Buying and selling over the Internet has been a great success, but as with all other areas of life, there will be a few bad apples trying their hardest to ruin it for everyone. You will never be free of the risk that someone is out to rip you off, but you can lessen the chances with a few simple steps. In general, you will want to go with your instinct - if something doesn't seem right, it usually isn't. Here are some tips I've learned over the years I bought and sold things over the ether...
First - if you post an ad online (or in many circumstances reply to any) you will attract scammers. It is an unfortunate truism these days. Fortunately, there are many ways to easily spot these guys, and many ways to protect yourself. There is a difference between the widespread scamming and the cheats. Scammers will often send out thousands of e-mails a day looking for victims, and their scams usually follow some well-established patterns. The cheat more often than not is just someone who either (1) wants what you are selling and either sends a bad check or simply never sends money as promised, or (2) fails to send promised goods or sells the goods but they are not as promised.
How to Quickly Identify Scammers
1. Western Union. I have never heard of anyone wanting to use Western Union in a LEGITIMATE transaction. And for that matter, almost every scam uses Western Union. It really is the perfect tool for scammers - it can be picked up anonymously, and regardless to whom it is sent it can be picked up by anyone, anywhere in the world - anonymously! If you see the words "Western Union" there is a 100% chance you are being scammed - run and don't look back. Don't explain, don't listen to further pleas citing hardships of one type or another, don't give in to bullying and threats, just delete e-mails from the scammer without reading and in the rare circumstance you get a phone call, hang up. If it gets to be a problem, call your local FBI field office.
2. MoneyGram. Same as Western Union - if you see that word, run.
3. "Call me at +4470xxxx." The +44 country code is for the UK. So if you call a +44 number you are calling the UK, right? NO! Numbers that have a "70" following the +44 are almost all international redirects, and a favorite tool of scammers. Here is a great article that talks about it. If a potential buyer or seller gives you a +4470xxxx number with a story about being in the UK, chances are you are talking to a guy on a cell phone in a Nigerian Internet Cafe. If you see a phone number beginning with +4470xxxx, run away.
Note that if you were to stop reading right here and only follow the above three points, you will successfully avoid 99% of all online scammers.
4. The IP-Address Giveaway. This may seem like confusing tech-speak but it is easy for even the most novice computer user. Most of these scammers use very "American sounding" e-mail addresses, the common element is that most are sent from Nigeria, Eastern Europe or Russia. So how can you find out if the "George Avery" you are dealing with who is supposed to be in Arkansas or London is actually some guy in an Internet cafe in Nigeria? The answer is the sending IP address in the header information of the e-mail. Almost all e-mails include information hidden away in the header information that includes the IP address where it was sent. An IP address is sort of like a physical street address, though it is your address on the Internet - it will be four groups of numbers with periods in between, and look like this: 188.8.131.52
If an Internet service provider in Nigeria is providing Internet service to an Internet cafe in Lagos, e-mails sent from that Internet Cafe will usually have a sending or originating IP address in the header information that is "owned" by, and traceable to that Nigerian Internet service provider. If you take a few minutes to look in the header information and run some of the IP addresses found there you can save yourself a lot of grief.
So, how do you do this? Believe it or not, it is easy!
First, when you receive an e-mail pull up the header information. It will looks like a big mess of geek-speak but don't be intimidated.
In Microsoft Outlook - look at the top menu bar for the word "View" - when you click that a menu will appear with several selections, you will want to select "Options". A new window will open, at the bottom will be the words "Internet Headers" with a window containing a bunch of text. In Yahoo, look at the very bottom of the e-mail window for a link with the words "Full Headers." Click that and all the header information will appear on top of the e-mail. Highlight all of the header text, copy it, and paste it into a program like Word, Notepad or Wordpad. If you use a different mail program you'll have to hunt around for the info, it is usually not hard to find.
Now, what you have before you will most likely be a bunch of unintelligible numbers and acronyms. Fear not - look first for a line beginning with "X-Originating-IP:" followed by a set of four numbers. Here is one I got not long ago that claimed to be from someone in the UK selling a bulb kit I was after: X-Originating-IP: [184.108.40.206]. Now copy that number "220.127.116.11" and go to a tool like my favorite, Network-Tools.com, and paste the number into the box. Select the "Lookup" button and hit "GO!". Voila, here is what it returned:
It goes without saying, this is an obvious scammer. For giggles I then googled the Host Name and then the IP address, looks like this particular guy has scammed a lot of people! Take some time and run several of the IP addresses, especially the ones with lines beginning with "Received."
Another good tool is IPAddressLocation, with this one, at the bottom of the page you can just paste the entire load of header information though it is sometimes not as accurate as doing it manually with Network-Tools.
5. Google. Google is your friend. Take a few minutes and Google the name used, phone number if given, and the e-mail address. Also Google the IP addresses as mentioned above.
Types of Scams
When buying or selling motorcycles, gear, parts, and more there are basically just a few methods scammers use. That said, these guys are very clever and are constantly evolving - what works today usually stops working after word gets out.
1. Advance Check Scam. This is an old one but still works unfortunately and is based on a fundamental weakness in our banking system. When you deposit a check in your bank account, usually your bank will give you a certain amount of "good will" credit while the check winds its way through the system. This usually works fine as the check later clears and the bank itself covers the money it has credited to your account. This system fails when the check bounces or is found to be counterfeit. This delay can take WEEKS. When the check bounces or is found to be counterfeit, the bank will remove the money it credited to your account and more often than not, charge you additional fees. The scammers exploit this delay, usually by sending you a very official looking but counterfeit cashier's or certified check, and asking you to deposit it and immediately send some amount of cash by Western Union to a (fake) shipper, custom's agent, etc.
For example, Tom is selling a fairing for a K11RS. Scammer e-mails Tom and tells him he is a US Serviceman serving in the UK and really badly needs the fairing. Scammer tells Tom he will send a certified check drawn on US funds for the fairing and will arrange for shipping. Tom receives the check and it is for $300 more than the agreed upon amount. The Scammer e-mails or calls Tom and instructs him to deposit the (fake) certified check and wire the extra $300 to FakeCo International shippers, who will then come to the house and pick up the fairing. As you can guess, FakeCo is really the Scammer as well. Tom deposits the check and his bank, because Tom is a longtime customer, credits his account with the full amount. Tom then wires off the $300 to FakeCo and e-mails FakeCo with the wire information and his home address. The Scammer, sitting in his favorite Internet cafe in Lagos, receives the e-mail sent to the (fake) FakeCo e-mail account and wanders over to the local Western Union where using just the fake name and very authentic wire number (no need to show ID), receives the $300. Tom meanwhile waits for FakeCo to arrange pickup but for some reason his e-mails are no longer answered (or better yet, the Scammer/FakeCo now says the amount is insufficient and Tom needs to wire an additional $200!) A week goes by and Tom gets a call from his bank, the check was counterfeit and the bank is taking back the $800 it initially credited to Tom, and is further tacking on an additional $50 in fees. Tom realizes he has been scammed and is out $350.
2. Straight out scam. This is also an old one but has frequently been updated with new twists, and hits both buyers and sellers.
A. Authentic Seller - this almost always hits people selling new items and often uses a "straw man" recruited, either knowingly or unknowingly, through the "be a mystery shopper" or "be a shipping agent" scams. It works like this-- The scammer sends out an e-mail recruiting people to be mystery shoppers or shipping agents for a fake company. The scammer promises these unwitting fools that they will receive goods, and in exchange for payment by the scammer (ironically often by counterfeit check) the dupe will then send these items to Europe or Nigeria. Once recruited, the scammer contacts good old Tom and agrees to buy the goods using the Dupe's name and address. It seems convincing to Tom because the buyer lives in the US and seems to be a nice guy. Tom either agrees to take a (counterfeit) check or agrees to send sends off the goods at the same time the Scammer sends off the money. The Dupe receives Tom's package and sends it off to the scammer, and Tom either waits for a check that will never arrive or finds later the hard way that the check was counterfiet.
B. Authentic Buyer - this is an easy one, the buyer sends off the money, almost always by Western Union or MoneyGram, and the goods never arrive. This often strikes people who post a "Want to Buy". Scammers will often go back to a victim they have scammed and say the goods have not been sent because of unexpected shipping costs and request the victim wire off even more money.
A word on PayPal - some scammers will try to get your login information by sending you a request for funds invoice e-mail that looks authentic, but isn't. It is actually a very real-looking fake e-mail and the login information is forwarded to the Scammer. Always separately log in to PayPal to review a request for funds invoice, never use the one you will receive in e-mail. Also, whenever sending goods with a PayPal transaction always send with a method that provides a delivery confirmation.
Know Who You're Dealing With
1. Find out about the person you will be dealing with, then confirm that the information is correct. First and foremost, look above to "Spotting a Scammer" and run the checks. It is also a good idea to Google the name given, e-mail and any other info like phone numbers - as fast as the scammers have taken to the Internet the Internet has responded with getting the word out about the scammers.
If you are fairly confident the person who contacted you is not a Nigerian scammer move on to ask for contact information such as name and telephone number, and make sure to check it! There is a great service by AT&T called Anywho that helps confirm people are who they say they are. Type in the phone number and see if it matches the name (they have reverse lookup, yes it is a VERY cool tool!) Type in the address and see what phone numbers come up (it can do this too - even cooler!) Check on the name and see if it confirms the address. While there is sometimes some inconsistencies, in general if I cannot confirm through Anywho I tend to proceed much more cautiously. OK, now you've gotten the info and confirmed it, call the phone number and see if it works - I usually call to introduce myself and ask a silly question that could easily be answered in email. The call has three great purposes - first it allows you to confirm that you can reach the TP there should something go amiss, second it allows you to ask and follow-up on the little questions that you might dismiss as not worthy of an e-mail, and lastly it allows you to get a feel for this TP and let your intuition have some input.
2. Know exactly what you are buying/selling, and how and when it will be delivered. Many of these deals go wrong simply because the two parties had wildly different ideas about what was expected out of it. I still remember a disagreement from the early days about two folks who agreed to a sale for a "set of exhaust pipes for an R75" - the set was aftermarket and in good shape, but the buyer thought he was getting OEM pipes. The two ended up in a huge disagreement with arguments over deal nullification, then who would pay for shipping, etc. The thing is they were both folks I know to be honest and trustworthy, both had the best intentions and had there not been the lack of proper communication before the deal it would have gone off without a hitch. When you are setting up a deal, be as specific as possible regarding the exact item, whether OEM or aftermarket, complete with all original hardware, what condition, installed or new in box, etc. - if it is going to matter to you, you'd better ask now. Digital photos are a BIG help here :)
3. Be prepared up front for what will happen should someone not be happy or if something goes wrong (wrong part, broken in shipping, etc.) Agree up front to what will happen if someone is unhappy, usually either when one party is not happy with what he received (deal nullification with the unhappy party paying reasonable shipping and all monies being swiftly returned), or if the items were broken or the box missing in transit (usually the shipper will get a notarized affidavit from receiver to file for insurance claim and will return any money sent.)
4. Cover Your Bases. When you ship, make sure you insure for the proper amount, and that you send with a delivery confirmation with a reputable shipper. Never ship to PO boxes and always make sure there is some way to confirm delivery. Many folks use the US Postal Service Priority mail - it is extremely cheap, and has similarly inexpensive options for delivery confirmation and insurance. Another bonus with using the USPS is the U.S. Postal Inspection Service - these are the guys that root out crime committed through the US Mail and will be your best friend if something goes south. As for payment, a postal money order is best - it can be cashed at any post office and you will know immediately if it is counterfeit. You can use PayPal - they have an alternative dispute resolution however there are many takes of fraudulent charge backs. You can also use an escrow service though make sure it is one of YOUR choosing and NOT one recommended by the other party. Lastly, you can take a personal check, though you may want to hold the item(s) until it clears. With banks now having branches nationwide it is often better to cash the personal check in person at the writer's bank if you have one nearby. Whatever you do, do not ever send cash or a cash equivalent like a money order unless you trust and have fully verified the person who is receiving it. Sending cash to someone you do not know is a certain recipe for disaster.
Communication is really key in making sure a deal goes well - know what you are buying or selling, for how much, how and when the item/money will be sent, make sure to e-mail the tracking number when it goes into the mail, and make sure to e-mail when the item/payment arrives and express any concerns at that point.
When things go bad...
You've sent your money/parts/etc. and suddenly the guy at the other end is no longer answering your e-mail and the package still hasn't shown up after a week or two (you should have requested the tracking number ;) What do you do now? Well, first and foremost, collect all of the receipts, e-mail, shipping receipts, notes taken during phone calls, etc. into one place. Having all of this is critical to making sure you don't end up on the short end (and if you unfortunately do, making sure others don't suffer the same fate...)
Well hopefully you've read the preceding and know to pick up the phone and call the TP and let him know you are concerned. For the most part, people let things slide and often a quick phone call will put the wheels in motion and get the item/money shipped. At this point you might want to ask that the sender send it USPS Priority or some other method of shipping that can be tracked (UPS is a good one) and to send you the tracking number. Until or unless he does, it is generally prudent assume the item/money has not yet been sent. Some folks just need a little prodding.
At this stage you are starting to wonder if you are ever going to get your items/money. Has it been more than a couple of weeks and you've both called and e-mailed the TP and have either been ignored, found the contact info no longer valid, or been repeatedly given evasive excuses or unfilled promises? At this stage you are still trying to make the deal go through and should try and find a way to motivate your TP. You can do anything from trying to find a local friend or acquaintance (try the contact for the local BMW club, the local BMW shop, or post a request for someone who may know the person on the IBMWR list - make sure to keep it a one line request and to keep the details off the list though, we're still at the stage where it may all be a stupid misunderstanding) or try tracking the person down through other contact info (Anywho again ;)
You've spent a week or so trying to get through to this knucklehead and still no luck? If you used PayPal or an Escrow service, start a dispute and see if you can get your money back. If you have sent goods before being paid there is not much to do at this point other than notifying the Admin of the marketplace you used. Send along as much info as you can - and move into the mode where you must unfortunately assume that the person you've sent things to (parts, money, etc.) is probably not going to be sending back his part of the deal. This doesn't happen very often, but it does unfortunately happen - some folks are out to get you from the start, some just fall into it. In either case, you can either write it off or you can take action. If you decide to write it off, collect all of the details and notes you've taken and put them in a box ready at a moment's notice should the TP's name ever come up. You might also consider posting on message boards the details of the failed transaction to help others who might be taken. Then go out for a nice long ride and put it all behind you.
If you want to take action, move on to Defcon 1 ...
OK, it is war and you get to start filing complaints with various scary folks. Let the TP know that you are escalating the issue and will be going to state and federal law enforcement agencies (and offer him yet another chance to come clean...) The first step is to file a complaint with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (you did use the US mail somewhere in the equation, didn't you?) These guys are real pitbulls. Remember all those e-mails you saved, copies of checks, shipping labels, etc. and notes you took? They may want copies of everything so have it ready to pump out at Kinko's at a moment's notice. Second is to contact your State Attorney General Office, then it can't hurt (but probably won't help much) to contact and file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. Follow through with this and while you probably won't get your money/parts, you will probably sleep better at night knowing you've just substantially shaved the chances of the same thing happening to someone else.
As I mentioned, almost all transactions go quite smoothly with both sides quite happy with what they received. With the steps taken above, even the ones that don't go so well usually turn out OK. If you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to give me a shout!
(Originally written for folks using the IBMWR Marketplace :))
© 1995-2011, Ted Verrill