Spot Scammers Before They Spot You
Internet criminals are trying to steal your money, your information, or both. Because knowledge is power, knowing what to watch out for will greatly reduce your chances of being taken for a ride. This section covers the most common scams.
There are red flags to watch for when dealing online. For example, you should be suspicious of oddly worded email when the buyer isn’t local. This doesn’t mean that anyone with poor writing skills is a cyber-criminal—only that people unfamiliar with English often give themselves away by using words incorrectly. Like most advertisers, scammers work to create a sense of urgency. They want you to act on emotion, before you have time to think logically. They may also try to build trust by being overly friendly and praising you before you’ve done anything deserving of praise. Look for inconsistencies. Most criminals are corresponding with many people at a time and will get their lies mixed up.
If you receive messages like the ones described, you might be tempted to respond, either in hopes that the sender is legitimate or even to “play the game.” My advice: Don’t! Delete the email and go on with your life. At best, you’re wasting precious time; at worst, you might get drawn in.
Unfortunately, the out-of-area buyer scam is all too common. The good news is that you can avoid being swindled if you know what to look for. The messages included in these examples are real and unedited. They’re the result of test listings I ran on several craigslist communities. In each instance, I ran an ad for electronics or jewelry and overpriced the item. I received few or no legitimate responses, but no shortage of offers to pay me even more than my asking price.
The game starts when someone responds to your listing and is a little too eager to throw money at whatever you’re selling, most notably high-ticket items such as computers, electronics, and jewelry (see Figure 3.1). The scammer asks few of the typical buyer questions beyond finding out whether the item is still available (see Figure 3.2).
Figure 3.1 If someone is jumping up and down to buy from you, it’s likely that he or she is only trying to reach into your wallet.
Figure 3.2 Poorly worded email that asks little about your listing is typical for scammers.
When you respond, the scammer will begin to press for the sale, as shown in Figure 3.3. There are several tip-offs here:
- Offering to pay more than the asking price before knowing the cost of shipping
- Detailed explanation of why the buyer needs the item shipped to another location—usually as a gift
- Requesting to use little-known or dubious payment methods
- Misrepresenting the security of the payment method
Figure 3.3 Overpaying, risky payment methods, and complex shipping terms are red flags for scams.
These are common statements for this type of scam. They play both to people’s desire to bring joy (via the gift) and to our desire for the big score (by receiving more than asked).
Most scammers are patient people because they understand the importance of gaining your trust: It’s the only way to convince you to ship the merchandise. Almost all the scammer’s messages will be friendly and upbeat, happy to address any concern you might have—that is, until the scammer claims to have sent payment. You may receive an obviously fake-looking notice of payment, as shown in Figure 3.4. This one was sent from a webmail account completely unrelated to PayPal (www.paypal.com). It’s filled with typos and grammatical errors. As with most criminal schemes, though, over time these email messages may become more difficult to distinguish from the real thing. Two important points to remember are that legitimate services such as PayPal do not hold your money pending proof of shipment and that PayPal never mails out money orders.
Figure 3.4 A bad attempt at tricking a seller into believing that a payment is waiting.
When I received a notification of payment email and didn’t promptly supply the “buyer” with shipping information, I began receiving email from the buyer such as the one shown in Figure 3.5. Finished with the friendly words, the buyer now “demands” that I send him the shipping info. When I failed to respond promptly, I continued to receive duplicates of this email for several days.
Figure 3.5 Next, the buyer will begin to pressure you to ship the merchandise.
Of all the scams that I encountered, the most upsetting was from an individual who claimed to be a United States resident currently hospitalized in the United Kingdom. She wanted to purchase a wedding ring set for her son that I had listed. After we exchanged a number of messages over several days, wherein she repeatedly asked me to send her my credit card information so she could pay me, I finally told her I was afraid of being scammed. She responded by emailing me a scanned copy of her driver’s license. It appeared to be an authentic California driver’s license. I forwarded the information to the local authorities, but I know that tracking down these types of criminals is nearly impossible.
The most outrageous attempt I encountered was from a woman who claimed that her health would not let her leave the house to come pick up her purchase. She wanted to pay me by “echeck,” but before she could pay me, she first instructed me to go buy business check paper for only $25 at my local office supply store.
This scam can be played out in other ways too. A housing wanted ad I had placed led to my being contacted by a man who wanted me to lease his nearby home while he did missionary work in Africa. He sent pictures, provided a bogus address, and added that his brother in another state would gladly ship the keys to me overnight as soon as I sent him the first month’s rent and deposit.
In the overpayment scam, the buyer wants to pay you with a cashier’s check or money order written for an amount well above your selling price, usually offering a less-than-plausible explanation. The scammer asks that you wire the overpayment amount back to him or her or forward it to a third party who is frantically waiting for the funds. The scammer generously offers to let you keep a bonus amount for the inconvenience.
The problem is that the check or money order is fake, and eventually will be returned to your bank. This process can take days or even weeks. You’re out the full amount that you wired—plus any fees charged by your bank—and the scammer is long gone.
Nigerian 4-1-9 Scam
The Nigerian 4-1-9 scam, also called the Nigerian Advance Fee Scam, has been around for many years but still claims victims. It’s named after the section in the Nigerian penal code that covers it. It isn’t directly related to craigslist, but can be attempted on businesses and individuals whose email addresses are harvested off craigslist. This scam is no longer limited to Nigeria, but originates from many other countries.
The scam starts when you receive a somewhat official-looking email message from a person who claims to be in a foreign government or bank (there are various versions). The email explains that because of certain events, such as the death of a high-ranking government official, the sender is in search of someone trustworthy to help transfer tens of millions of dollars out of the sender’s country. In return, the sender offers to share a large percentage of the money.
Often, this scam is played out over many months, at first building the victim’s confidence and then requesting advance fees when problems arise along the way. The scammer continues to request money from the victim, sometimes attempting to convince him or her to travel to Nigeria to meet with (fake) government officials to complete the transaction.
Although it may seem hard to believe that anyone would fall prey to this scam, it still succeeds on a regular basis. This scam can cost the victim much more than money: One man was killed after traveling to Nigeria, and other victims have gone missing.
If you receive one of these email messages, do not respond. Forward the email to the Federal Trade Commission at email@example.com. If you have fallen victim to a scam like this, contact your local branch of the Secret Service. A list of branches is available at www.secretservice.gov/field_offices.shtml.