National View: Family learns from the latest web scam technique

Our three boys have outgrown a small ATV given to them a few years ago by their grandmother. When the middle son asked me if they could sell it on Craigslist with an eye toward a larger model, I said fine, thinking that letting him handle the tra...

Michael Smerconish

Our three boys have outgrown a small ATV given to them a few years ago by their grandmother. When the middle son asked me if they could sell it on Craigslist with an eye toward a larger model, I said fine, thinking that letting him handle the transaction would be a learning experience. It was, for both of us.

Wilson, age 14, sampled the market and concluded that 5-year-old models like ours were selling for around $1,500. So he decided to list ours for $1,450. There was immediate interest, first from a neighbor looking for an ATV for his daughter. He made plans to come and take a look, but while he was in transit, another inquiry arrived via text:

"Just went through your ad on craigslist and am ready to make a purchase. ... Get back to me at my e-mail. John."

Getting hyped in this seller's market, Wilson dutifully responded and offered to show him the ATV that day. Instead, "John" replied with three questions: "I would like to know the following; The present condition and the reason why you are selling it. I also need to know the final asking price as am looking to purchase it outrightly. Do get back to me with the above requested so we can make further arrangements."

Wilson: "Hello. The condition is very good. The reason I'm selling it is because I am too big for it. ..."


John: "What's the final asking price?"

This is what I'd hoped for: a lesson in negotiation.

Wilson stuck to the asking price of $1,450, and John agreed, with a few caveats. A marine engineer at sea, John said his phone and Internet access was limited and he wouldn't be able to pay for or pick up the ATV himself. He suggested we complete the transaction using PayPal and promised to arrange for his "private courier agent" to get the ATV. "Don't bother about shipping, no shipping," he wrote.

He requested a PayPal account to which the money should be sent. With my approval, my son provided mine. And I suggested he tell the neighbor that the ATV was sold.

Then, within minutes, another e-mail arrived. John's pickup agent wouldn't retrieve the ATV until an "agent commission fee" was sent to the "pick up agent Head Quarters" in North Carolina. Of course, headquarters only accepted Western Union money transfers, and John's lack of credit history necessitated that we help him pay in cash.

Ever the accommodating buyer, John offered to send us $2,200 via PayPal and requested that we head to our nearest Western Union -- "there is always a western union agent in most post offices or online," he helpfully noted -- and send $690 to the pickup agent.

Whoa. Way too much information and a bit unnecessarily complicated. A marine engineer? With limited Web access? Paying full price? But requiring payment of $690 via Western Union?

"Dad, this doesn't sound right."


John was teaching my son a much more valuable lesson than I'd first imagined.

Before we could fashion a response, my iPhone buzzed with three e-mails in quick succession. The first, seemingly from " service@pay," said my account was being credited with $2,200. The second clarified that the funds would be officially credited after we went to Western Union and sent the $690, along with a scanned copy of the receipt.

Finally, a third e-mail arrived within five minutes of the first. "We hereby inform you that he is a verified premier user and we can testify that this is a legitimate transaction and which is the reason why we are writing back to you for you to know that you are 100 percent safe and that you are covered by our Seller Protection."

By now I was growing alarmed. If John had my e-mail, maybe there was a way he could manipulate my PayPal account. I called PayPal and explained the situation to a customer service representative. Not surprisingly, none of the three e-mails had come from them. After I supplied the e-mail name of the scammer, she told me that PayPal "never uses Western Union and doesn't have anything to do with Nigeria," not that I had asked. She also said that several of its customers had called demanding payment from John, meaning that they had already paid the "shipping" and were left holding the (empty) bag.

When I mentioned the incident on radio, I was overwhelmed with calls from people who had similar encounters. This, it seems, is the latest online scam.

I told the story to Alex Stone, author of the new book "Fooling Houdini." Stone was pursuing a Ph.D. in physics at Columbia when he decided to take a career detour and delve into the world of magic, the nature of perception and the power of the mind.

"So-called advance fee fraud is one of the most common confidence schemes, a venerable old racket that probably dates back to Shakespeare's day," he told me. "Remarkably, it still works. Scams of this sort cost Americans hundreds of millions of dollars each year."

We still have the ATV. The price is now $1,250.


Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him at .

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