I recently took out a classified ad to sell our old family van, with 176,000 miles and four kids’ worth of disgusting carpet. We asked $980 for it and decided to sell it to the first person who made any kind of offer.
What I didn’t expect was that the first two people to respond to the ad would be con artists.
I wasn’t shocked that there are scammers in the world. I was shocked there are still enough people falling for ad scams to make their poorly-spelled, ungrammatical, come-ons worth it.
Having been well-informed over the years about scammers by articles in this very newspaper, I was able to keep my money safe. But I decided to lead the scammers on a bit, just to see how the con plays out.
The scam typically works like this. The bad guys arrange to send you a check, which happens to be for much more than the asking price. They run the same type of scam on ads for pets, apartments, homes, services and just about anything else for sale.
The scammer asks you to deposit the check in your bank account and then quickly forward the overage to them through a MoneyGram or prepaid debit card.
Lots of people fall for it. In the three or four days it takes for the very real-looking check to bounce, you’ve lost your very real money.
In my case, I was contacted by two separate texts to the cellphone number I listed in my ad.
The first guy identified himself as David Anderson and texted from a cell number with an Oklahoma area code. He said he would send me a check for the full asking price for the van – no questions asked – plus the expense of having a shipper pick it up. I was to deposit the check and then right away forward the balance through a MoneyGram to his shipper.
One of his cheerful texts greeted me with, “Top of the day to you.” Later, a text ended with, “God bless you.”
The second guy said his name was Don Williams and texted from an Ohio area code. He made the same arrangement: send check, forward extra funds to his vehicle shipper. He promised, somewhat clumsily, “to be send payment alongs shortly” and asked me to let him know “when the check be deliver.”
He also added merrily, “I hope we can trust each other.”
Two days later, two separate checks arrived by Express Mail to my work address.
The first, a check from David Anderson was for $2,480, exactly $1,500 over our asking price. It was written on a New York bank and the envelope had a return address from a college in Washington state.
The second check from Don Williams was even more generous, $2,950, three times our asking price. That check was written on a Colorado business account and the envelope had a Texas return address.
On that first check, I called the college in Washington and here’s a shocker: No one named David Anderson works there.
“Oh, we’ve heard of him,” said Michael Berry, program coordinator with the Green River College branch campus in Kent, Wash. “Sometimes he’s used the name David Patterson, but it’s obviously the same guy.”
Berry said the college has gotten as many as a dozen calls from all over the country about the dodgy checks.
“We don’t know how or why he decided to use us,” Berry said. “We’ve turned the matter over to our business and legal affairs department.”
I also called the business listed on the check, USA Custom Pad Corp., of Sidney N.Y.
Surprise, surprise, they hadn’t heard of him either.
“This is the first call we’ve had about it, but we knew this would happen,” said Eric Wilson, owner of Custom Pad. “We’ve closed our account and we’ve involved the FBI.”
The small business sells all kinds of custom notepads and had its bank account numbers stolen by someone posing as an international customer wishing to pay by wire transfer. That’s not an unusual transaction for the company, which has customers all over the world, Wilson said.
“It’s really scary,” he said. “Once they get your banking information, you can’t stop them, or at least it’s hard to stop them.”
Thirty minutes after our initial conversation, Wilson called back to say he had just been contacted by a bank in Missouri chasing another bad check on his account.
Last of all, I called the number the phony David Anderson was texting me from and got a recording telling me what I already knew: “Not a working number.” The only real surprise was that the tracking number on both Express Mail envelopes traced back to U.S. states. I had expected Nigeria.
I made some calls on the second check, too, with similar results. And then, after about four days of leading them on, the scammers gave up on me and stopped texting.
The Better Business Bureau representing eastern Washington, north Idaho and Montana lists on its website at least 44 “fake check” scams nationally so far in 2015, nine of those cases in our region. In one case, a man lost $3,735 when the scammers asked him to refund the balance of the check using prepaid debit cards. The victim apparently read the prepaid card numbers to the bad guys over the phone.
Another woman reported losing $1,950 to a scammer responding to a day care ad. Many others reported figuring out the con before they lost any money.
Tracking down the scammers has proven almost impossible, mostly because they seem to be based outside the country, said Chelsea Maguire, the BBB’s communications director in our region. She isn’t aware of a single arrest in the U.S. related to fake check schemes.
Our best hope, she said, is to be informed and cautious. Be wary of people willing to pay the asking price right away. Watch out for people who say they’re from the U.S., but are out of the country on deployment, a mission trip, or something else noble like that. If the person sends you a check for much more than you’re asking for the item or service, that’s a giant red flag, Maguire said.
“If you can meet the buyer in person, that’s usually the best way,” she said.
By the way, we sold the van two days after our ad ran to a nice, honest Billings lady who needed a cheap way to haul around her grandkids. She offered cash, we traded paperwork standing there in the front yard, shook hands, and she drove away. It worked just like classified ads are supposed to work.