Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Beware of online scams

I have had the dubious expertise of selling a lot of stuff via Craigslist, both here in St. Louis and also in Los Angeles. Over the past couple of years, I have come across some interesting scam artists who are fairly easy to spot. But today's email arrived with a new exploit.

Usually, we are selling furniture. My wife is an interior decorator, and we have been through a few decorating changes. Now, when you sell a bed or some other large piece, you are not going to get too many people from out of town who are interested, unless they are moving into town. So the first tip off that something is amiss is when someone from overseas responds to the ad and says that they will pay for it sight unseen, matching your price. This violates three principles right off the bat:

 People like to negotiate prices, no matter how good a deal you are giving them. Anyone who is paying your price is suspect right there.
 People want to kick the tires and make sure that your item exists. Doesn't matter what it is, but especially for furniture, because no photo can do any piece justice.
 Craigslist is hyper-local. Someone from out of town is suspect.

The legit customer is also going to want to think about his impending purchase, even for a few hours. And they will also pay cash, if you ask. (And you should demand cash, just because checks are so easily forged. Remember Frank Abagnale?) The con men are going to try to send you some kind of check, and mention that right off the bat in their initial email.

So my wife and I have developed our own parsing filter for these email responses, to separate the real offers from the fakers. All well and good, until we began advertising our apartment for rent this week. Today's email brought the following:

I am highly impressed with the information in the listing. I don't have any question at the moment. I wanna go ahead in renting the place from you. I'll be the only person in the property. I work as a Researcher for my company (GLOBAL LINK) and I am coming to the area to carry out some research. They will be responsible for the first month rent and security deposit. I wish to sign the lease agreement in person and will be signing a year lease as soon as i get to the States. I'll be moving to the States on March the 30th and i want the lease to start same date because I will be moving into the property directly. Kindly get the ad off from all listing because am taking the property for sure.
In the main time, I will like to secure the property asap so that i can attend to other important things for my move to the Country.
In order to proceed with payment, I will need the following information so that we can continue from there.
Kindly get back to me with the above information and in case of any query, please contact me on my phone number 0044XXXXXXX. Await your response asap.

A few things struck me about this email. First, why is he so eager? Second, why would someone from the UK (based on his phone number) in a financial services firm, move to St. Louis? Granted, we are becoming a bigger banking center with Wachovia buying JD Edwards, but still. Third, why is he using kindly so much? There is nothing kind about this, it is a business transaction. Fourth, the ALL CAPS is another tip-off. Fifth, the email came from Yahoo.com, rather than a corporate email account. Finally, why ask to remove the ad from Craigslist? Something didn't add up.

A quick check online found the managing director of GlobalLink.com in the UK, and about an hour later he was kindly replying with the fact that the gent didn't exist in his office. So case closed. But I just wonder how many people are less suspicious, or who don't check out their potential buyers, fall into his trap?

Craigslist is a great site, and we have sold lots of stuff over the years on it. And they do a fairly good job of warning you about the con artists. But this just shows you that the bad guys are getting smarter all the time, which means you have to, too.

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About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.