Scrap Metal Fraud: Diary of Export Heart Attack

Dear Diary,

This is a story of a scrap dealer, who has to make payroll while meeting Responsible Recycler standards in an international marketplace.  This is all true, all happening in the past two weeks.

China 2005
Monday... We are still dealing with the aftermath of a missed wire transfer from a USA client.   We took the wire (about $60K) for granted and wrote some big checks against it.   Someone at the sender's local bank claimed to be asleep at the switch (though I think it should be investigated whether the money was withdrawn from the client account on the day of the wire, and the bank was kiting it for 24 hours).   Bank fraud can mean the bank's fraud.  We were hit with about $1600 in bounced check fees and panicked phone calls with our own payees.  I took screen shots of our account showing the wire was late and the correspondence from the client sending us the money that their account had cleared it the day earlier.

Rachael, our CFO, makes the case that the wires are outrageous, taking $20-30 from the sender client and then $18 at our receiving bank... wonders whether we should use more paper checks to avoid the accumulated bank fees.

Tuesday:   To make up for the panic among our suppliers for the bounced checks the previous Friday (one of our loads was actually held and not unloaded until we sent another wire to cover the bad check, truck idling), we issue more checks to get the payables under 30 days.  To do that I need to sell some of the $150K in scrap metal that we have processed in the building.

Wednesday:  We re-double sort the green board to eliminate the "jelly bean" boards (yellow, purple, red, and blue boards typically made in China and typically having much less gold content), to get a better price than our last load sent to the R2 compliant buyer.   That takes extra staff time, and it's part of the reason we have so much metal value in inventory that I now desperately need to cash out.  The high grade printed circuit boards had been processed by our USA buyer for sale to Umicore or Boliden in Belgium or Dowa in Japan... it takes 90-120 days for our buyer to get the reconciliation on their load, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

They evidently got some loads back with way less gold than they expected and were told that the culprit was "jelly bean" boards.  They factored their loss over average loads going forward, and my company took a $6,000 hit.  They admitted they didn't know whose boards had how many jelly beans, it was an average spread out to cover their losses.

We are in a good position because we are not "promiscuous sellers" or "fickle".  We don't sleep around and switch from buyer to buyer very often.  You can get a better price by soliciting competition, but the problem with that is the temptation scrappers would have to sell Buyer A pure greenboard and no Jelly Bean Boards (average value about $4.50 per pound) and sell Buyer B a "mix" of greenboard and jelly beans.    My problem was that the "average" value was spread among fickly and loyal clients, and if some are playing the "sweet loads to buyer B" game they will win in the averaging.  So we have to shut down for a day and hand-sort $80,000 worth of computer boards into diffent M&M boxes.

We wind up with A) legitimate reason to bid out the load and get multiple bids, B) a higher price, C) more knowledge of our product, and D) a reputation for being a top-shelf scrap company.   I feel particular pride and vindication... until the checks bounce because of the cash flow dearth while I played Hamlet with our printed wiring boards.

Thursday:   The computer wiring boards off and on their way to the USA-to-EU or Japan processing, I now turn to the copper and aluminum.   I wish I had the cash flow to sell these separately.  They are both work average of $1ish per pound (for yokes, coils, and other lead-free components).  I have to sell them to an intermediary, because the odd fact that Copper smelters HATE aluminum contamination and Aluminum Smelters HATE copper.  Each is valuable by itself, but a "tramp element" in the smelting process of the other.  So you'll always get a better price if you can afford to have a completely different shippable quantity. But the middleman adds value by paying for a combined load and taking responsibility for completely regrading.

I have to explain this to our own suppliers, who sometimes look up the value of an item and expect the exact same value for LTL (less than load) as if I were bidding on a full load.  If I'm buying a pallet of something, I may have to sit on it for months before I ship it or may have to send it on a variety load to cash it out.  If you want top LME value, call me when you can fill a whole container.

Friday:  We put together the exact weight, inventory, and photos of the top of each pallet of non-ferrous metal.  I have to do this right, we need the $50K while waiting for the computer board sales to clear.

We do this because most non-ferrous (copper and aluminum) buyers are Chinese or buyers for Chinese buyers.   Vancouver is a Mecca of non-ferrous buyers, but Toronto and Montreal are big too.  Selling direct to China is a little more tricky.

The language is a barrier, the time at sea is a barrier, and to make matters worse, the Chinese buyers have to distrust the sellers.  Look at this article from Recycling International about loads of copper scrap sold to buyers last summer.  The Chinese buyer pays up front for hundreds of thousands of dollars in scrap copper, and opens the sea container to find:   DIRT.  Plain old backloader rocks and hardpan dirt.

Was it the seller?  Was it a middleman or broker?  Did someone mix up a sea container?  Did the buyer want to claim it on their insurance and put the real metal safely elsewhere?  We don't know, but from the article it sure looks like someone in China got defrauded on a scrap copper sale.

When that happens to someone WE are selling to, we know that like the USA-European circuit board buyer, the Chinese buyer will have to "spread the pain".  You are almost afraid to sell to someone who has taken that kind of loss, as they may take it by the nickel and dime making claims and downgrades on other loads they can get away with.

I go to recount and inspect the load on the weekend, and write up the booking numbers and paperwork on Sunday.

Monday:  I've decided it's such a large amount, and time is sensitive, so I'll work with a buyer from Montreal.  Not the highest bidder, but close enough to inspect the load and to witness our loads in person.  We've dealt with each other before.

Actually, the last time we worked together was a problem.  He was buying plastic, offering a higher price, and selling our "pure" plastic to China proper.  He called after a few loads and said that someone at customs had found something - a piece of metal or a printer part or something - and had held the load at customs.

He wanted us to share the cost of the seizure.  The problem with that is that we had heard the same seizure stories across the plastic scrap market.   China had decided to crack down... if any American company gets caught being "soft", the bad loads will all be attributed to the company willing to pay.  No good deed goes unpunished.  Even if our Montreal buyer thinks the load is ours, the plastic buyer in China is likely to force anyone willing to pay to pay the cost, whether it was their load or not.

It's all a lesson in accountability.  So I invite the Montreal Chinaman to come pre-inspect the loads and put a deposit before I arrange freight forwarding and shipping.

Tuesday:  The Montreal Chinaman comes and brings his wife and her friend with him.   He has a side hobby, he says, of buying antiques in Vermont and reselling them in China.  Fascinating - he says he buys on the average for $200, and sells for $1000.  They bring 2 obnoxious small poodle dogs, and it's raining so the doggies stay in my office while he inspects the loads.

He likes the look of the scrap, my paperwork and organization.  I like him, and the two women and the dogs make it all seem more personal.  He writes a check for $20K as a downpayment on the first container, which we try to arrange for Friday, when he says he will return to observe the loading.   He asks me to help write the amounts on the check because his English handwriting is bad.  A little weird.  But it's true, his English handwriting is atrocious.  He leaves around 7PM.

Wednesday:  I get the booking number arranged and try to arrange shipping.  I deposit the $20K check and  it clears the account.  Turns out the loading cut off date is 4PM on Friday, not enough time to make it back to port!  So I have to re-do the whole thing, rearrange the inland trucking, it's a nuisance.

Thursday:  The trucking company refuses to schedule the load until they SEE the renewed booking number, which won't reappear until the following week.  They have to protect their trucks from getting tied up in a quarrel over wires, payments etc.  So I have to call the Montreal buyer and tell him to wait until Monday.

Friday:  Can't get the container until Tuesday.  Have to call the buyer again to reschedule.  He seems ok with it.  By now I've spent the $20K he deposited, which cleared without a problem or question, so there is no going back.   But he asks if we can do 2 containers instead of 1 on Tuesday, as he saw more than two loads there, and so he doesn't have to return twice that week?  He'll pay the balance of the first container value.    I'm slightly nervous about this, but say as long as he is present, with the check, I'll do it.

Monday:  Paid staff weekend overtime to pprepare 2 loads for shipping, rearranging our own dock appointments.  Montreal Chinaman calls to say he will be late.  I tell him we will put $20K (what he has paid for) on the first container for sure, but that the second container will be a lot of cheaper scrap if he's late.  He insists we not do that and says he will change his schedule to be there so we put more value.  He says if he doesn't pay, I can keep his dog!

I still take time to set up more value (degaussing wire, copper yokes) in the first container, set lesser scrap up for the second, and more value in the way for a third.

Tuesday:  Montreal Chinaman arrives, with wife and one dog, and sees the container being loaded.   I go to my office, leaving Zach to weigh and load, and inern Adelaide to photograph each scrap article.

Initially, he tries to insist that I put ALL the top value scrap first and leave the lighter scrap for last.  I tell him that buyers who do that leave another buyer with less to choose from, and say there is no cherry picking.  He laughs and says I must have had a lot of bad experiences!

About an hour later, Montreal Chinaman comes up and says he is SO happy with the way everything is going that he's going to go antiquing some more while we finish the second container.  He says our company is excellent, accountable, the photos are great.

Tuesday evening he returns and goes over the paperwork.  I have printer problems, costing me another hour.  Finally he writes 3 checks, one for the balance of the first container (went well over $20K, nearly overweight), one for he second, and a third for the trucking (which I've had to arrange).

He gives me a gift - a Vermont antique vase.  And I give him advice about Vermont hospitals, and we discuss the delays in Canadian health care vs. USA care...

Wednesday:  I deposit the 3 new checks, for about $30K, the next morning.  The freight forwarding company calls to say I'm late with one more piece of paperwork for each of the two containers.   I get the paperwork sent to Customs and clear the containers by the end of the day, after a busy time and interruptions and am sorry they had to call and remind me THREE times to fax in that last paperwork.

Thursday:  The Montreal Chinaman's checks clear again, I'm working on other items, getting ready to arrange the third container next week, working on plastic scrap shipping and incoming client loads.  The $30K checks show up on my company account, and I feel good that I've managed the books following the scare with the late incoming wire.  Montreal Chinaman calls and says he left his IPhone charger in his hotel room, asks me to go get it an mail it to him.  I do so, wondering if his phone will go dead because I sent it Priority Mail instead of express.

Friday Afternoon:  I now have to really worry about his phone...

The two largest checks, totalling almost $30K, are reversed and debited from my company account at Citizens Bank!!  There are two $30 penalty debits, I presume for the bounced checks.

Do I call the bank first or call Montreal Chinaman first?

I decide to call the bank before they close.   Hard to get to a person.  When I get to one, he says that the checks had been held by the Royal Bank of Canada.  He says there are only two possible reasons - that the buyer has called in fraud so that the checks won't clear, or that the buyer does not have the money in the account!  I make him repeat that the hold came from the Bank in Canada, and get the bank account number.

This is really bad.  I already had a bounced check experience, this is a huge amount to have in the account for two days and then have reversed.

I call China Montrealman... afraid his phone will not pick up.  Was it part of the alibi, to leave the phone plug?  Is this why he had me write the numbers on the check?  He picks up right away.

I tell him about the checks being debited.

He says it's not possible, he has $300K in that account and did not call in a reversal.

I say what my bank has told me.

He says he will call his bank and call back.  He does so, says his bank says the money is in his account but denies that they did not honor the checks.

I send him a screen shot of the amounts debited.

He calls back and says he is very upset, that it is a "loss of face" for his reputation, to have his checks treated this way when he has done everything right.  I say nonetheless, I don't have he metal in my building and don't have the money in my account and will have to call in a fraud report to the freight forwarder if we can't resolve this.

He says please don't do that, he will pay the money by wire on Monday.

I wonder.. do I really know how to find him?  Is this to get back at me for the plastic load from years earlier?  Am I a sucker for taking personal checks?  How many people could he have done this to?  Am I over-reacting?  He seems nice, we've had genuinely nice and personal interactions all week, I met his wife and petted his dog.

I kind of trust him.  But I kind of feel like I could bounce payroll and lose my business.  I'm sure I should go to all wire transfers, all the time, before a load leaves the dock.

The only person ever to do the call-the-check-bad afterwards was a local Vermonter, by the way, for $1K that we ate in 2009.   But this is $30K.  I can't take this kind of risk.

On Saturday I call Citizens Bank again, just in case there's more advice or another answer, and so I can tell Chinaman from Montreal that I'm making efforts to resolve this.  He doesn't pick up the phone when I call him from inside the lobby of the local Citizens Bank branch.

It's a long wait again, and I decide to call headquarters of Citizens Bank over again while I wait.  First person says they don't know and sends me to a second person, all through the same call-in touch-button screening rigamarole again.

This person says that the two checks were NOT debited by the Royal Bank of Canada.  She says the check amounts were re-debited and were held by Citizens Bank international office, NOT by the Canadian bank...!


I ask why did they tell me the previous day that there were only two possibilities, both originating in Canada, either a call on to hold the check or insufficient funds?  I said this was very embarrassing to me and my buyer.

She says that this has ALWAYS been the policy of Citizens Bank, to initially show the credit, then to debit out the amount while it's verified by the international office (not open on Saturday), a couple of days later.

I tell her that's ridiculous.  I've been banking with them for 10 years.

I say first, my company has done millions of dollars in business over the decade and I don't recall this EVER happening.  She says it has always been the policy.  Quite a gap.

I ask, if it has ALWAYS been the policy, then why did the $20K deposit the week before not get debited?

She said it must have been from a different bank or under the set amount.

I say it's the same man, same company, larger amount, same checkbook.  Was Citizens Bank mistaken that time or this time?

She says they must have been mistaken that time, as what they've done now, letting me think I have $30K in the bank for two days and then reversing it, is the correct policy.

So the guy who told me the checks bounced the day before... he was wrong?

She says she cannot say because she was not on the call.

I asked if she didn't have this call and previous calls on record in the system?

Anyway, at this point it's a weekend, and all I know is that I don't have the money in the account, one Citizens Bank rep says the Royal Bank of Canada reversed it, another says their own office reversed it temporarily until funds cleared...

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