Have They Got a Scammy Deal for You
Sunday, September 11, 2005
Check your e-mail often enough and you might get the feeling there's a scammer born every minute. That's what Brian Stewart concluded after recently posting an online classified at Cars.com to sell his sister-in-law's 1992 Toyota Camry.
The sharks started circling his ad immediately. "For every legitimate e-mail I receive about the car, I get 10 scam e-mails," says Stewart, a FedEx courier who lives in Charles Town, W.Va.
Most of the suspect e-mails are similar, he says. "Many said they were agents for buyers in Europe. And, they all obviously did not speak English as a first language."
Someone calling himself "Guney Azerbaycan" sent a "Dear Seller" e-mail saying he wanted to buy the car for the asking price, would ship it himself, and urged Stewart to provide his name and address "for immediate payment."
Another came from a "Chuck Brooks," who claimed he works for UNICEF and is stationed in London, where his shipping agent would deliver the car. And a "James Edward" contacted Stewart, supplying a phony Virginia phone number and a Seattle Zip code. He claimed to represent "a client" who wanted to buy the car for his son: "The check that will be sent to you will include the money for the sales of your item and the shipper's fees for the pick up of the car. . . ."
Stewart smelled something fishy and didn't reply to the e-mails. But he wonders how the scam works.
Known as the "car-selling scam," the "overpayment scam" and the "criminal cash-back scam," this tricky bit of fraud seems more credible than some. Partly that's because it usually involves a few thousand dollars tops -- unlike the infamous Nigerian Letter Scam, those "business proposals" that appear daily in e-mail in-boxes and promise a fat slice of millions of dollars the sender asks help in transferring to the United States.
Also, this scam doesn't sound too good to be true -- except that someone is offering the asking price for that used jalopy you've been trying to unload.
Typically, here's what happens: You advertise a car for sale online. A fraudster posing as a buyer responds via e-mail agreeing to purchase the car for the asking price.
But it's never that simple. Maybe he says he's buying the car for a friend abroad. "Sometimes they say they are working on behalf of a client because it helps add a little bit of legitimacy and obscures what's really going on," says Chris Long, a director at the Chicago-based Cars.com, explaining that the scam commonly targets such sites as Cars.com, AutoTrader.com, eBay and Craigslist, wherever individuals sell cars.
Next, the scammer persuades the buyer to accept a cashier's check or personal check for significantly more than the agreed-upon price. The excess is allegedly to cover the cost of shipping the car abroad. Or the check's too big, he claims, because it had already been cut for a car deal that fell through. Or the buyer simply apologizes for the mistake.
The key to the scam is duping the seller to deposit the check and, once it clears in the seller's account, return the excess money via an irreversible wire transfer, such as Western Union. Days later, the seller finds out the buyer's check was counterfeit or it bounced. Not only is the victim out the entire amount of the buyer's bad check, he has also lost the money wired to the scammer.