By Ron Palmer
You may be smart, but some scammers are smarter
I like to think I’m a pretty savvy dude. I’m the type of guy who won’t fall for a scam, a shady deal or a good old-fashioned shakedown. Frauds and charlatans set off my rip-off radar the moment they use poor sentence structure or call me “Mr. Ronald.” I won’t fall for a hoax, I’m immune to hustles and I’m always leery of being hosed. I’ve been approached by Nigerian princes and best friends lost in a foreign land. I’ve turned down work-at-home deals and free university diplomas. And I never buy my Viagra online! (Wait, what I mean is…)
But even the best of us can be fooled by clever flimflammers. It’s easy to ignore surveys and “urgent offers” when they deal with items you simply aren’t in the market for. (Sure, I’d love a free Xbox, but my Atari 2600 works just fine, thank-you-very-much!) But once in a while, an offer comes along that, on the surface , appears too good to be true. It’s bad enough when that little devil on your shoulder taps into your inner sucker, asking “but what if isn’t? It’s even worse when that little angel on your other shoulder encourages you to “y’know, just check it out.” Before you know it, you’re filling out a Western Union slip addressed to some guy in “Brussels” named “Mr. Maxwell Dickinson.” Gee, I sure hope my $75 iPad gets here within three US business days as promised!
About ten years ago, I learned just how easy it was to fall for a scam when you want to believe that too-good-to-be-true offer is actually – as the young kids say – f’real! I was shopping online for a flight from St. Louis to Las Vegas (hey, I was gonna lose money either way, right?), and I was looking for the best possible deal. Back then, if you shopped around, you could expect to pay $150 to $220 for a round trip flight between those two cities, but as I clicked each website, the best price I could find was $300. And that was before baggage fees! Ever the online sleuth, I began searching for “alternate” deals. My quest took me to eBay.
In 2003, Southwest Airlines operated its frequent flyer system – known as “Rapid Rewards” – differently than it does now. It used to be that every eight round-trip flights, no matter where they originated or ended, earned the customer one free round-trip flight between any Southwest destinations. Since those flight vouchers were transferable, they were often sold on eBay or other online auction sites. I had bought one before and it was an easy and satisfactory transaction. Another purchase would go just as smoothly… right?
With the best deal in mind, I had placed bids on several auctions with a maximum price of $250. Unfortunately, just as airlines were getting a higher rate for their services, so were those who had vouchers to sell online. I was outbid on every auction, and it was back to square one. That’s when a single message in my eBay inbox caught my attention:
SUBJECT: “Your southwest airlines auction”
I should have been suspicious when the name of the airline wasn’t capitalized. But, even now, that’s not uncommon in simple, non-professional communication. So I clicked on it.
“ I saw your looking for a southwest airlines voucher and I happen to have 4 of them. I recentley moved to london and no longer need any use for them. I will sell them to you for $250 dollars each. Let me know if this interests you. Portocal333.”
Okay, I’ll admit it — the warning signs were there. I should have been aware of the poor sentence structure, the lack of capitalization and the fact that this dude was supposedly operating out of London. But keep in mind, the typical poorly-composed Nigerian e-mail scam was not as well known in 2003 as it is today. Despite the now-obvious signals, I was intrigued. This was my response with his follow up:
“Portocal333: I am interested in your auction, but I only need one ticket. Would you take $200 for just one?”
“ yes, $200 dollars for one ticket will be acceptable. send the money by western union money transfer to the following address”
Like I said, I consider myself to be savvy when it comes to online scams, so I did my research. Since this was through eBay, I checked up on the account belonging to Portocal333. There was an actual seller by that name, and he or she had a very good rating with 100% feedback. To this day, I don’t know if this was a shell account set up to perpetrate fraud, or if the scammer hijacked the legitimate account for nefarious purposes. But it looked real, so I closed the deal.
I had never used Western Union before, but it was a name brand money wiring company, so I didn’t have any concerns. If this was a scam, surely Western Union would call on a massive team of investigators to uncover the truth. Talk about naïve. Turns out, once you wire money through this or any similar service, you’re on your own. These services aren’t necessarily for business or personal transactions. They’re simply a way of sending money from one person to another – no questions asked. Needless to say, my $200 was gone, and I still needed to buy a ticket to Vegas. I was down two C-notes before even stepping onto the plane.
After sending several ignored e-mails to the so-called “Portocal333,” my eyes were opened. I had been conned. And it sucked. I didn’t really want to share my story because I was embarrassed. Yes, smarter people than I have been suckered out of much more money. But two hundred bucks is still two hundred bucks, and I was embarrassed. To this day, I’ve told very few people about this incident. I didn’t want anyone to know that – at least one time – I was a sucker.
I did, however, take my case to the local police. No surprise! — There was very little interest in pursuing a case that originated a continent away. The detectives were professional and listened patiently as I explained what happened and they were fascinated. But they were forthright when explaining that such cases routinely go unsolved and they didn’t have the resources to make it a priority. Fortunately, investigative practices have advanced in the last ten years, but such cases of fraud are still difficult to track down.
Bottom line: Even a self-proclaimed “savvy dude” can be a victim of online scams. The trick now is to be constantly vigilant and be aware that there are thousands of people out there whose main goal is to separate you from your money – and give you nothing in return. Look for the obvious warning signs, and don’t assume that because the “deal” originated on an otherwise legitimate site that it’s safe. Scammers have become very clever when it comes to creating fake web pages that mimic a legitimate company’s actual website. And never make payment through a money wiring service. Use those only when you’re sending money to someone you know and trust, and never for a sale of goods or services.
Oh, and should you become a victim of fraud, don’t be afraid to share your story. You might be surprised how many other people can relate as victims themselves. At the very least, you can serve as a warning for others. It will also make life tougher for Mr. Maxwell Dickinson and his army of Nigerian Princes.
Ron Palmer is a former television news reporter, anchor and producer and current Hollywood screenwriter. He graduated from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale with a degree in Radio & Television Communications.