Christmas Eve is generally a busy day for retail stores. It’s the final opportunity last minute shoppers have to secure items for friends and family. Instead of spending the day assisting eager customers, one local merchant spent the day anxiously trying to figure out what happened to his operating capital.
Jeremy Parker, the owner of Unique Memories & Gifts in Rocky Mount, says he woke up on the morning of Dec. 24 to a barrage of notifications on his phone from PayPal. Each one indicated that hundreds of dollars had been spent by someone other than himself at samsclub.com. The majority of the transactions were for $878. One transaction was for $978. The transactions continued until all $10,000 that Parker had in his account was gone.
“I was in shock because I couldn’t do anything about it. They wiped the account out,” he said. The transactions started at 1 a.m. Dec. 24 and ended at 5:15 a.m. “There was nothing we could have done.”
As soon as he realized what had happened, he started calling PayPal. He has been using the service since 2010. Given the fact that it was Christmas Eve, he had a difficult time getting in touch with a representative from the financial technology company. After finally getting through to someone, he made PayPal aware of the situation. The service wasn’t immediately able to determine how someone accessed Parker’s account information. While the representative he spoke with told him that this type of thing doesn’t happen often, she did say fraudulent charges do tend to occur more frequently this time of year.
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On PayPal’s website, those who think someone has used their account without permission are encouraged to report it immediately. “Report it within 60 days of when it appeared on your statement and if unauthorized transactions are eligible, you won’t be held liable,” the site reads.
He is currently in a process to dispute the charges, which will likely take up to two weeks. “Hopefully we get it all back. I’m pretty sure we will because I think they’re insured for that,” he said.
Jon Engle, who works in media relations for PayPal, made the following comment about Parker’s case: “I can share that their unauthorized claim is currently being worked, but an outcome hasn’t been determined as of yet. The team will be in contact with the customer once that decision has been made.”
The question of whether or not he will get the money back looms large in Parker’s mind. The $10,000 that was stolen from him represents the entire operating funds for Unique Memories & Gifts. He said he needs the money to pay for rent and supplies. “That’s all our funds,” he said.
The fact that he is without operating funds has forced Parker to keep his business closed this week following the holiday weekend. “We can’t really buy anything right now. We can’t buy supplies or nothing for the store,” he said. “We wanted to start working on stuff for the new year, but it’s kind of on pause right now.” Parker will open back up for business on Jan. 2.
What Parker says happened to him has caught the attention of some locals. “The community is pulling together,” he said.
He received a donation from a church in Roanoke following the incident. The Rev. Ray Bell of the Cowboy Church of Virginia promptly reached out to Parker after hearing about what had happened. Bell’s church gave Parker a $1,000 donation on Christmas. On Dec. 27, the church offered to pay Parker’s mortgage and rent for his business for the month of January using leftover funds from a previous project. Parker accepted the offer. “It’s a family of eight who has a business tied into their income and they lost $10,000. Short of a miracle, you aren’t going to survive that. You’re going to be bankrupt within two weeks,” Bell said. “This isn’t a negligent issue. Somebody stole $10,000 from these people. You can pray for them all you want, but that isn’t going to get the bills paid.”
Parker hopes that talking about what happened to him will help others realize that it can also happen to them. “You never think that would happen to you,” he said. “I’ve never had anything happen with PayPal before like this. You have to watch everywhere you go.”
Daniel Pinard, cultural and economic development director for Rocky Mount, said, “What happened to Jeremy is a terrible thing to happen to a small business, especially one in their position. They just made a jump to a larger location and were really starting to get some traction.”
He stressed that because more and more business is conducted online these days as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses big and small alike need to place cybersecurity at the forefront of the operations. He suggested businesses that are interested in increasing their cybersecurity capabilities reach out to their local chambers of commerce or the Roanoke Regional Small Business Development Center for guidance. “It’s best to prevent problems, rather than react to problems,” he said. “Start making plans to address it before something like this happens.”
When asked about situations like Parker’s, Juliana Gruenwald in the Office of Public Affairs at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission directed The Roanoke Times to a 2018 blog post that suggests users of peer-to-peer payment systems like PayPal “consider turning on multi-factor authentication, requiring a PIN, or using fingerprint recognition like Touch ID.“
Prem Uppuluri, a professor of information sciences at Radford University and the director of the university’s Center for Information Security, said that fraudulent purchases on platforms such as PayPal typically occur because a person has fallen victim to a phishing attack or because of weak authentication. “In general, at a minimum, everyone should enable two-factor authentication on their web accounts,” he said.
PayPal does offer a second authentication factor for those who want extra account security. “In addition to your password, you enter a one time pin that’s unique for each login. These two factors give you stronger account security,“ information available on its website states.
Unique Memories & Gifts opened in Rocky Mount last February. The business sells custom-made wood signs and various other unique gifts. Due to the fact that business was good, Parker relocated his business to a larger location at 350 Old Franklin Turnpike in October. The move enabled him to expand his offerings, including paint splatter parties.
Despite the recent setback, Parker said that the business is still in a good place. On Dec. 1, he took over Full Armor Custom Apparel’s trophy and plaque business. He also expects to get thousands of different pottery molds, which will allow him to expand his pottery offerings. When he moved to his new location in October, he added a kiln.
“It’s going good. More people know about us now,” he said.