Bamboozled: Let’s make a deal — but let’s make it in person

Cyberspace is ripe for cons.BB branding

You receive e-mails that appear to be from legitimate banks, claiming you to need to confirm some personal information.

You give your credit card number to a service that turns out to be bogus. A poor widow in Africa needs your help to recover her inheritance.

Online scammers are always looking for their next mark.

This time, I almost fell for their games.

I’m managing an estate sale for a family member. We planned to donate many items, but for others, we wanted a little cash.

A garage sale, ripe with nosy neighbors and strangers traipsing over my front lawn, wasn’t for me. I needed easy. After asking around, I decided to post some items on Craigslist.

Craigslist is the ultimate website for classified ads. People post items and services they want to sell, targeting a local audience, and buyers contact them via e-mail.

Sellers can mask their personal e-mail address and Craigslist will forward responses from buyers. Best of all, for most postings, Craigslist is free.

Just what I was looking for.

I signed up for an account and started posting. Within 20 minutes, I had my first bite.

A woman named LaTanya e-mailed to ask if a particular item was still available. I replied that it was. She then wrote:

“Sounds great. I’m okay with the price, I would have loved to come and look at it but I am very busy. I will be paying through a Money Order via UPS courier service. Once the funds have cleared in your bank account, we can arrange for pick up.”

Before long, the same buyer responded to two other ads, for a total sale of $1,300.

Wow, three sales in less than an hour? Fantastic. No price finagling? Great. Still, I had some questions.

Didn’t she want to see the items in person? Who would pick up the items?

We shared no less than a dozen e-mails. She said she would arrange for someone to pick up the items because she lived in Atlanta. (That’s far from Jersey, but the items were equipment for the handicapped – something that’s hard to find cheap anywhere.)

She’d send me the money order for my sale price plus the shipping amount, which I’d give to the person picking up the items.

Strange, but it’s not like she asked for my bank account number to wire funds (which I’d never consider) or for my Social Security number (again, never).

Would it be a shipping company or a private person? She didn’t specify though I asked several times. How much would she be sending? A total of $2,850, she said.

Hmmm. The items were heavy, but she didn’t know how heavy and therefore she couldn’t possibly have an accurate shipping cost. I feared the person picking up the items would demand more money.

I decided to kill the deal. And it’s a good thing I did.

The mechanics of the scam

A little due diligence – which I should have done before I posted a single item – revealed I was probably the intended target of a money order scam.

The money order scam isn’t new. A potential buyer offers to purchase an item and promises to pay via money order. The buyer sends a fake money order for the sale amount, plus the shipping cost.

The seller deposits it and when the funds are in the seller’s account, they arrange the pickup of the items, at which time the seller pays cash for shipping.

Weeks later, the bank realizes the money order is fraudulent and calls it in. The seller who deposited the money order is out the cash and the items, which were already picked up by the huckster.

”Our No. 1 rule is to only deal with people you can meet in person. Do that and you’ll avoid 99 percent of all scam attempts,” said Craigslist spokeswoman Susan MacTavish Best. ”And of course keep your wits about you. Don’t drop your guard because you’re keen to make some money, get rid of some junk, etc.”

Admittedly, I was under a bit of pressure to sell some of the estate items. Thrilled to unload them quickly, I almost fell for the ruse. I should have known better.

Kudos to Craigslist, and a dope-slap to me for not reading the warning that was clearly placed in front of my face. At the top of each of the forwarded e-mails I received through my ad, it read:

CRAIGSLIST ADVISORY — AVOID SCAMS BY DEALING LOCALLY

Avoid: wiring money, cross-border deals, work-at-home

Beware: cashier checks, money orders, escrow, shipping

The e-mails also give the site’s link for scam-related tips (craigslist.org/about/scams.html).

An hour later, a man e-mailed me about another item, and he also offered to pay by money order.

“I’m only accepting cash,” I wrote. “If you’re still interested, please e-mail again.”

I haven’t heard from him since.