When Joan (not her real name) won an online auction for a 2001 Chrysler Town & Country minivan, she was overjoyed. It was a great deal, and the pictures made it look brand-new. But three weeks later, her family had lost $6,000 and she never got the van. She was a victim of a rapidly growing scam: Internet fraud.
While the vast majority of online car deals go through without a hitch, a number of scams have specifically targeted Internet auto shoppers. Many of the con artists work their deception from Eastern Bloc countries or even African countries such as Nigeria. These criminals pursue their victims with special dedication, operating with the belief that rich Americans deserve to be fleeced.
In Joan's case, she bid on a Yahoo.com auto auction and then received an e-mail notifying her that she had been the highest bidder and the van was hers. However, if she had checked, she would have seen that Yahoo never posted her as the top bidder. The con artists merely captured her e-mail address and contacted her directly about a car that actually existed but was being sold by an unsuspecting third party.
What made Joan's case especially tragic was that she was buying the van for her parents. She urged them to take out a loan to finance it and then sent their money to a supposedly secure escrow site. Escrows are used in car-buying as an impartial middleman, an agency that holds the money securely until the vehicle is shipped to the new owner. However, this escrow site, given the legitimate-sounding name "safe-purchases.com," was a bank account controlled by the criminals. Once the funds were transferred there, the money was withdrawn, the account was closed and the paper trail was erased.
Later, searching for a way to retrieve the money, Joan was told that safe-purchases.com "is a fraudulent escrow/shipping site… the work of a known Russian criminal. This exact site has been used under many different names."
Joan is not alone in her loss. As online shopping increases (at least 30 percent of Americans now shop the Internet) so do cyber crimes. Some $68 million was lost to Internet fraud in 2004, with the average individual loss placed at $216 per person.
As online fraud increases, so do measures to prevent it. An excellent resource is Lookstoogoodtobetrue.com, which posts information about different scams and how to avoid becoming a victim. Auction sites such as eBay Motors also have information warning about phony car-buying scams.
"Law enforcement is challenged by Internet schemes because they cannot be confined within national boundaries or investigative jurisdictions," said Louis B. Reigel, III, assistant director of the FBI's Cyber Division. "Therefore, it is critical to educate and empower consumers with knowledge to avoid cyber criminals."
Since many of these schemes are run from overseas, and English is not the first language of the criminals involved, one tip-off is poor grammar. In Joan's case, one e-mail from the supposed seller, David Meyer, read, "You winning bid was $5,500. I propose to make the deal securely via escrow. I could ship the car to your location. Please let me know what is your address, so I will calculate shipping."
Another clue that a buyer is being scammed is when the seller requires that the money be sent to a specific escrow account. Sellers are not the ones who need the protection that an escrow service offers. As a safeguard, the buyer should choose the escrow service, one that is connected to an established auction site such as eBay.com.
Buyers are not the only ones at risk in online car transactions. Sometimes, sellers are e-mailed by a party claiming they want to buy the car. They say that they will have to send the seller a check for more than the agreed-upon amount, to cover shipping, and the difference can be reimbursed. In this case, the check the seller is sent is bad. But before it can bounce the seller has sent the reimbursement, which promptly disappears.
Most online car transactions go through without a hitch. However, it pays to have a healthy measure of suspicion, particularly if anything about the deal makes you intuitively feel uneasy. Remember, the crooks are playing a numbers game, sending out millions of e-mails in hopes that someone bites. If you question them even a little bit, they will usually disappear back into the ether of cyberspace.
Always use your common sense and pay attention to your intuition. If something feels wrong, make sure you check it out carefully. In the meantime, here is a list of 10 tips to avoid cyber fraud:
1. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. They say you "can't cheat an honest man." This means that many scams begin by offering unrealistically good deals. Did you just buy a brand-new Mercedes for $12,000? Does that make sense to you? These so-called "deals" are just the hook to get your money.
2. Establish telephone contact with the buyer or seller and determine where the car is located. Ask if you can inspect the car, even if you don't plan to do so. Ask if the title is clear and in their possession.
3. Verify that the escrow company you plan to use is properly licensed. Call them and speak to a representative. Visit their Web site directly, not through a link sent to you by the seller.
4. Don't give out your financial or personal information (Social Security number, credit card number or bank account information) until you verify that the online escrow company you are using is legitimate.
5. Beware when a buyer or seller insists on using a particular online escrow company. They could be trying to steer you toward a fraudulent escrow services site.
6. Send the escrow company an e-mail question. If you don't receive a response, don't do business with them.
7. Check the online escrow company's Web site for sloppy content, spelling or grammar errors. Other times, the site's information may have been copied from legitimate escrow company sites.
8. Steer clear of sites that require users to set up accounts with online payment services. Legitimate escrow companies don't use person-to-person money transfers like Western Union or MoneyGram or direct you to send your payment to an individual rather than a corporate entity.
9. Fake escrow company sites often display logos from the Better Business Bureau, VeriSign Secure, TRUSTe, and even the Internet Fraud Complaint Center. Check to make sure the escrow company really is endorsed by these organizations.
10. Avoid escrow company sites with domain names ending in .org, .biz, .cc, .info or .US.