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Phony buyers bilk online sellers; rash of S.J. victims

Posted by By Crystal Carreon, Mercury News on 2005/03/13 | Views: 477 |

Phony buyers bilk online sellers; rash of S.J. victims


It's an Internet scam with international intrigue, allegedly involving Nigerians, network servers in Israel and that 1984 Toyota you're trying to sell on Craigslist.

It's an Internet scam with international intrigue, allegedly involving Nigerians, network servers in Israel and that 1984 Toyota you're trying to sell on Craigslist.

Its victims -- including at least 50 in San Jose and countless others around the globe -- advertised vehicles and other items for sale online and were contacted by eager ``buyers'' who later bilked them out of thousands of dollars.


San Jose police say they have fielded about 150 reports of the suspected ``Nigerian scam on Craigslist'' over the past six months, and believe hundreds more could be victims.


``They are preying on the honesty of these people,'' said San Jose detective Mike Niehoff, whose phone rings daily with reports of Internet fraud (news - web sites). ``This is the hot crime we're seeing right now.''


Niehoff said the scam is simple but hard to crack. Suspects, conspirators and apparent syndicates are operating outside of the country, clearly outside local police jurisdiction.


Here's how it works:


You advertise an item for sale online and are immediately approached by an eager ``buyer,'' who happens to live in another country. The buyer offers to buy the item and pay for shipping and other related expenses, and ends up sending a check or cashier's check for thousands more than the asking price. The ``buyer'' then asks you to cash the check and wire the difference back or to a ``shipper.''


Problem is, the check turns out to be bogus. But by the time you find that out, you've already sent real money abroad and your bank is looking to recover that amount from you because the check was bad.


San Jose police say most of the cases they've seen involve victims who advertised on Craigslist, but they are also investigating cases involving advertisements on cars.com, eBay and other sites.


Alert posted


Craigslist has posted an alert on ``counterfeit cashier's check & money transfer scams'' (www.craigslist.org/about/scams.html) after several advertisers reported that they were duped. But the warning came too late for Charity Joyce of San Jose.


Joyce, 33, advertised a $500 antique bed, and within three days was contacted by an interested ``buyer'' in England.


In February, he sent her a cashier's check for $3,500. But he asked that she send $2,900 to a shipper in Lagos, Nigeria, leaving her with $500 for the bed and $100 for her time and trouble.


Joyce said she had her suspicions about the transaction, but felt assured when a local bank cashed the check. With $2,900 in hand, she promptly went to Western Union and wired the money to Nigeria.


The next day, she said, she received an e-mail from the ``buyer'' who had elaborate story about a family emergency and asked her to wire an additional $500.


``At that point, I thought: `Oh my God, I just got ripped off,' '' Joyce said.


She immediately telephoned the bank, which confirmed her suspicions: The cashier's check was bogus. And because Joyce had received cash, she would have to cover the loss.





``I was totally devastated,'' she said.

She reported the fraud to police.

Out of jurisdiction

But San Jose Sgt. John Savala, who supervises the high-technology crimes unit, said there is little local cops can do. Internet crimes with suspects overseas are out of San Jose's jurisdiction.

Savala said he has collected the reports and sent several to the local office of the U.S. Secret Service. But, because the individual dollar losses from victims are relatively low, investigating the crime is not a high priority of federal agents.

``It's not on their radar,'' Niehoff said.

Chris Von Holt, the agent in charge of the U.S. Secret Service bureau in San Jose, said he was aware of the plethora of Internet scams, but the office ``is not going to solve each case.''

Von Holt said because of staffing levels and post-Sept.11, 2001, priorities, the agency will generally investigate an online scam if the losses are at least $50,000 or if the alleged crimes pose a threat to major industries or national security.

Basically, Von Holt said it is up to citizens to protect themselves.

``Like the old saying, if it sounds too good to be true,'' Von Holt said, ``it probably is.''

As Joyce discovered.

The antique bed still sits in her San Jose garage.

Contact Crystal Carreon at ccarreon@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5460.

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