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.
"Since they are giving you a sum over what you are asking, your defenses may be down. You figure, how can I lose? Well, not surprisingly, their check is bogus. You have given them a good check in exchange for their bad check," says Phil Reed, consumer advice editor at the automotive-sales Web site Edmunds.com and author of Edmunds.com's book "Strategies for Smart Car Buyers."
The scam turns on most people's misunderstanding of the check-clearing process. Bank clerks and managers usually aren't experts at identifying counterfeit checks. So they deposit the check and tell the seller it requires 48 hours to "clear." Then the money appears on the seller's account statement and can be withdrawn.
Most people assume that means the check is valid. But the real check-clearing process can take weeks. Phony checks generally aren't nabbed until after the seller has wired the overpayment to the scammer. And after the wire transfer is picked up, it's gone.
The scam isn't exclusive to used-car sales. Check fraud schemes have many variations, targeting all Internet auction sellers of high-priced items and even fake lottery "winners" who are mailed their winnings via check but told to send back a portion to cover taxes.
Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. issued a warning last month about a scam targeting people who posted resumes online. Scammers offered them commissions as "go-betweens" for cashing checks and forwarding money to clients abroad. The checks, of course, are bogus. The victims lose the amount they wired abroad.
Curran advised consumers in the warning that any time a buyer wants to send a check for too much money and get some back, "insist that the person send a check for the correct amount. You'll probably never hear from that person again."
So the twisted adage: "Seller beware."
Long says Cars.com adds a warning on top of e-mails it delivers to its customers that cautions: Do not accept certified checks for more than your asking price; do not accept a deal that requires you to wire money to buyer.
"We advise that if people have a question about a particular e-mail they should forward it to us. Most of the time, they should just not respond. Delete them. If they want to take it to the next step, report it to the authorities at the Internet Fraud Complaint Center," Long said.
Consumer IQ Quiz
The Maryland Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division recently created a dandy little online quiz on consumer rights and scams. It's self-scored and focuses on the issues and complaints the states hears on its consumer hotline (410-528-8662 or 888-743-0023). You can find it at www.oag.state.md.us/Consumer/edge120.htm.
Got questions? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail details to firstname.lastname@example.org or write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.