Kari Ide wanted to do something beautiful in her mother’s memory, so the woman from Maryville, Tennessee, sent her mother’s ashes to an address in Woodstock, Georgia, after a TikTok artist said he’d incorporate the ashes into a painting – free.
It was December, and Ide thought the artist’s offer was aligned with the spirit of Christmas giving. They began lengthy conversations about her mom’s personality, colors and the design for the painting.
A week later, she checked in with the artist, who went by the name Chad. He told her he got a big contract to work in Cambodia. Later that day, she got an alarming email.
The subject line read, “PACKAGE CLEARANCE.” The Google email claimed to be from Cambodian customs and said that a package containing a portrait and ashes needed to be “cleared.”
If she wanted it, she’d have to pay $3,576.
It was a scam. Ide was heartbroken.
And she wasn’t alone. The hoax included two victims from other states, the real artist whose online identity had been stolen, and a Georgia man confused about why ashes began showing up at his door.
Also fooled – according to the victims – was the woman whose CashApp was being used to send money to the person possibly behind it all – a man in Nigeria.
It’s unknown if there are more victims in this scam, but reports indicate scams have grown over time and affect every demographic of people. Though there are ways to protect yourself, advocates are calling on lawmakers to do more.
Kathy Stokes, director of fraud prevention at AARP, said that as more people headed online during the COVID-19 pandemic, scams grew. And scams can affect everyone, across demographic boundaries.
“You can be the smartest person in the world, and that doesn’t matter,” she said. “Because they get you with emotion. And all of us have emotion.”
And it would be hard to hold social media platforms responsible when it comes to scams and fraud. The Communication Decency Act Section 230 of 1996 protects social media platforms like TikTok from being liable for content users post on their platform.
TikTok did not return a request for comment about scams on the platform.
Though none of the victims sent the suspected scammer any money, two of the women are still missing their family’s ashes. They filed reports with the FBI, their local police departments and the Woodstock Police Department in Georgia, where the ashes were sent.
In January, Ide warned people about the scam in a TikTok video.
“My heart is really broken, because it’s kind of all I had, and for somebody to do this to me, it’s one of the most disgusting things you can do to another human being,” she said while tearing up in the TikTok video. “I just want my mom’s cremation remains back.”
The comments came pouring in. There were two more victims.
More than 2,500 miles away from Ide, Jocelyn Cronin of Petaluma, California, shipped her husband’s ashes to the same Woodstock address in December after commenting on one of “Chad’s” videos on TikTok.
A woman messaged her back, saying she wanted to gift Cronin a painting from the artist. All Cronin had to do was ship her husband’s ashes. Cronin didn’t think it was unusual. People often gave things to widows on TikTok, she said, and there was trust in the widower community.
“I thought it was lovely,” she said.
Cronin found solace in TikTok’s widower community after her husband, John, 61, died in 2019 of a heart attack.
Her husband was a longtime firefighter and paramedic in Redwood City, California. They’d been married for 32 years and raised two children and two grandchildren.
“I never doubted John’s love,” she said. “He always put me first.”
A few days after she shipped her husband’s ashes, Cronin got the same email as Ide, telling her a package was in Cambodia and she’d have to pay $3,576 to clear it.
By the time Cronin found out about Ide’s TikTok warning, she also learned there was another victim.
In Albertville, Alabama, Wendy Bailey shipped her grandparents’ ashes to the same Woodstock address in December. Chad contacted her through TikTok as well, asking only for an online shoutout instead of money in exchange for the art.
A few days later, the artist messaged her on WhatsApp, asking for $200 to buy supplies. Bailey didn’t have the money, she said, and asked Chad to return the ashes.
He said he sent the ashes to Cambodia, and if she wanted them back, he’d need $1,000.
It didn’t sound right to Bailey. So, she called the Woodstock Police Department in Georgia.
Woodstock resident James Turner, 62, had lived at his address for 14 months when the ashes started showing up in his mail.
He said he tried to return the first package of ashes that came his way but didn’t have the money.
“I wasn’t going to pay for something I had nothing to do with,” said Turner. He said there was no name on the package and he couldn’t recall where it was from.
So he threw the ashes away.
A second package of ashes arrived in January, but this time a Woodstock police officer came asking for them and told Turner he might be caught up in a scam.
The officer kept Bailey’s grandparents’ ashes until she made the two-hour drive from Alabama.
Had she waited any longer, Turner would have thrown those ashes away, too.
The scammer would occasionally email Ide asking for money, but she stopped responding.
“What is stopping you from getting you getting your ashes?” read the email sent on Christmas Eve.
The scammer also reached out to Cronin via text, saying he’d pay $1,500 to get the ashes back, but she needed to send him $2,000. He coaxed her to pay in installments and sent her a picture of ashes in a bag. He said he was losing his patience.
Cronin made another video on TikTok and mentioned she had more of John’s ashes in an urn at home.
The scammer sent her a screenshot of her video and made a threat – she had two days to come up with the money.
“Otherwise … I don’t need to tell you what I’ll do,” he wrote.
Two weeks later, he told Cronin he would send a video of himself throwing the ashes away.
He would taunt Bailey, too.
“I’ll give you a deadline to pay, otherwise I’ll throw them away,” he wrote in a WhatsApp message. He promised to send her a video.
When Bailey got her ashes back, she sent Chad a picture and told him she was going to tell Turner.
“Well, the owner of the place isn’t aware,” he said in the message. “Fool.”
Federico Portalupi, the artist behind the legitimate work, displays his painting and process on TikTok. As he prepares his canvas, he tells viewers the story about the person he is memorializing and incorporates their ashes into bright colored resin paintings that look like the ocean waves or nebulas.
In January, Portalupi began to wonder why his videos weren’t getting the views they normally did. He had lost nearly 1,000 TikTok followers in a matter of days, he said. His art business depended on how well his videos did, he said.
Other users messaged him about multiple accounts impersonating him on the social media platform, but when he was told about the user account that convinced Cronin, Bailey and Ide to send ashes, Portalupi discovered that he had been blocked.
“I am mind blown by this,” he said. “You gain popularity, and people abuse what you do. Why do humans do this kind of stuff?”
Cronin, Bailey and Ide said they banded together and devised a plan to find the culprit.
Cronin messaged the scammer and said she was ready to send money. He sent her a CashApp address.
To send large amounts of money on CashApp, users must use their full name, date of birth and the last four digits of their Social Security number, according to the CashApp website.
Cronin, Bailey and Ide thought they would be able to reveal the culprit’s identity, but they were further confused when a picture of a woman’s face popped up in the CashApp address.
The women said they spoke to the woman, an Alabama resident in her 50s. They believe she, too, had been duped by someone sitting halfway across the world.
Their trail ended there, leaving Ide heartbroken about the likely loss of her mother’s ashes. Cronin also has resigned herself to the fact that she may never get her husband’s ashes back.
Cronin and Bailey gave USA TODAY two phone numbers they used to contact Chad – one was a Florida-based Google Voice number that shared the same area code as Portalupi’s phone number, and another had a Cambodian country code. USA TODAY contacted both numbers but did not receive a reply.
Turner, in Woodstock, said he had no idea why his address was chosen. He has not been charged with any crime.
He has been vigilant, hoping no more ashes show up at his door. He intends to call the police if they do.
“I’m sorry what’s going on with these ladies. This is just where the world is nowadays.”
4 tech tips to avoid cyber scams
ProblemSolved, USA TODAY
Amritpal Kaur Sandhu-Longoria is the consumer watchdog investigative reporter on USA TODAY’s Money team. Send her your tips at email@example.com, @AmritpalKSL, or on Signal at (279) 789-2462, or fill out a form here.
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