't know that we'll ever get any of the money back," she said.
Grimmette said the important thing is that Jambo Jipya has been cleared of any wrongdoing.
"That was our biggest issue at first," she said. "Right away, I contacted my board of directors, and we decided to put our funding on hold. We can't send any more money over if we don't know what's going on."
Grimmette said donors to Reason 2 Smile have been contacted about the scam. The organization has resumed sending monthly funding to Jambo Jipya.
"We wanted to be as open with people as we could be," she said.
Both Grimmette and Mwende say the scam taught them a valuable lesson, one they hope other nonprofits and civic organizations can learn from. Grimmette said she and her board have put new policies in place to prevent something like this from happening again.
"One of the main things is - it might sound silly to the outside - is we didn't have a land line for my office," she said. "I function off my cell phone. ... We had never encouraged (Christine) to contact us. One of the very first things we did is get a land line and tell her, 'This is how you can connect with us if there's an issue.'
"There needs to be voice-to-voice contact."
"When you receive email or any kind of information, you better call the person before you take a step," she said. "It may take time, but better late than never. You have to know (that these) hackers are very clever. ... Be keen as you communicate with your friends."
Contact Chris Morris at 891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.