A 19-year-old Cal Poly student was recently scammed out of $2,375 when a Craigslist Web site exchange went bad, and she’s not the only one. Many people are duped by online con artists, but there are warning signs to prevent it from happening. One of the biggest red flags of a scam is the request for a wire payment; such was the case for the Cal Poly student.
The duped 19-year-old was advertising an apartment for summer sublet and thought the supposed interested party was legitimate. The suspect identified himself as a resident of the United Kingdom and sent her a third party cashier’s check for $3,750 – about $2,500 more than the price for the apartment – insisting that the student electronically transfer the difference to cover his travel expenses.
The victim deposited the check into her bank account and used Western Union to make the transfer to the interested party. Days after the victim’s money was wired, it was found that the check was fraudulent. The victim was held responsible for the money while the suspect was $2,375 richer.
San Luis Obispo Police Department Sgt. Sean Gillham said there were recognizable red flags early in the exchange that could have prevented the victim’s loss, beginning with the warnings on the Craigslist Web site advising how to recognize and avoid scams, as well as examples of common scams to be aware of.
Gillham said selling something using a Web site like Craigslist or Cal Poly Housing should only be done locally with people you can meet face-to-face.
“It’s interesting that people don’t want to believe it’s a scam. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is,” he said.
“Don’t trust that kind of interaction unless you are meeting face to face. If you are wiring your own money, and you are the one selling the item, there is an issue.” he said.
Gillham continued that it is always a good idea to let the buyer’s check sit in your bank account until it clears, a process that is worth waiting the necessary days or weeks to complete. If money is wired using Western Union, there is no way to trace it, so there’s no way to find the receiver.
“You are wiring the money getting into the Western Union pipeline, you are giving them the ability to redirect that money, and it goes anywhere,” he said. “Craigslist says, ‘if someone is asking you to wire them money, it’s always a scam.’ It just makes sense. If they really want it, and they’re willing to take the time to go snail mail with you, they can take the time to go snail mail in return. There is no reason for them to ask for more money back. If somebody is asking that, it’s a scam. That’s it.”
Craigslist lists some warning signs of scams, which includes an inquiry from someone far away, often in another country; a request involving Western Union; or a refusal/inability to meet face to face.
Gillham said with all the warnings clearly displayed on the sites, it is hard to believe that the number of scams is rising among the supposedly Internet-savvy generation.
Hard to believe perhaps, but these sort of scams are easy to be fooled by, kinesiology junior Shay Garshasbi said. She was selling a phone on eBay when someone from Africa offered to pay more than the selling price for the phone if she agreed not to put it up for bid online. He claimed to be desperate for a phone and would gladly send her much more than the asking price by using a PayPal account.
Thinking she had come across a rare deal, she agreed to sell him the phone, but later grew suspicious of the buyer’s PayPal account.
“PayPal was sending me emails, and then I noticed in the emails that they weren’t using correct English,” Garshasbi said. “I still didn’t think anything much of it until I went to the post office and the guy told me there were a whole bunch of scams going on, and he asked me if I knew the person. I told him yes, but after talking to my sister about it, I went back to the post office and got the package back.”
Garshasbi said that before her experience, she was not aware these kind of scams existed. Having had a close call, she does things differently now.
“I would rather do something where I could see the person,” Garshasbi said. “I would need to be able to meet the person firsthand to verify the payment.”
Banks are accustomed to seeing their customers fall victim to such scams, but are not willing to take the loss if it was solely the victim’s fault.
Bernie Diaz, assistant manager at Washington Mutual Bank in downtown San Luis Obispo, said they try to ensure their customers’ safety by asking a series of security questions regarding an unusual or suspicious transaction.
“Based on each customer, if it is something out of the ordinary, we ask about six to seven questions,” he said.
As for the bank holding the victim responsible for the loss, Diaz said if the bank made the error they would take responsibility, but not if the loss is solely the victim’s mistake.
Gillham and local police would like to extend warning to everyone about these scams, especially Cal Poly students and incoming freshmen. He said that while these losses are unfortunate, there is little they can do to get the money back to the victim.
“We want people to be safe. We want people to be fiscally responsible with their money,” he said. “As much as we want to help people get their money back, these crimes are so sophisticated, with so many layers, it’s not like we can just go and get the money back. We can’t. Your bank is not going to eat the loss; they are going to pass it along to the consumer who caused the grief in the first place.”