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What started as an exchange of text messages about a violin listed on Craigslist ended with a death threat last week in Missoula.

“I am interested in buying your VIOLIN – $249,” read a text to Missoula resident Terry Burke on July 28.

Later, the person identified himself as Frank Moss of Sylacauga, Ala., and offered to send a copy of his passport.

When Burke, a certified public accountant, didn’t cash a $1,650 certified check that Moss sent for to purchase the violin, the tone of the messages became much more sinister.

“Are you trying to play games with me? I only give you 24 hrs to get back to me with the rest of the fund or else I will assassinate you and your entire family. I have full name and address with me to look and search for you. Good day,” Moss wrote in a text Aug. 13.

Then, the final message, sent the next day: “Where is my money?”

Burke didn’t think anything was amiss initially – he had successfully sold several items before using Craigslist.

After giving the person his business address to mail a certified check, Burke received a confusing text: “The check of $1650 will be sent to you the excess funds will goes to the mover before coming for the pick up. Pick up will be done after the check has cleared from your bank. I am willing to offer some fund to cover your stress and strain toward getting it done.”

“That’s when the flag came up,” Burke said.

No one pays extra money for items, he said, so he asked that a certified check be made out to and mailed to his bank. The interested buyer did neither, sending it to Burke at his business address instead.

Burke contacted the Kentucky bank listed on the check he received, and his doubts about its authenticity were verified.

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If Burke had cashed the check – which was made out from an Ohio dental company with a Michigan address – he would have been responsible for covering the funds when the check bounced. The “excess funds” given to the “mover” would have disappeared.

“My big concern is how many of these folks are out there taking advantage of individuals with this thing?” he said.

“If there’s a question, don’t do it,” Burke said, crediting following his gut in avoiding being out more than $1,600 and a violin.

While his most recent experience on Craigslist was negative, Burke was quick to say he finds the website to be a helpful tool for buying and selling locally, and will use it again.

Craigslist warns of scams and provides tips for avoiding them, but the site still is used as a medium for fraud.

Another common scam hits potential renters, said Scott Pastian, a detective sergeant with the Missoula Police Department.

Scammers post ads for rental properties that are valid properties, just not theirs, Pastian said.

Renters then send deposits to the scammer instead of the real owner, he said; sometimes a third party collects the money.

“So it’s very hard to track, and most of the time it involves multiple states, multiple jurisdictions and it’s very difficult for the victim to ever get compensated for their loss,” he said.

Don’t want to fall for either scam?

Conduct transactions face to face and only release personal information if you’re comfortable doing so, Pastian said.

“I would say that the person should only release information that they’re comfortable with, and generally if you’re conducting the face-to-face transaction, a lot of that can be avoided,” he said.

“And never accept a check for more money than what you’re selling it for,” he said.

Overall, the number of scams reported to Missoula police has decreased, Pastian said.

It’s unclear whether that trend is because people are better educated about avoiding scams or if people are reporting them to other agencies, he said.

If someone finds themselves in a situation where scammers become aggressive or confrontational, report it to police and ignore any further communications, he said.

A Missoula detective monitors fraud cases, Pastian said.

“But, generally, there’s not a whole lot that we’re going to be able to do to help someone who’s in that situation,” he said.

“Because it’s so difficult to track these people down,” he added.

For more information and to report scams online, visit ftc.gov. More information also is available at craigslist.org/about/scams.

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Reporter Alice Miller can be reached at 523-5251 or at alice.miller@missoulian.com.

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