There’s nothing like being an event planner. The exhilaration of creating a unique program replete with entertainment for adults, fun for the kids, inspiring speakers, and scrumptious food, is an experience like none other. Of course, nothing is perfect, and sometimes I come up against a sub-par group of waiters (I hire new personnel for each event), or a customer who dislikes their accommodations, but generally my events are successful and rewarding experiences.
I specialize in programs for Shabbos under the business name “Deluxe Retreat”, and it’s common for me to have around 1000 people per event. As someone who loves to make people happy, who thrives on being helpful, I spent years doing everything myself: ads, marketing, booking – no detail was too small. But it was clearly too much for me – the events were amazing, but I was never sure of my profits, and sometimes bills were paid later than I intended.
“Heshy Goldstein,” a good friend admonished. “You’re going to crack under the pressure unless you get help!” He recommended an excellent bookkeeper who would shoulder many of the responsibilities.
Over the last few years, I tried branching out into Pesach programs. There had been some discouraging obstacles along the way, but this year, I was determined to make it work. I had found a reasonably priced, spacious hotel in Atlantic City, the vendors were lined up, the program was slowly coming together, and I was trying to keep up with the flood of details, responses, and logistical nuances. With my new, efficient bookkeeper, every penny was accounted for.
As we got closer to Pesach, it was time to pay the hotel and various vendors deposits to secure their services. In order to do that, we had to receive money from our customers, and this was always a process that involved a tremendous amount of pressure from all sides. However, my bookkeeper seemed to be handling everything well. He sent me screenshots of every transaction – exactly on time – and I was filled with gratitude for his hard work.
Ten days before Pesach, the manager of the hotel called.
“We needed a deposit by Monday, Heshy,” he informed me. “It hasn’t arrived yet.”
“We sent the money; my bookkeeper just updated me,” I replied confidently. “Maybe the bank is just taking a little time to process the transaction.”
“Alright, but you understand – we don’t want excuses. We want the money.” It was a final warning.
The next day my phone rang again. The manager was curt. “Heshy, you’re fooling us. We didn’t get the money. You obviously never sent it. We are canceling the event, and I’ve already looked into some alternatives.” Ignoring my protests and shocked denials, the phone went dead.
I leaped into my car, horror flooding my mind at the possibilities ahead. I had a staff waiting to kasher the kitchen, a mashgiach on his way to Atlantic City, and hundreds of people counting on me. How could this be happening?
At the hotel, I was informed that it would be three hours before I could speak to anyone in charge. I davened, paced, and nearly went out of my mind with frustration. It was one of the hardest days of my life, but I tried to hold on to some shreds of hope. One look at the manager’s cold face, and I could feel those last bits of hope disintegrating.
“The deal is off,” he told me. “We’ve finalized with someone else.”
“But how can that be? The money was sent – I saw it leave my account! I have screenshots of every transaction! My bookkeeper took care of every detail!”
“Let’s speak to your bookkeeper,” the manager suggested.
I put my bookkeeper on speakerphone and asked, “How is it that you sent money to a person, and he says they never received it?”
The bookkeeper was puzzled. “Maybe the hotel didn’t check their other account.”
“What other account?” demanded the manager.
“I received an email from you instructing me not to use the Bank of America account because you were being audited. I was instructed to use the PNC account. I’ve been following those instructions.”
“We only use Bank of America,” insisted the manager.
“Ask your controller,” my bookkeeper proposed.
Within a few minutes, an elderly woman had entered the room. When informed about the transactions, she shook her head. “We never had a PNC account. Only Bank of America.”
It was time to scrutinize the emails between my bookkeeper and the hotel. Everything in the email looked perfect – the names of the hotel personnel, the signature, the company – except for the undeniable fact that the money had never reached the bank. Where was the money? And then one of the hotel staff pointed out something we hadn’t noticed before: in the middle of
the email conversation, the email address had suddenly changed from email@example.com to firstname.lastname@example.org. Only one ‘r’ added, but it spelled the difference between triumph and disaster. The money had been diverted by a cruel, clever con artist.
“You’ve been scammed. Tough luck, but we can’t work with you,” the hotel manager informed me coldly.
The devastation was complete. I was left with no program, mountains of debt, and I knew that as soon as the news broke, I would be the target of hundreds of furious vendors and customers who had relied on me.
Amid the furor of angry comments, accusations and heartache, there were vendors and companies who called to express solidarity.
“What you suffered is called a phishing scam,” they told me. “It’s happened to us.”
“Why didn’t you ever publicize what happened?” I asked. “People should know about this!”
A good friend, who is a marketing guru and networking specialist, told me: “When you go public, the story is not your own anymore.” I heard, but I didn’t agree. Helping others is practically part of my DNA, and I didn’t want anyone else to suffer the way I was suffering. It was time to let everyone know what happened.
I wanted to help others, but the price I paid was very steep. The center of ill-natured rumors, every disgruntled customer and vendor cashed in on the negative circumstances. As much as I strive for perfection, I acknowledge that I make mistakes. I was paid back for every single one. Websites reported sensationalist headlines to drum up views, and a slick con artist wheedled my secretary into giving him a list of those who had lost out on my Pesach program. He then offered to return their money through a lawsuit against me – if they paid him. Knowing that this scammer was taking further advantage of my customers and myself was extremely painful.
A generous donor sponsored Pesach for my family that year, as I was still in a state of shock, but even this was partially ruined by gossips who took photos of my family and posted them online with cruel captions.
My wife was attacked, and even my children were insulted. “Your father is a ganav!” was a taunt hurled at my daughter. “When is your husband going to jail?” someone asked my wife.
It’s so easy to judge, especially without knowing all the facts. I know that my biggest crime in the affair was trying to help other people, but instead of being offered help, many turned against me. The scammer stole my money and my self-respect, but the people who falsely accused me and my family stole so much more. People don’t realize that a scam is not the end – it can be the beginning of an extremely painful period in a person’s life. There is the missing money, perhaps poverty, and widespread suspicion. We need to learn to judge less harshly, to offer compassion in place of cruelty.
But despite everything, I’m still publicizing my story. I have already received thanks from people who were saved from tremendous losses due to my story, and that gives me the courage to continue. I still want people to know what happened and to learn from my mistakes. I still want to give, to help, to do good for others. I have lost so much, but I’ve gained wisdom and experience, which I’m sharing with you. Use it wisely.
Phishing Scams and How to Protect Yourself
1. Scammers have patience and creativity. They follow a conversation, and insert themselves at the perfect moment, usually when people are under pressure.
2. Never send money to a different account without affirming the change with a person whose number you already have.
3. Check email addresses carefully – the smallest discrepancy is a sign of fraud.
4. Forward phishing emails to the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) at email@example.com.
(Based on Heshy Goldstein and aarp.org)