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Online sellers open door to check-cashing scheme

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All Brian Vermilion wanted to do was to sell a spare BMW tire on Craigslist for $125.

Doesn’t seem that complicated, does it?

Instead, the Albuquerque man ended up being among the latest targets of an all-too-common “check overpayment” scam that has been circulating on online sites such as Craigslist and eBay pretty much since they were founded nearly 20 years ago.

Vermilion, who has sold a few items on Craigslist before, said everything seemed fine last weekend when a woman emailed him to say her husband wanted to purchase the tire. She even said he would toss in an extra $50 for “keeping the item for me and your running around.”

But everything started to change a few days later when he received a check for $1,452 – not the $175 he was expecting – along with detailed instructions on what to do with it. In short, he was told to deposit the check in his bank account, keep $172 (possibly a typo) and then wire the remainder “via Western Union Minutes Transfer” to the “mover” so he can make arrangements to pick up the tire.

“Oh, yeah,” he told the Journal, when asked if he was surprised to receive the larger check. “Who’s going to trust a total stranger with roughly $1,270?”

In fact, the woman who contacted him had raised the issue of trust in a previous email, saying this was her first time purchasing something on Craigslist and that “I hope I can trust you with my money.”

Vermilion intended to proceed with the transaction at first, even emailing her back that she could trust him.

Still, something didn’t seem right. So when he took the check to his local U.S. New Mexico Federal Credit Union branch, he told the teller the tale of his Craigslist ad and the inflated check.

Without skipping a beat, she told him she would scan a copy of the check and send it to the credit union’s fraud department for its review.

Three hours later, he said, he received a call from that department confirming everyone’s suspicions – the check was fake.

“At that point,” he said, “I just kept it and didn’t do anything with it.”

Nor did he contact his “buyer,” which prompted repeated emails seeking an update on whether he had received the check and the status of the transaction.

A few days later, he responded: “Here is the status. I did receive your check two days ago, and I took it to my bank. They followed procedure, and told me that the check is not legitimate and constitutes fraud. I will be taking your check and a copy of your emails to the Police! Please do not contact me again.”

As of Wednesday, he hadn’t heard anything since.

Connie Quillen, executive assistant at the Albuquerque-based Better Business Bureau Serving New Mexico and Southwest Colorado, described the check-overpayment scheme as “a fairly popular scam” that has its roots in newspaper classified ads long before the creation of online buying-and-selling sites.

“I’m always shocked at the number of people that haven’t heard about the scam,” she told the Journal by email. “Perhaps the scammers are doing a better job of passing down their ‘skills’ than we are at passing down advice to our kids?”

To their credit, both Craigslist and eBay post consumer protection information on their websites – all intended to protect customers from scam artists bent on making a comfortable living at their expense.

First and foremost, Craigslist strongly advises that, whenever possible, deal only with local people you can meet in person. Adhering to that rule alone can protect you from 99 percent of scam attempts, it suggests.

Other tips to remember:

  • Never wire funds through Western Union, MoneyGram or similar services to purchase an item. If a seller asks you to do that, chances are good it’s a scam.
  • Be on the lookout for phony cashier checks and money orders. Once they are deposited into your account, your bank will hold you responsible.
  • Never disclose personal financial information, whether it be your Social Security number, bank account number, eBay or PayPal information, etc.
  • And stay away from any deals that ask you to become involved with third-party shipper or escrow services company.

As for Vermilion, he admits the entire experience has left him “freaked out a little bit,” especially since he shared his name and address with his phony buyer.

His advice to fellow Craiglist sellers is to never give out a home address and consider renting a post-office box to collect payment for sold items.

“Do not give out any information of yours and always meet them in a public place,” he said in a follow-up email, “never at your home or place of business!”

Nick Pappas is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal and writes a blog called “Scammed, Etc.” Contact him at npappas@abqjournal.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.

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