Etymology of an eBay Scam

(or, “eBay ain’t what it used to be”)

Like most other computer geeks, I signed up for an eBay account a few years ago, and did a bunch of casual buying and selling on eBay. At the time, eBay seemed like a wonderfully utopian idea: The evolution of a good old neighbourhood flea market with the far-reaching power of the Internet and, for a while, it certainly was.

But something has changed in the intervening few years. The ethically challenged among us have figured out that they have the potential to make fast and easy money by preying on the naive and unsuspecting.

Now, in reality, this should come as no surprise to anybody. The Internet has always been an extension of our society. A bizarre cultural petrie dish where the computer hacker and the average citizen unite. There are good and bad people in the world, and there will therefore be good and bad people on the Internet.

In much the same way that the Internet extends the reach of the ordinary citizen to interact with the global community, so too does it extend the reach in much the same way for the criminal element. The con men of yesteryear bilking a few little old ladies out of their life savings have now managed to find ways to bilk an audience of millions, using the very tools that enhance the rest of our lives.

Sure I had always heard stories of the occasional scam on eBay, but I was fully unprepared for what I encountered in a recent attempt to sell something as innocuous as an HP Laptop computer.

To me, an eBay transaction seems to be something pretty safe and routine (which it is provided due diligence is exercised), so one would expect that criminals and con men would not have much of a foothold in this environment, right?

Wrong. The eBay scammers operate on the same principle as the e-mail spammers. I remember a guy that I used to hang out with; we’d go our for a night on the town, and this guy would proposition every girl in the bar. He got more than a few drinks thrown in his face, but he never went home alone.

Just like bulk e-mail (“spam”), the eBay scammer does not need to get a hit every time. In fact, I would suspect that their success ratio is actually extremely low. However, for the effort they’re putting in, and with an audience of millions, all it takes is a small percentage of poor unsuspecting dupes to make it profitable for them.

So, on to my particular story…

The First Attempt…

I had purchased a laptop computer back in July, used it for a couple of months, and then decided to switch to a Mac. As a result, I no longer had a use for the laptop computer, and needed to finance my new Powerbook purchase. With only two months of use, and a few extras to throw in, I suspected that I should be able to sell the item for a pretty reasonable price on eBay.

So, a little over a week ago, I set up a listing on eBay. Being a relatively big-ticket item, I decided to pull out all the stops and pay extra for a highly-visible eBay listing. Also, wanting to ensure that I could sell to as wide of an audience as possible, I specified that I would ship worldwide.

My auction had been open for about three hours when the first series of “Seller Questions” started pouring in. Most wanted to pay via methods other than Paypal (Western Union, Bidpay, etc), and most wanted to ship them item to their friend/daughter/spouse in Nigeria.

The first example of one such e-mail read as follows:

Dear Seller, Am Oni Ogundeji I work and live in U.S am writing you on
behalf of your item you placed on EBAY. Am willing to offer you US$2800 for the item
6814688610

I need the laptop very fast for my Daughter who school in Nigeria and she needs the
laptop for her Final Year project in school but due to the Nature of my Job I won’t be
Available to receive the Laptop here in the U.S so please I want you to send the Laptop
Directly to her in Nigeria.

Please make enquiry about the shipping cost to Nigeria by [USPS Global Express EMS 3-5
Days Delivery Service] and get back to me with the shipping cost so I can make your
Payment to you in full including the shipping Cost.

I have 2 Option of Payment Method either by Western Union Bid Pay or international
Money Gram, both are Money Order that will be issue on your name and it will be send to
you at your contact home address for delivery.

Please reply me with your personal E-mail Address.

Best Regards

Oni O Ogundeji

Now, I should note that the auction had no bids at this time, and my “Buy-It-Now” price was US$1,200. If the fact that this ‘buyer’ was offering me more than double that amount wasn’t enough of a clue, the second message that I received about twenty minutes later from a completely different user was certainly interesting:

Dear Seller,Am kerry clinton i work and leave in U.S
am writing you on behalf of your item you placed on
EBAY.Am willing to offer you US$1000 for the item:
6814688610I need the laptop very fast for my Daughter
who school in Nigeria and she needs the laptop for her
Final Year project in school but due to the Nature of
my Job I won’t be Available to receive the Laptop here
in the U.S,so please I want you to send the Laptop
Directly to her in Nigeria. Please make enquiry about
the shipping cost to Nigeria by United States Regular
Post Office Only[AirMail Parcel Post Delivery Service]
and get back to me with the shipping cost so I can
make your Payment to you in full including the
shipping cost. My Method of Payment is Western Union
Bid Pay, which is a Money Order that will be issue on
your name by Bid Pay and it will be send to you at
your contact home address for delivery. Please reply
me with your personal E-mail Address.
Best Regards,
clinton.

So, at this point I can only assume that a lot of people have daughters attending school in Nigeria. They must have really good tuition or something, because what are the odds that two completely different people would contact me within an hour wanting to buy my notebook to send to their daughter in Nigeria? I guess it’s possible that Oni Ogunedeji and Kerry Clinton are a couple, but if that’s the case then they both need to work on their communication skills.

But that wasn’t to be even nearly the end of it. The next message was from somebody who wanted it shipped to a ‘friend’ in Russia:

Hi.

I would like to send this unit to my friend to Russia, Pyatigorsk 357538. Please,
provide me a cost of shipping to this place. USPS airmail 4 – 10 days (you can check on
usps.com)

If I send money via paypal can you ship today?

Tell me the total cost.

While it was within the realm of possibility that this question could have been legit, by this time I was definitely not taking any chances. Messages with an ‘I-Want-To-Buy-It-Now’ urgency that request shipping to a foreign country are usually suspect at the best of times.

So far, these had only been inquiries sent through the ‘Ask-the-seller-a-question’ feature on eBay. Other than cluttering up my inbox, they were relatively harmless and easily ignored. I reported them to eBay’s Security department, and life otherwise continued as per normal.

Later that morning, however, I received a notification from eBay that my auction had been closed using ‘Buy-It-Now’. Initially hopeful that the notebook had sold, I became immediately suspicious when I looked at the ‘buyer’ an account that had been created the same day, had zero feedback, and a shipping address with a telephone number of (334)455-6677. To little surprise, I received the following e-mail a few minutes later:

Hello,
Compliment of the season to yo,I am Brinda Williams from NY USA,but Presently
in London,UK for a church seminal. I saw your product item below on ebay #6814688610 and
i am really intrested in buying it for my Daugther as a surprise gift for her in school
(university of lagos)at Nigeria and i will handle the shipment expenses.i will send you
my fedex account so you will not pay no money for shipping.
I will be sending you payment via PayPal,so kindly send me
your PAYPAL EMAIL ADDRESS so as to immedaitely make out your payment and make sure you
get the package ready for shipment,you can ship
the item as soon as you recieve the paypal confirmation.
Expecting your reply so as to immediately make out the payment.
Regards,
Brinda Williams

So, Brinda lives in New York, is presently in London, and also has a daughter going to University in Nigeria. Is the quality of education in Nigeria really that great that all of these people have daughters attending school there? Whatever happened to sending your kids to school in the good old U.S. of A.?

Unfortunately, this little trick meant that my auction had now closed, since somebody had technically offered to buy the item. I doubted however that I would ever see any money from ‘her’ regardless of payment method.

So, I sent off a quick message to eBay’s Trust and Safety Team:

This auction recently closed with a Buy-it-Now purchase from a very new eBay member. Based on three other inquiries that I received on this same item, this buyer would appear to be non-legitimate. Even though they are offering to send payment via PayPal, I am not sure that there is any point in my going through with this transaction since it has many of the red flags of the Nigerian scam.

Further, the eBay member in question, brwillll13 appears to have absolutely no feedback and the account seems to have been created today.

I would like some advice on how to proceed with cancelling this particular transaction and re-enabling my original listing, as I am not comfortable proceeding under these circumstances but would still like to sell the item to a legitimate buyer.

Thank you for any assistance you can provide.

Simple and to the point, I basically wanted to resume the listing that had now been closed by a fraudulent buyer. About three hours later, I received the following from eBay:

Please be aware that we have recently cancelled bids for the buyer noted above due to our inability to confirm his or her contact information and/or the failure to complete recent transactions. The buyer’s privileges to trade on eBay have been temporarily suspended while we investigate this matter further.

Our records indicate that this buyer recently attempted to complete a transaction with you. Since the buyer is not currently registered on the eBay site, you may consider the transaction null and void if you have not already shipped the item.

If you have already shipped the item, we advise you to consider taking the following steps at this time:

  1. Contact the company that was used to send payment to verify whether or not funds have cleared.

  2. Contact law enforcement in the area where the buyer lives if you find that the funds are fraudulent. Be sure to be as specific as possible, including names, addresses, phone numbers or any other information that you may have about the buyer. If a detective is assigned to your case, please ask him or her to contact us so that we can assist in the investigation.

  3. Contact the shipping carrier to determine whether or not it may be possible to stop shipment on the package.

  4. Consider filing a complaint with the Internet Fraud Complaint Center (IFCC). The IFCC is partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Center. The IFCC will review and evaluate complaints and refer information to the appropriate local, state, or federal agency. Every complaint that is referred by the IFCC is sent to one or more law enforcement or regulatory agencies that have jurisdiction over that matter. You can file a complaint with the IFCC at:

/csg/p?www1.ifccfbi.gov/index.asp

  1. If your package was shipped via USPS, you may be able to file a mail fraud complaint at:

https://www.usps.com/postalinspectors/fraud/MailFraudComplaint.htm

  1. In the event that you are not able to receive funds for this sale, you can file for a credit of your Final Value Fees, provided it has not been 45 days or more since the auction ended. To request a Final Value Fee credit, please follow the steps below:

  2. Click the “site map” link at the top of any eBay page. 2. On the “Site Map” page, click the link “Request final value fee credit” under the “Seller Accounts” heading in the middle column.

If you have any concerns or questions about this situation or any other eBay-related issues you can visit our help system by clicking on “Help” on the navigation bar at the top of any eBay web page.

Regards,

Customer Support (Trust and Safety Department) eBay Inc.

Of course, I hadn’t shipped the item, so the bulk of that message fortunately didn’t apply to me, but it definitely confirmed that my suspicions had been correct.

Unfortunately, eBay didn’t specifically answer my question about re-opening the auction, so I simply applied for a final value fee credit and insertion fee credit and re-listed the item under a new auction the next day.

Relisting…

This time, however, I decided to be a little bit more careful. I restricted my shipping destinations to North America only, and specified that Buy-it-Now requires immediate payment (so if a potential buyer didn’t complete payment via an immmediate PayPal transaction the purchase would not be valid).

Of course, within hours of this auction going online, a flood of other questions came in: More daughters in Nigeria, friends in Russia, even a relative in Singapore. It seems that people all over the globe were offering me sums of money for a notebook computer that probably wouldn’t even work in their countries, on an auction that clearly stated that I don’t ship outside North America. I also couldn’t believe the number of people who were offering me more than I was asking for (and in some cases more than the package would have been worth brand new at retail).

Just a few of the more amusing ones…


Will accept $1300 for this item + $80 shipment cost USPS POST PACKET delivery to him
in nigeria.I want to buy it for my friend that travel to Nigeria to enjoy is
leave.also we like to know if the item is in good condition.are old or new is the
item.i will be paying you with ( BIDPAY MONEY ORDER).incase you don’t know about
(BIDPAY)let me know so i can explain.i will need all this for payment from YOU.

FULL NAME TO PUT ON THE MONEY ORDER
CONTACT ADDRESS WHERE THE MONEY ORDER WILL BE DELIVER TOO
CITY,
STATE,
CODE,
PHONE NUMBER
VALID MAIL ADDRESS FOR COMFIRMATION OF PAYMENT..
reply me very soon..you can reach me on this number -+447031957772


Hi.
I would like to send this unit to my friend to Russia, Pyatigorsk 357538. Please,
provide me a cost of shipping to this place. USPS airmail 4 – 10 days (you can check
on usps.com)
If I send money via paypal can you ship today?
Tell me the total cost.


What a lovely item you have out there.I love it and i want to buy it.I have read the
item details including shipping and handling.Can i have the total costs including
shipping fees to Nigeria with zipcode 23452,am sending it as a gift item.I am paying you
through Western Union auction Bidpay,they basically deliver money in cash at door step
without paying any
commission.Pls get back to me as soon as possible


Dear Seller, I saw your advert of the Laptop you placed on eBay,
I am here to buy it from you because i need very urgently.
What is your Offerred prize i mean your last prize
I want you to estimate the shipment through Regular Airmail Post Office only, Because i
only prefered this shipping company to be delivered to me in Nigeria.
I have to make my payment through Western Union Bidpay Money Order since Paypal doesn’t
offerinternational payment. I want you to quickly end the auction so that i can proceed
with my payment without any delay. PLS REPLY WITH YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS.


Dear seller ,
I find your item interesting.I feel the need to negotiate with
you on the sale of this item.Like to know the current condition of the item. Need the
item urgently so my daughther can meet up for her final exams due soon.I have an offer
that I hope you will grant. I am ready to pay for the item immediately with an offer of
US$1,500.00. I will be making payment via Western Union Bid Pay(Cash Payment). Do
provide your info: NAME ADDRESS CITY STATE CODE COUNTRY EMAIL for immediate payment:
Your Full Name ddress City State Country Zip Code Tel Number. Emai and phone number
alongside your response. I want you to get back to me if this offer is okay with you,
while you also provide me the cost of the shipment through USPS or AIR MAIL POST 4-10
DAYS EXPRESS delivery,as the package will be shipped to me here in Nigeria..
Thanks.
Mrs Julian Bash.


Of course, despite all of these questions, the auction remained open until the end, since bids started coming in, and the “Buy-It-Now” had required immediate payment. Unfortunately, this still wasn’t the end. In the process, I reported each one of these to eBay’s Trust and Security department, and got a constant stream of generic e-mails back from eBay indicating that these accounts had been closed (sometimes even before I read the original question, implying that I of course wasn’t the only person that they were asking these sorts of questions of).

“Payment”

The auction closed at the appointed time, and the high bidder contact me fairly quickly to make payment and arrange for shipping:

hi
i will go and make the payment now and as soon as you get confrimation from paypal
that the payment has been made pls ship the item to the address you will given via
canadian post express as soon as possible.
regards

So, this looked encouraging. I had a winning bidder, and a seller who indicated that they were going to pay via PayPal right away. In fact, I even received a “PayPal Confirmation” message moments later:

Dear Jesse D Hollington,
This email confirms that, Kate Sandra, have paid
seller, (jdh@kenetic.com) US $1,451.00 USD

using PayPal.
——————————————————————————–
Payment Details

Purchased From:Jesse D Hollington,

Item # Item Title Quantity Price Subtotal
6815161436 HP PAVILION DV1000 NOTEBOOK
1 WOW! US $1,426.00 USD
Shipping & Handling via Canadian Post Express to 117XX
{includes any seller handling fees}US $25.00 USD

Shipping Insurance (Not Included)

Total: US $1,451.00 USD

Note From Buyer: Please let me know about tracking number when
you receive tickets. Thanks

——————————————————————————–
Buyer Id :kccstores03@cosmail.com,
Shipping Info: Bobo Ibrahim
Sw9/831A
Orunsolu Road Off Railway line Desalu
Ibadan
Oyostate
23402
Nigeria

Address Status: Confirmed
——————————————————————————–
If you have questions about the shipping and tracking
of this item or service, please contact
Kate Sandra at kccstores03@cosmail.com .
——————————————————————————–
NOTE:Incase of any problem you can contact us at paypal_acctverify@accountant.com

You can as well send call us or send us fax at 206-333-0194 or send
us the shipment verification in this number

——————————————————————————–

Thank you for using PayPal!
The PayPal Team
Your monthly account statement is available anytime;
just log in to your account at
https://www.paypal.com/us/HISTORY. To correct any
errors, please contact us through our Help Center at
https://www.paypal.com/us/HELP.

——————————————————————————–
FOR INTERNATIONAL PAYMENTS ONLY
Commissions and Fees incurred by sender: $0.00
Rate of Exchange: If and when the Recipient chooses to
withdraw these funds from the PayPal System, and if
the withdrawal involves a currency conversion, the
Recipient will convert the funds at the applicable
currency exchange rate at the time of the withdrawal,
and the Recipient may incure a transaction fee.
RIGHT TO REFUND
You, the customer, are entitled to a refund of the
money to be transmitted as a result of this agreement
if PayPal does not forward the money received from you
within 10 days of the date of its receipt, or does not
give instructions committing an equivalent amount of
money to the person designated by you within 10 days
of the date of the receipt of the funds from you
unless otherwise instructed by you.
If your instructions as to when the moneys shall be
forwarded or transmitted are not complied with and the
money has not yet been forwarded or transmitted, you
have a right to a refund of your money.
If you want a refund, you must mail or deliver your
written request to PayPal at P.O. Box 45950, Omaha, NE
68145-0950. If you do not receive your refund, you may
be entitled to your money back plus a penalty of up to
$1,000 USD and attorney’s fees pursuant to Section
1810.5 of the California Financial Code.
——————————————————————————–

Please do not reply to this e-mail. Mail sent to this
address cannot be answered. For assistance, log in to
your PayPal account and choose the “Help” link in the
footer of any page.
To receive email notifications in plain text instead
of HTML, update your preferences here.

PayPal Email ID PP120

Learn more!

PayPal, an eBay company

Copyright 1999-2005 PayPal. All rights reserved.

___________________________________________________
Play 100s of games for FREE! http://games.mail.com/

Of course, even aside from the obvious grammatical errors and the games advertising tag-line at the bottom, the fact that the return address and contact address was “paypal_acctverify@accountant.com” would have clued me off pretty quickly. Just to prove a point, I went over to my actual PayPal account, and to nobody’s surprise, there was nothing extra in there.

(For the technically curious, a cursory examination of the headers in this particular e-mail combined with a quick whois and DNS lookup would seem to indicate that the message did originate from the accountant.com domain, so I suspect this is an actual mailbox that somebody is using to pose as Paypal. Accountant.com is actually an additional domain of the “mail.com” service, which probably accounts for the ‘games.mail.com’ advertising tagline).

At any rate, this was followed by another e-mail message from “Kate”:

hi
i have just made the payment and i am sure that you will have gotten
confrimation from paypal,all i want you to do now is for you to go and
ship the item now cause i ahve already amde the payment,ship the item and
give me the tracking number so that i can confrim that the payment has
been made pls make sure you give me this as soon as possible.you can call
me on my uk number below +447031957034
regards

Of course, I did no such thing as to ship the item, since I had ALL of the indications of complete fraud: A brand new eBay account with zero feedback, a fake PayPal “receipt” and a request to ship the notebook to Nigeria. Needless to say, this was not going to happen. The whole thing was reported to eBay, of course, but in terms of the “winning” bidder, the simplest response was to file a Non-Payment notice, with the standard reason of “The buyer wants shipment to a country I don’t ship to” The dispute was closed immediately, and the winning bid effectively cancelled, with “Kate’s” account being deleted from eBay a few hours later.

A series of second-chance offers were then sent out to those who appeared to be more legitimate buyers.

Conclusion

So how likely is somebody to be taken in by this sort of scam? I would like to think that the general population is smarter than this, but then again having watched the guests on Jerry Springer from time to time would seem to indicate otherwise. Seriously, though, I think that anybody who is even slightly computer literate and a bit careful should see right through these scams. In my case, I’ve been involved in IT for over twenty years, and have been on the Internet since before the world-wide-web (yes, kids, there was an Internet back then). I know my way around e-mail systems and know what to look for in fact, as an IT consultant tracing down e-mail problems and looking for forged e-mails is part of what I do. Combine that with a healthy skepticism and I feel pretty safe on eBay. Most of this stuff is an annoyance to me rather than a real problem.

However, there are more and more people using the Internet today who are not computer literate, who are naive, and who could easily be taken in by these sort of things. I know people personally who barely touch their computer except to do business on services like eBay. These are the sorts of users who might not be so aware of what can actually happen out there. There are still those who don’t understand that e-mail can be as easily forged as a postal letter (just because something says it’s from “bgates@microsoft.com” doesn’t mean that it was written anywhere near Redmond, WA).

I suppose the simple solutions to avoid being taken in, if I had to make a list, would go something like the following:

  • Be skeptical when doing business online. Deals that seem too good to be true almost always are.
  • Don’t accept payments through methods other than PayPal or physical money order mailed to you and in your hand and cashed at the bank. Don’t ship anything out until you know the money is in your hands.
  • Read your e-mails carefully. Especially pay attention to the headers and where the message is coming from. eBay has done a very smart thing lately by providing each member with an online mailbox. If it’s not in your eBay mailbox, it didn’t come through eBay, regardless of what the headers may say. Apparently PayPal will soon be adopting a similar system.
  • Don’t list items as shipping to countries like Nigeria, Singapore, Russia, etc, unless you really are willing to ship there and are willing to put up with the aggravation of filtering through a whole bunch of non-paying bidders. Note that this won’t stop people from those countries from bidding but at least it makes it cut-and-dry to cancel their bids later.
  • If you want to use Buy-it-Now, always require immediate payment. This ensures that your auction isn’t prematurely closed by somebody who only wants to defraud you out of your item. This was the mistake I made the first time. By requiring immediate payment, a potential immediate buyer must make payment via PayPal before the auction is closed. If they don’t complete payment, the item is not considered sold and the auction will remain open.
  • Use Buyer Conditions on eBay to restrict who can bid on your item. You can specify things like preventing newly registered users from bidding (something I should perhaps have done), or require a certain amount of positive feedback.
  • Look at registration dates and feedback. Based on my experience, if somebody has registered the same day they’ve bid on your item, and has zero feedback, the probability is higher that it’s a potential scam (this is only one possible red flag, however, since it’s also entirely possible that somebody just discovered eBay, and yours is the first item they want to bid on).
  • Report anything and everything suspicious to the eBay Trust and Security department. They are your friends, and it is their job to advise you on situations like this and look after the safety and protection of their members. You might as well get some value for your insertion fees and final value fees. In addition, even if you know something is a fraud, don’t ignore it, or assume somebody else has reported it report it yourself. This way at least you help eBay to nail a potential scammer before somebody actually gets sucked in.
  • And lastly: Be skeptical when doing business online. Deals that seem too good to be true almost always are.

There are more and more brick-and-mortar outlets popping up these days that will list stuff on eBay for you. These services tend to take a large cut of the item’s selling price (20-30% from what I’ve seen), however they are probably a good solution for those selling large-ticket items who don’t have a lot of experience with eBay or online commerce in general. Certainly the aggravation that I’ve dealt with over the past week would seem to be worth it for somebody who isn’t really online all that much.

The bottom line, however, is that people have to remember that the Internet is an extension of our society. You will find criminals and con men out on the streets of any major city, so why wouldn’t you find them online?