Alleged Cleveland Facebook scam costs moms $200,000+ across U.S.: A Carl Monday investigation
CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - Hundreds of moms in dozens of cities say they've been scammed out of more than $200,000 by a 23-year-old woman living in public housing in Cleveland.
The women all joined a mom's group on Facebook called "Zee's Place," expecting bargain prices on everything from baby car seats to diapers and toys. Zee's Place was reportedly run by Zienup Sbeih, who told the Facebook group she was able to offer great deals thanks to donations and grants.
In most cases, the goods never got delivered.
The Cleveland 19 Investigative Team tracked hundreds of alleged victims to 34 different states and Canada. Despite the complaints, Zee's Place is still operating and accepting orders.
We recently set up a meeting with her in an area shopping center. My producer wore hidden cameras while arranging to buy discounted car seats from Sbeih. Zee's Place members say Sbeih has been dodging their demands for refunds for months. When my photographer and I approached her to try and find out why, Sbeih bolted before answering any of our questions.
The Cleveland Police Department and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation are currently conducting a joint investigation of Sbeih.
Jill Del Greco, a spokesperson for the Office of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, said the Cleveland Police Department asked BCI to provide investigative assistance in this case back on April 28. BCI has sent investigative questionnaires to dozens of alleged victims, asking them what they purchased from Zee's Place, and what they did or did not receive.
At first, Victoria Cook of North Carolina was skeptical about buying from Zee's Place, until a half-priced car seat showed up on her doorstep.
"I got the car seat and I was like, 'Maybe it's not fake then,'" Cook said. After receiving a few items, Cook said she was hooked. She said she went on to buy everything from cleaning supplies to Christmas gifts for her children and claims the $6,000 in merchandise she purchased never materialized.
After seeing people in the Facebook group actually receiving items from Zee's Place, California mom Cristina Stanczak decided to take a chance and purchase three car seats for her 13-month-old triplets. She said she spent a total of $700 and didn't receive one item.
Stanczak said Sbeih did eventually give her a refund for her missing goods, but then disputed the refund with the bank, leaving Stanczak out $700 once again.
"Three days later she canceled the Quick Pay and $700 was taken immediately out of our account. That's when it all just hit the floor. That's when we realized we had been taken," Stanczak said.
Laura Helm, a mom from Texas, said she spend $1,300 dollars buying stuff from Zee's Place, but only received about $200 worth of goods.
"It didn't seem like a scam at first, but then it all just kind of fell apart," Helm said.
She said she sensed something was off when Sbeih went from hawking baby gear to big ticket items, like vehicles, electronics and trips.
"Things started to go wrong in October. That's when I noticed things being funny. She started selling trips around the world, Disney World, Puerto Rico, motorcycles, boats, RVs, and things started getting real sketchy," Helm said.
Tiffany Smith, a Texas mother of two, purchased one of those heavily discounted trips for her family.
"It was for Disney, and it was a five-day trip. She even gave you details, like dates and the name of [the resort]; we were supposed to say 'Art of Animation,'" Smith said.
Another possible red flag -- Zee's Place would often demand payment in the form of electronic gift cards, from retailers like Amazon, Walmart and Target.
"She's truly a scam artist. Uses good techniques. When lots of people are posting themselves receiving items, it makes it more trusting. But eventually everybody caught on," Smith said.
But not before Zee's Place allegedly capitalized on a child's death.
When a member of Facebook group lost her 7-month-old son to SIDS, Zee's Place offered up $300 Owlet infant health monitors for $25 a piece.
"There were at least 100 women on the page that bought these monitors. She claimed they would be out in a couple weeks, but they never came," Helm said.
The women in the group also said Sbeih would even use her own daughter as a pawn to solicit money and donations. Records from the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court show Sbeih lost permanent custody of her daughter last year after admitting to charges of abuse and neglect.
"I think what she does is she starts by doing these deals, and then she'll send you one thing or two things, or you see people receiving things. After that she says, 'The shipping people are having a hard time,' or 'I'm behind.' She always did this stuff where she was in the hospital, or a family member died, of something happened with her daughter. She always had an excuse," said Ohio mom Shayla Maldonado. She said she's out $1,100 from the alleged Zee's Place scam.
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