A few months ago, Clark Metal Fabrication got the order it had been dreaming of.
ExxonMobil was laying a pipeline in Canada and it needed several speciality parts — basically pipes wrapped with expensive wire — as part of the job. A representative from ExxonMobil said he had been working with a metal fabricator in Virginia, but that company wasn't doing its job. He needed those parts. He needed them right away.
And he would pay a couple hundred thousand dollars if Clark Metal Fabrication could make them.
"We had just had the discussion of, 'If we don't get some work in the shop this week, we're going to have to let two people go,'" said office manager Jan Bachelder. "So this came in and it was like 'Wow. Hallelujah. Thank you. We needed this.' It was work that was going to keep us through January."
Clark was told to order the pricey wire from a company in Pennsylvania — for $38,000. It wasn't uncommon for Clark to pay upfront for the materials its projects needed. Usually it got a deposit first. This time it didn't.
This time it should have.
The ExxonMobil representative was a scam artist. The Pennsylvania company he told Clark to buy the wire from? No such place existed. The small Turner business had actually sent $38,000 to the scammer's account.
It isn't the only business to fall for the scam. But by warning others, it hopes to be the last.
"This guy's out there and he's coming up the East Coast," Bachelder said.
Founded 12 years ago, Clark Metal Fabrication does custom metal fabrication work, from welding broken equipment for local farmers to making building repairs at the other end of the state. It has 10 employees.
Clark got the call from the fake ExxonMobil representative in August. Everything he said seemed plausible, from the cost of the job to the reason for the rush. He said the project kept him out of an office and he was only reachable by cell phone. He said Maine was the best location to get the work done because the parts could be easily shipped to Canada. He agreed to the $98,000 deposit Clark requested but said the wire would have to be ordered — and paid for — immediately for it to be there when the pipeline pipe arrived in a few days, so Clark billed him for the deposit and paid for the wire on its own.
ExxonMobil was a well-known company. This was a rush job. Clark needed the work. So it didn't push the upfront deposit.
"Everything fit," Bachelder said. "Nothing red flagged. Until that pipe didn't come."
The pipe was supposed to arrive on a Monday or Tuesday. It never did. The $38,000 wire did arrive, but it wasn't the expensive speciality wire Clark had expected. It was a cheap version worth only about $50 a roll.
The ExxonMobil representative had told Clark he was going on vacation. He never answered his phone again.
A basic investigation seemed to show the guy was legitimate. ExxonMobil was working on a pipeline project like the one he'd described. The oil company's Web site listed him as an employee.
But the fake ExxonMobil representative had used the name of real employee James Feather. It was the real James Feather who gave Clark Metal Fabrication's owner, Bill Clark Jr., the bad news.
"He said 'I'm sorry but you've been scammed and you're not the only one,'" Bachelder said.
ExxonMobil declined to comment Monday.
Clark soon learned that the scam artist was based in Houston, Texas, and had pulled similar scams on other small businesses. He used different names and different cell phone numbers, but the underlying swindle was the same.
Jeff Lee, an investigator for the high tech crimes division of the Harris County Constable's Office in Texas, said he is investigating Clark Metal Fabrication's complaint and several similar complaints from businesses all across the country.
"The Internet brings everybody into your house," he said.
Clark is not out just the $38,000, but also $5,000 for a special machine it bought to do the work and another couple of thousand dollars for workers to get the shop ready for the massive pipes the small business would be working on. It's money it won't be getting back anytime soon, if at all.
The company learned Monday that its insurance company won't reimburse it for the loss. It has insurance against fraud, but not that kind of fraud.
"The insurance guy said, 'We don't insure you for the cost of doing business,'" Bachelder said.
Clark has spent the last few months quietly warning others in its industry to beware of the scam. On Monday the company decided to go public so it could warn more people.
Clark has not had to lay off workers as it feared in August. Still, times have been hard and there have been weeks in which the owner didn't take a paycheck so his employees could.
Losing money to a scam didn't help.
"It's not lethal," Bachelder said, "but it certainly was crushing."