Steve Brugge has done business with eBay and PayPal for years, so he didn’t think twice last month about ordering some high-end bicycle wheels from China for his 15-year-old son.
That is until the Albuquerque resident received an invoice by email – purportedly from PayPal – saying he owed $100 above and beyond the price he paid through PayPal at the time of the purchase.
Brugge didn’t pay the $100 and has no intention of doing so. Still, his experience can serve as a cautionary tale for individuals who purchase merchandise online from China and perhaps other foreign markets.
On April 6, Brugge purchased two bicycle wheels on eBay – “23mm Width Shimano body Basalt surface 50mm clincher carbon wheels” for those who know their bicycle parts – for $428.99. Since the wheels came advertised with free shipping, he paid that exact amount through his PayPal account and figured that was the end of it.
A few days later, however, Brugge received an email containing the PayPal logo with the mysterious invoice for $100.
“My first thought was that my son had made an additional purchase,” he told the Journal, “but after checking with him, it was clear that these parts we never ordered.”
Brugge said he also found it odd that the company listed on the invoice was not the same company that sold him the bicycle wheels, which led him to suspect his information had been sold to a third party in a scheme to squeeze another $100 from him.
Not only that, but the invoice broke down the $100 purchase as $30 for each “sample” wheel and $40 for what was supposed to be free shipping and handling.
So Brugge went to the security section of the PayPal website and did as instructed: He emailed a copy of the $100 invoice to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That prompted the following auto-response a few hours later: “Thanks for forwarding that suspicious-looking email. You’re right – it was a phishing attempt, and we’re working on stopping the fraud. By reporting the problem, you’ve made a difference!” the email read.
“Identity thieves try to trick you into revealing your password or other personal information through phishing emails and fake websites. To learn more about online safety, click “Security Center” on any PayPal webpage.”
Not satisfied with that response, Brugge then contacted the seller of the merchandise – not the company listed on the invoice – who told him by email there was no need for him to pay the $100.
Based on the explanation, Brugge said, it appears this entire exercise was directed at circumventing U.S. customs laws, which might explain why his son’s items first were sent to Canada before being routed to Chicago and ultimately Albuquerque.
“Concerning customs problem, we will sent (sic) one invoice to your Email, you no need pay to us when you get it,” the email read in poorly written and punctuated English.
If necessary, the writer suggested Brugge use the invoice to avoid paying tax, but “if you customs need pay tax, due to as international order buyer need bear it.”
So what we have here, it would appear, is a double fraud: the first aimed at Brugge in the form of a bogus invoice, the second at the U.S. government to get around customs regulations.
And Brugge’s take on this irritating experience?
“The caveat to the consumer is to beware of things on eBay shipped directly from China,” he said to me in an email. “I don’t know if this makes for a story, but it’s been an interesting experience for me.”
Nick Pappas is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal and writes a blog called “Scammed, Etc.” Contact him at email@example.com or 505-823-3847 if you are aware of what sounds like a scam. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division toll-free at 1-800-678-1508.