Columbia-Savin Hill Civic loses $11.3k in email scam

The Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association lost more than $11,000 early this year after fraudulent interactions led to the improper withdrawal of funds from the association’s account.

According to Desmond Rohan, president of the neighborhood group, the group’s treasurer “got tricked” into wiring out funds to a scammer on four occasions in January.

“She’s devastated by it, as I am,” he told the Reporter in an interview on Monday.

On Jan. 5, Columbia-Savin Hill’s treasurer, Nicole Chelkowski, received an email from a sender she believed to be Rohan requesting wire payment to a vendor. The file was masked as coming from Rohan’s online address, although it was not sent by him. The payment was sent out on Jan. 8.

In a July letter explaining the situation to the civic’s members, Rohan wrote that the fraudulent email “requested the account balance and additional fees for a grant application with immediate payment deadlines.” Three more payments were made that month at the fraudulent emailer’s request, for a total outlay of $11,328.

Among the funds lost were about $4,000 in proceeds from the Joe Chaisson memorial dinner fund, intended for neighborhood betterment projects. This impacts annual gems like the Chili Cookoff, the Dorchester Day Parade, the Martin Richard Foundation One Boston Day, the annual tree lighting, and BPD District C-11 Halloween events.

The association has instituted stronger protections for its treasury, mandating the use of written checks only, implementing regular treasury updates, and limiting the number of people with access to account information.

The possibility of recouping the stolen funds is complicated because of the way the fraudulent wires were approved: The scammer didn’t walk into a bank and steal the money in person; Chelkowski, an association officer, signed off on the transfers.

Rohan said the civic group has been advised to subpoena each of the receiving banks to gather account details.

The investigative sergeant at Boston Police district C-11 said a trace could be put on the email in an attempt to identify the IP address and owner, but given how much time has passed between the fraud and the reporting of the loss, it’s unlikely the email is still active.

Some see a bit of silver lining in the case: Operating costs for the association are minimal, and it doesn’t have many bills. Still, the loss of thousands is a “terrible” setback for planned projects.

As they try to find help with navigating the legal hurdles associated with subpoenas, the group is working to raise funds and chip in themselves as executive board members to replace the already earmarked amounts, he said, and to “claw back some of those funds.”

For those interested in donating or offering legal expertise, contact the group through its website, columbiasavinhillcivic.org, where members are also posting updates on ways to avoid similar scams.