Just before Christmas ’09, my wife was trying to sell her car via a well-known online car sales website. Despite it being a fantastic car, Australian Federal Government tax incentives to encourage businesses to buy new cars during 2009 meant that the second-hand car market was pretty slow and she wasn’t getting much interest.
But, just when she was getting ready to drop the price yet again, she got an email from a guy who said he was very interested in buying her car. Not only that, he wasn’t even interested in negotiating and was happy to buy it for full price without even inspecting it.
My wife, being the astute women she is (well, she picked me!), was immediately suspicious. She asked him why he didn’t want to inspect it. Well, you see, it was a surprise present for his daughter’s upcoming birthday, but he was an engineer working on an off-shore oil-rig and wasn’t getting back to land until well after her birthday. My wife asked more questions and he said that he wanted to pay via PayPal and this started to make it seem all very safe – PayPal is known for it’s secure transactions. After a couple of days of emailing back and forth, she was just beginning to think it was legitimate, when she suddenly got another email from someone interested in buying her car. This guy worked on an offshore drilling ship and wanted to buy a car for his son, but couldn’t get back to land for a few weeks so was happy to pay full price without any inspection and wanted to pay via PayPal!
Cue klaxons sounding, an excited disembodied warning of “Alert! Alert!” and a deep robotic voice shouting, “Danger, danger, Will Robinson!”.
So after a bit of research, I discovered that this is a new online scam. It works like this;
Step 1: Scammer looks on well-known and trusted online car sales sites for someone selling a car privately.
Step 2: Scammer contacts seller with offer of full price and bogus story about why he can’t do the sale in person and why it is urgent.
Step 3: Seller accepts scammer’s offer and waits for funds to appear in his PayPal account before releasing the car.
Step 4: Scammer sends a FAKE email (purportedly) from PayPal to the seller saying that the funds cannot be released until a wire transfer is made to a (fictitious) freight company.
Step 5: Seller sends funds – which may be from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars depending on how much the car was selling for – and promptly loses that money and any future contact with the scammer.
Step 6: Scammer goes back to trawling online car sales sites.
So many goods and services that we once only had access to at inconveniently located bricks and mortar shop have now moved, via the internet, to the comfort and safety of our own homes. And because we are in our own homes, we feel that we can let our guard down. But unfortunately, while the relatively benign sleazy salesman at the bricks and mortar store has been done away with, his replacement on the internet is even worse!
The moral to the story; if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Let the buyer (and the seller) beware – especially on the internet!
If you’d like to be kept informed of other scams like this so that you don’t fall foul of them, Western Australia’s Department of Commerce has a web site called ScamNet that lists them all (including this one).