Minnesota Attorney General's Office
1400 Bremer Tower
445 Minnesota Street
St. Paul, MN 55101
M - F 8 am - 5 pm
Beware of Internet Classified Scams
While the Internet may offer convenience, it can also enable scam operators to defraud buyers and sellers. Fraudsters can use cheap technology and free classified services on advertisement websites such as craigslist.com or Ebay.com to dupe individuals looking to buy or sell items such as furniture, cars, ATVs, boats, or other merchandise, or those looking to rent an apartment. Don’t let this happen to you.
Most Internet classified scams are predicated on convincing a victim to send money to someone who is not who they pretend to be, often through a money wiring, escrow, or Internet payment service. Many perpetrators of Internet scams operate in countries outside of the United States, complicating law enforcement actions and attempts to retrieve money. Citizens who are asked to wire or otherwise submit payment to a party in another country who they do not know should exercise great caution, as this is a primary red flag for potential Internet classified scams.
Internet Buyer Scam. In the Internet buyer scam, a potential buyer expresses interest in an item posted for sale at an online classified site, such as craigslist.com or Ebay.com. The buyer is then typically contacted--often by e-mail--by the supposed “seller” (or in some cases, a party claiming to represent the seller as an escrow agent), who asks the buyer to submit payment. Oftentimes the “seller” asks the buyer to send payment through an Internet pay service such as PayPal, or other pay services purported to be offered by Ebay.com or Google.com. The information that the “seller” provides for these pay services is fraudulent, and may be doctored with official-looking logos, trademarks, and seals to make it appear legitimate. Scammers use cheap technology and copying ability to recreate look-alike websites and pay systems that mask the true nature of the fraud, so that the buyer is unaware that he or she is not actually on PayPal or other well-known Internet payment sites. In other cases, the scam “seller” may ask the buyer to send the payment via money wire. Once the payment is made, the “seller” disappears and the item is never delivered.
Internet Seller Scam. The Internet seller scam is a type of Advance Fee Scam, a form of fraud that has been around for many years. The scam artist capitalizes on advancements in cheap technology, which allows the scam artist to buy a printer, ink, and paper and create very authentic-looking counterfeit checks (oftentimes cashier’s checks or money orders) at low cost. The scam artist then contacts people who have an item for sale on the Internet, or who are renting an apartment or looking for a job on the Internet. The scam artist uses various appeals to persuade the victim to deposit the fraudulent check in the citizen’s bank account and wire the “overpayment” to the supposed buyer or a third person. Typically, the scam artists may suggest that the “overpayment” is meant to cover shipping costs or other fees, or perhaps to cover the fees of a third-party “agent” hired to transfer the property or assist in the transaction in some other way. By the time the counterfeit check bounces, the victim’s money has already been wired to the scam artist.
Scamming Businesses. Another variation of the scam targets small businesses. After making contact with a small business to request its services or products, the scam artist will send a fake cashier’s check or money order for an amount over the agreed-upon price. The scam artist will then claim that the check was actually meant for another business and that he or she should cash the check and wire the difference directly to the other business. These requests will often be accompanied by stories designed to evoke sympathy.
Consumer Tips To Avoid Internet Classified Scams
1. Beware of Internet payment services that you are asked to access through a link or in the body of an e-mail. Remember that links can be masked, and logos and trademarks can be faked online. If you intend to use what you believe is a well-known Internet payment service, visit that company’s website yourself, rather than trust the information that another party is suggesting.
2. Don’t be rushed. If someone really wants to do business with you, they will wait until you are ready to make a legitimate transaction. Furthermore, if an individual wishes to make changes to the terms of the transaction, such as where and how the payment is sent, do not let your eagerness to complete the transaction blind you to potential problems.
3. Be wary of wiring money to a party that you don’t know! Many people mistakenly think that wire transfers, like personal checks, can be canceled at anytime. This is not true. If you wire money via Western Union or MoneyGram, it’s impossible to retrieve the money once it’s picked up at the other end. Because it can be picked up anywhere in the world, the money is virtually untraceable. Once money is wired overseas, United States law enforcement agencies may have little recourse in recovering lost funds.
4. Cashier’s checks are NOT the same as cash! Just because the money appears to be available in your account doesn’t mean that the check has cleared and is legitimate. Counterfeit cashier’s checks can look very authentic. The bank may still bounce the check if it’s a forgery! If you do receive a check, attempt to locate the source of the check and verify its legitimacy by contacting the issuing bank. Do not use the contact information that appears on the check. Do a little leg work and obtain the contact information independently through legitimate directories.
5. Always be wary of someone who wants to pay more than your asking price or who wants to sell you an item at an unbelievably low price. A deal that sounds too good to be true probably is.
6. Be wary of “third parties” or “agents.” If a third party is actually owed any money, their client should be making the payment, not you. Do not wire money to a third party!
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, United States Secret Service, and United States Postal Inspection Service are criminal investigative agencies that have authority and jurisdiction over online crime:
Federal Bureau of Investigation
111 Washington Avenue South, Suite 1100
Minneapolis, MN 55401
United States Secret Service
Minneapolis Field Office
300 S. 4th St., Suite 750
Minneapolis, MN 55415
(612) 348-1800 Fax: (612) 348-1807
United States Postal Inspection Service
Criminal Investigation Service Center
222 South Riverside Plaza, Suite 1250
Chicago, IL 60606-6100
Office of Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson
1400 Bremer Tower
445 Minnesota Street
St. Paul, MN 55101
TTY: (651) 297-7206