Cynthia Johnson is a Vanderbilt Nurse. She is smart and cares about people.
I meet her on this warm afternoon in the quadrangle outside the Hospital, across from the McDonalds.
She is 52 years old, a mother of two, and the wife of a veteran who now is serving over seas in Iraq with a private contracting company.
At one point in the interview, she wipes a tear from her eye, and her voice cracks with emotion. She begins to tell me about the car her son needs and the engine in her car, the one with 240,000 miles.
As I listen, I can see where this wonderful lady, just trying to find a deal on the internet, might be easy prey for some unscrupulous con man who hides in the shadows of the web.
The confidence game hasn’t changed much over time, it’s just now lurking in the on line jungle of instantaneous information, ether nets and firewalls. But the con is the same, where bad guys play on a victim’s emotions, bamboozling them with what they want to hear, eventually inducing them to send their hard earned money to the perps untraceable account.
Report Internet Scams: www.ic3.gov
Welcome to the world of internet scamming. A friend of mine on the FBI internet crime unit tells me that it’s one of the most pervasive problems on line shopper’s face.
Back to Mrs. Johnson. She is holding a hundred pages of photos and correspondence.
“I had been looking for a car. My son’s car engine blew. So I went to Craig’s list to search out a used vehicle. I found a great 2000 Honda. It had low miles and the guy selling it was from Nashville.”
How convenient I think. It’s all apart of the con. She’s from Nashville, so he is conveniently from Music City as well. What a coincidence. I think Not!
“We emailed back and forth for weeks,” she continues.
It’s now in the story that I know she is going to be scammed. Like some kind of new millennium fortune teller, the con man figures out that Mrs. Johnson is a soldier’s wife, and lays it on thick. Here’s how she describes the man on the other side of the electronic curtain.
“He claimed to be a service member stationed England working with the British government as a liaison. The email was very trustworthy. Very trustworthy….” she pauses, realizing the story is going to take a turn for the worse soon.
“I believed everything he had to say. It was a great email. We didn’t talk in person, which might have been a mistake.
She shows me a picture of the little car she wants to buy. It looks nice enough. It looks authentic enough. But as anyone reading this knows, even a monkey can cut and paste pictures, and that is what this bad guy did to this very sincere woman.
“We got things set up,” she says. “He sent me the arrangements on how to pay through EBAY financial. That looked legit to me, but it was all a scam.
She shows me the paper work. I am not a big EBAY guy, but everything looks legit to me as well. The scam is well conceived.
Back to the story.
“After I wired the money, about a day or two later, and there was no return email from him, well then I knew something was up.”
I see a tear welling in the woman’s eyes. I feel genuine sorrow for this nice lady who is conned out of thousands of dollars that she surely needs, like we all do.
“The first place I called was Western Union,” she tells me. “They said I had been scammed.”
I ask how much money she is out.
“$3,000 dollars,” she tells me.
Wow! that is a lot of money to simply send into the ether and never see again.
“I feel violated,” she says trying to be strong. “It hurt me really bad. I sobbed the whole night. My husband is in Iraq working there. I didn’t have the heart to tell him. I had to calm down, before I let him know. He was understanding calling it a lesson learned.
I ask her how he managed to get her to deviate from the traditional PAY PAL franchise that is widely recognized by EBAY as a safe and secure way to conduct business in these on line auctions.
She shows me a legitimate looking series of papers purportedly from EBAY financial.
Here’s where she should have trusted her instincts that something was amiss.
“I asked him how are you going through EBAY financial, when your car is on Craig’s site.” She pauses shaking her head knowing this might have been an opportunity missed. “He never did answer that part of my email.”
Floyd Duncan is an avuncular detective in Cheatham County. He has worked murders and burglaries and fires and now his desk is filled with internet crimes.
I have known Duncan almost 12 years and I like to call him the professor because of his slow, but deliberate, and always sagacious take on the events leading up to and surrounding his cases.
“It’s the worst case of buyer beware I could ever illustrate for you,” he says leaning on a desk filled with unsolvable internet fraud cases.
I ask if he can solve Johnson’s case. He looks less than optimistic.
“It gets hard. These deals are leaving the country real quick. Perpetrators in foreign countries, Like France and London, and Canada. That’s the victimization,” he says. “They build such a trust factor with you. It’s a confidence game. People doing these crimes are completely open and in touch with you, they are easily reached by phone and email until money transaction goes down, then they disappear.”
He tells me that EBAY is wonderful for law enforcement to work with, always cooperating. And he says the web site has warnings all over telling people what to watch for.
None the less, the victims are falling over themselves to give away their cash.
He tells me about the Ashland City man who broke rule one of life. IF IT LOOKS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE, IT PROBABLY IS.
He tells me that the man wired a seller 19,000 dollars to a bank in Massachusetts. He was getting a great deal on a speed boat valued at close to 40,000 dollars. Duncan says four other bidders were getting that same great deal. 4 people each sending 19,000 dollars for a piece of computer imagery. It’s amazing how rich you can become on the internet isn’t it?
Duncan says this case is about as solvable as the Kennedy Assassination.
“He thought he was dealing with EBAY motors. It was represented as an EBAY motors ad. Here again, It was cut and pasted to represent EBAY.”
I ask Duncan what single thing can MESSED UP VIEWERS look for to know that they should proceed with caution.
“When you are asked to have discussions aside and apart from EBAY and don’t get instructed to pay thru a PAY PAL acct then be wary. Be sure you are paying thru PAY PAL. That is the one EBAY is assuring the money will be there for the appropriate purchase and merchandise will be there. If they say wire it to a bank. Or somewhere else without using PAY PAL then That is a red flag.”
Kathleen Calligan at the BBB also has a lot of dealings with scam artists on the internet. She offers this advice.
“Buying on the internet continues to be a risk for consumers because scammers are technically savvy. They can hijack web sites. They have duplicated the BBB web site. so Consumers have to have a higher degree of awareness. Know who is the money transfer. Who do you give your money to. You don’t give it to a major internet retailer or auction site, you have to transfer the money thru a money transfer company. Pay Pal. Other company’s may pose as legit money transfer. Many times the consumer scam begins with the transfer of the funds to EBAY.”
FBI Special Agent John McMurtrie now works internet fraud cases for the Bureau. He tells me that most law enforcement agencies encourage victims to register online a the Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov.
He says as of 2006, the center had 3,201 complaints in Tennessee. 47% involved auction frauds, and the vast majority were on EBAY.
Of THE 3201 Complaints, he says:
40% OF THE LOSSES WERE 100 DOLLARS TO 1000 DOLLARS.
31% OF THE LOSSES ARE 1,000 DOLLARS TO 5,000 DOLLARS.
All I can tell you is what I know; if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Be cautious and careful when proceeding through the murky underbelly of the internet where con men hide in the darkness waiting to suck your money from your wallet.