Recently, I’ve taken to checking out the Craig’s List car sales listings (in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area). It’s been a lot of fun learning about the different makes and models, their reliability, durability, and resale value. One thing that hasn’t been fun, however, has been the constant presence of scammers on the site. That’s why the purpose of this post is to educate you on how to spot and avoid a scam (as a buyer) on Craig’s List (as well as on eBay). I’ll be covering some different incarnations of the most common type of scam, including what to look for.
The Basics of a Scam
The scam I’ll be covering is fairly basic. It involves the buyer (you) looking for a large ticket item and the seller (scammer) selling it for very low price. When you communicate with the scammer to tell him you’re interested, he tells you that he’s had to move out of the country (usually because of work) and because of one reason or another (usually “taxes and emissions”) he can’t keep the car and he’s willing to sell it at a loss, even going so far as to pay for the shipping. Note that during this time, the scammer rarely discloses his name and is never, for one reason or another, able (or willing) to meet face to face.
Scam Type #1
The first incarnation of this scam is the simplest one, and is the most common. It involves the seller being out of state, selling the car for ultra-cheap, willing to pay the shipping, and usually includes a link to some phony escrow service. Example:
I am writing response to your advertisement of a Gold 2002 Honda Accord LX with 64,000 miles for $3990 (http://miami.craigslist.org/car/208969432.html). I am interested in the vehicle and would like to make an appointment with you to view it. I am located in Plantation, just north of 595 and University.
Note that in either the advertisement or response, the seller should be the one providing the phone number. It is not uncouth to ask. You may also provide your phone number, but that opens up an entire set of security concerns I’d rather not address here. Here was his response:
From Matt McQuinn [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Hello. The car has a clear title (NOT SALVAGED). It runs great and looks great, no problems at all. It is currently located in New Providence, NJ.
I have divorced my wife a while ago and because we couldn’t agree on the assets we had obtained during our marriage, we are selling out most of them. In order for this to be done, I have entrusted Vehicle Globe to handle the deal for me. The price for the car is $3990 shipping included.
So if you want to make the deal, register at www.vhglobe.com, in order for you to get a 5-day inspection period prior buying the car.
A few observations: First, scammers will always email from a free email provider. That way it’s almost impossible to track them, unless there’s a warrant out for them (and solicitation with intent to defraud should be enough to get the FBI on their case). Second, notice the construct of the situation: it’s common to all scams. The guy is getting rid of the car that cheap because [X] reason. He’s “unable” to meet because he’s out of the state (you could always offer to fly there, and I’ll discuss what happens if you do that later.) In this one, the scammer has either chosen an existing escrow service he’s familiar with or he’s built the page himself. In either case, he’s already raised a number of flags, including:
- Ultra-low cost
- inability to meet face to face
- solicitation for an escrow service (a non-traceable method of cash payment) — Prior to even inspection! (that’s a bonus flag)
Now, a quick visit to the escrow page (vhglobe.com) reveals a rather nice, professional Web page. If this guy’s a scammer, at least he knows a little bit about Web design. To verify the validity of the page, I go to GoDaddy.com and run a search on the page. Turns out VHGlobe.com is taken, but on further inspection it looks like the page has been registered by a company called “Domains by Proxy”, located in Arizona, so there’s no way I’d be able to know who really owns the page, how long they’ve owned it or how I could track them down. Not the kind of people I want to do business with, would you?
Anyway, with alarms going off all over the place, this is one of the most basic and common scams. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most effective. Finally, here’s another scam of the same type:
From Lynda Star [Star.Lynda@gmail.com]
I have been promoted at my work and they sent me to Toronto,Canada,the car is with me.
The car has a clean title it is in very good mechanical and physical condition. And it’s an american car.
I have tryed to register it here but the fees are to expensive and it isn’t a very good deal for me. [Those wacky Canadians and their envionmental laws… I hear Sweden’s got the same problem – G]
So i have decided to sell it to US, I need a very fast and clean sale because I decided to buy another car here and I need to secure the downpaymnet for the other car, this is why the car’s price is so low I want to be sure that I sell it fast.
Being a new employee here,I have to dedicate myself to work and i do
not have a lot of time to meet every client, [Inability/Unwillingness to meet – G] so i decided to use an escrow company,and they will take care of the transaction. [Oh, how original. – G]
If you are interested in buing the car, please register to www.autosellworld.com and send me your username so i can start the deal, for the car to be shipped to you to have it inspected, after both of us agree the terms.
After you register I will tell you everything about the car and about the deal details.
Notice that there’s absolutely no way to even start checking out the car until after you register. Why couldn’t she tell me about the car before I registered? I thought that was just common courtesy? Remember: information is power.
(As a side note: I told this scammer that I would actually be flying into Toronto the next day, so I could see the car in person: no need for shipping or escrow. I even went so far as go do a Google Maps search of the downtown area and tell the scammer the areas I planned to be in. I think that email made its way into a trash bin somewhere because I’ve yet to receive a reply.)
[hmtad name=”120×600 Skyscraper Within Articles” align=”floatleft”]Scam Type #2
This second type of scam is what I’d like to call “truth by proxy”, where a scammer convinces you that his sale is legit because it’s also listed somewhere else. In this case, it was also listed on eBay. This was one of the first scams I ran into, which threw me for a bit of a loop until I dropped by the eBay forums for some help. Let’s watch!
I’m interested in the vehicle advertised. I would like to know the following:
1) VIN number
2) Where are you located? I would be interested in viewing this vehicle as soon as is convenient.
You may reach me via email or contact my at my cell phone.
From Michelle [email@example.com]
Hello and sorry for the delay,
The 2001 VOLVO S40 is in perfect working condition never been involved in accident or something like that. The car is in the best shape ever, CLEAR and CLEAN TITLE a great history and mechanically without any problems ever. The only problem is that I had to move with my family in Sweden where I got a new job as a construction engineer. I brought the car here with me with the intention of driving it but when I found out about the very high import duties and all the restrictions regarding registration and emissions tests here I have made up my mind and decided to sell the vehicle. The amount you will have to pay in order to own this vehicle is
$3500 with shipping costs included!
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT MY CAR PLEASE GO TO: http://www.ebay.se/viItem?ItemId=110033039681 here you will find more pictures with my car. As you can see the car is also listed on ebay.
I will wait for your email to let me know if you are interested in knowing more details about the purchase.
Hmm… Why was a lady from Sweden advertising her can on CraigsList in the Miami area if it’s already on eBay? Hmm…
Ok, so here we have some of the same details as before: job moved person off to far away land where taxes and emissions are too restrictive. (Funny enough, the environmental restrictions in Sweden were supposedly too high for even a Volvo, a Swedish car!) Additionally, she’s willing to sell the car cheap (a $10,000 car for $3,500) and include shipping — FROM EUROPE — out of pocket. Scammy, scammy, scammy!
Now, here’s what threw me for a loop: I’m not all that familiar with eBay. I just haven’t used it all that much! So, hearing that something was listed on eBay made me wonder whether this thing was real or not. My problem was that she gave me the Swedish page (a “.se” domain) as opposed to the English page (a “.com” domain). What I didn’t know at the time was that eBay items are accessible to everyone from every country and that I could have simply searched for the item number on the English eBay site and found the item (or, alternately, I could have simply switched the “.se” in the address to a “.com”.) Good move on her part to obfuscate her intentions and pray on my inexperience by using a foreign page. What was I to do?
This was my reply to her:
Ah, so the car’s in Europe. Wow. Sorry to hear that. As a rule, I make it a point to drive the car before I decide whether to purchase. That said, I’m not sure I feel particularly comfortable buying a car and having it shipped here. If the car was in the US I’d be able to simply close the deal face to face. Sorry for the inconvenience.
Of couse, she’s a scammer, and a persistent one at that. This was her reply:
As I said in my first email the car is currently located in Sweden and it will be shipped from here with Lufthansa Air Cargo and will be on your door in 5 max 7 days. It will be fully insured against damages.Total price of the car including all shipping costs and insurance all the way to your place is $3500.
The most important thing in all my activity here is that I am affiliated with eBay where I have a Purchase Protection Account for $20,000 . Ebay is the insurer
of this transaction by using a certified third party to insure that both parties comply to transaction requirements. So i want a safe deal and I want to end
this transaction through eBay’s Motors Vehicle Purchase Protection.
Below I’m trying to explain to you how this payment method works:
1. You must send me your full name and your shipping address so I let eBay’s Motors know that you are interested.
2. I will send your details to eBay’s Motors and you will be contacted by them.
3. You will make the payment of $3500 to eBay’s Motors .Free shipping..(the car will be on your door in 5 max 7 days)
4. When i will have their confirmation, i will ship you the car.
After you will receive the car,you will have 7 days for inspection. The eBay’s Motors will hold the payment until you will send them your confirmation that you are satisfied with the car. When they will receive your confirmation they will release the payment to me. If the car is not as I told you or have some problems, or is not as described, they will refund you 100%. There is no RISC in this deal. I don’t touch your money until you receive and inspect the car. So, if you are still intersted please give me your full name and shipping address so I can open a transaction case and they will contact you for further details and instructions. I have a few guys interested so I will need a prompt answer from you!
Persistent for someone about to essentially give away a car. This is where I started really wondering about all this. I thought eBay never got involved in transactions, they just facilitated them? Was this real? I had to find out. I logged onto the eBay Community Answer Forums for Auction Listings and did some research. After not finding my answer that way, I decided to simply ask them my question, and hoped they wouldn’t make too much fun of me. In no time I got my answer: they all agreed this had “SCAM” written all over it. Here’s the most important reply I got back:
Deals on eBay are between the seller and the buyer. Payments are not made to eBay and No one at eBay motors will be contacting you about this.
It is a scam and needs to be reported.
To keep yourself safe, read these. Very helpful information here.
While asking in the forums, I finally figured out that all eBay sites are inter-related, and was able to see the page in English, which confirmed that this was a total scam: payment was to be done via wire transfer or Western Union, both of which are huge no-no’s, as well as every other red flag showed up here. I ceased communication with the scammer at this point.
Scam Type #3
The last type of scam I’ll be covering is simply one in which greater attention is paid to detail than in any of the previous two. That’s because the scammer can actually supply information about the vehicle as well as addresses and phone numbers (though not willingly). Since most of this information isn’t new, I won’t spend much time on commentary until the end, where things get interesting:
To whom it may concern;
I am writing response to your advertisement of the BMW 740IL on CraigsList.com. [The car was listed for a criminally low $5800 – G] I’m very interested in the auto and would like to speak to you further regarding the vehicle. I am located in Fort Lauderdale, FL and would be available to view the vehicle at your convenience. I would be ready to make a decission immediately.
From firstname.lastname@example.org [*This person never told me a name]
The car is available at the price of $5800 because I am out of country due to my work for a couple of months and I can’t use the car anymore.The car is in perfect condition, no dents or scratches in the paint,no accidents or mechanical problems,the title is clean. The car is in Dallas,TX at the shipping company.
Let me know.
No problem. No shipping would be necessary as I would be able to travel there to pick up the car myself. I would be grateful if you could supply me the following information:
1) VIN number of the vehicle
2) Mileage: You mentioned ~58,000 in the ad. Is that correct?
I would need to schedule a mechanic to go to the car’s location and examine the vehicle before I arrived. If the car is in good order I would be ready to travel there to purchase it. (All transactions would be face-to-face). As such, I would need to know the location of the vehicle so that I could send the mechanic over, as well as a contact phone number where the mechanic could call to set up a time to examine the vehicle.
Finally, I would need your name, since currently all I have to go on is JDonlinez.
The address is:Texas Shipping
Address:14203 Proton Rd, Dallas, TX, 75244
Phone:(214) 431 5288.
The VIN Number:wbagh83431dp22929.
Let me know.
This last part is when it got interesting. As you saw at the beginning of the story, whenever I offered to go see the car in person, all communication would suddenly stop. In this case, the guy came back with a real address in Dallas, a real Dallas phone number, and a VIN number that — according to CARFAX — really did belong to a BMW 7-series. Could this guy have actually been legit?!
Not a chance.
I decided to run a few searched on the information the guy gave me using sources such as YellowPages.com, WhitePages.com, and Google Maps. Here’s what I found:
As for the address: Yes, it is an actual Dallas address, but it belongs to a company called Codemark Systems. Interesting that a shipping company would have the exact same address as another company. Amazing. What’s even more amazing is that not one phone number on that page or anywhere even remotely matched the number given to me. Further more, using both Google and Yahoo, I could find no company called “Texas Shipping” in Dallas, Texas.
I decided then to run a “Search by Phone” search on WhitePages.com. The result: While the number was found, and “214” is a valid Dallas area code, the phone was listed as a land line with no available information. Usually, this is what comes up when someone was a VoIP line with someone like Vonage. Since VoIP numbers could be taken anywhere, there’s a good chance that guy wasn’t even in Texas. Then again, he could have simply been feeding me information on the basis that I wouldn’t actually follow up in any way shape or form. This is when I decided to report this guy to the FBI. I’m not allowed to talk about the rest, though. (Thanks be to SysAdmin Nate for that helpful info.)
So, now that you’ve seen a few scams in action you know how to stay safe. It shouldn’t be long before you can sniff one out fairly quickly. For example, if you happen to find a 2003 Toyota Camry with 46K miles being sold for $4800, alarms should be going off that there’s something wrong with the car, and that it’s probably a scam. (If it’s not a scam, then the other possibility is that the car you’re looking at just spent the past 6 months at the bottom of a lake somewhere, or was salvaged from New Orleans after Katrina, in which case I would tell you to avoid it like the plague anyway.)
If you’re actually looking to buy a car from out of state (something I wouldn’t recommend unless you’re dealing with a reputable seller on eBay, and even then I’d have my reservations), and you want to make sure you’re not walking into a scam, you can simply make it clear that you demand all transactions take place face to face, and that no money will be wired, sent via Western Union or any other escrow service, and that no PayPal information will be shared.
Make your own observations based on the provided information and post it here so that others may know how to not get sucked into a scam. Also, feel free to point this article out to anyone who you feel may be in danger of being caught in this sort of trap.
With that, happy shopping.