I thought a while whether I simply wanted to forget about this, but I now realise I was loath of admitting I had been outsmarted (as some who know me would say, I indeed have a tendency to consider myself rather smart).
And in fact, an objective post-mortem of the two weeks that went from hooking me up to the definitive realisation it was a scam could be a resource for someone else, helping them to be more prudent and avoid falling for the trap I fell into.
So here’s the story: facts and some commentary.
- I need a new small car, so I trawl the Interwebz looking for a good deal; after a while on august 31st I find one that is selling at a discount over going prices: good value for money, but not ridiculously so.
- Since they provided me with the license number, I check the Public Car Registry and everything matches: Make, Model, Color, Fuel, Owner Name
That’s clever: they were profiling exactly someone like me: decently proficient at online buying, would know a good deal when he saw one. At the same time, the price was not so low as to set off too many alarm bells, and they had a good story to explain it (see after).
They also suggest I do my homework and get some self-reassurance over the car being legitimately as described.
- I start talking over email with the seller: an Italian citizen who emigrated to Northern Ireland, took his brand-new car with him but now lost his job and needs money quickly.
- He obviously expected I would have reservations about buying a car I cannot inspect, and he addresses them by proposing an escrow sale: I’d pay 50% of total to an escrow service who would also do the transportation and leave the car with me for 5 days for inspection. The money – as the name says – would NOT be delivered to the seller, but kept in escrow by the service. If OK, I would pay the remainder, if not I would return the car and they would return me the money. I have used escrow services before for overseas purchases, and I am comfortable with the procedure.
That’s again clever: they know I am suspicious of an individual, so they offer me what looks like a legit business as an intermediary. I visit the site (www.forbes-transport.com but it’s been taken down now) and it looks OK even if it’s not the most modern design I have seen, subtly suggesting they’ve been around for a while. In fact the opposite is true as the WHOIS record (which I did NOT think of checking at that time) shows that the domain name has been registered only on sep. 2nd, 2015
- Upon acceptance, I get contacted by the freighter: they send me a provisional sale contract, an insurance certificate for the transport and the five days of use and state they are ready to start the delivery process as soon as I pay the agreed 50% to a Bank Account they provide.
That’s another nice touch. I would probably have balked at sending money via Moneygram or Paypal, but an International Wire Transfer is very trackable and makes me feel comfortable.
- After they correct a mistake in the IBAN code (the only time I spoke to anyone to the only phone number that worked and which is still in operation) I send the money on september 15th.
- They promise delivery on september 23rd.
- In the meanwhile, they give me a tracking number; this at first does not work; I contact support, they fix the problem, and I can now access a tracking page that shows the progress.
- On september 22nd they contact me again, to say that the procedure has changed and I now need to send the full payment for them to make the delivery. I do not see this email, as all their email ends in my spam dump
That’s probably the single biggest piece of evidence I did not want to see. How can a legit business survive if ALL their emails end up in spam? I actually had asked this question to their support and they claimed I was the only one experiencing this. Funnily, this is exactly the type of answer you get from IT people (“Sorry sir, but you’re the only user experiencing this…”) and although unhelpful and plainly wrong, it had reassured me I was talking to a true Systems Engineer.
- Anyway, I do not see the above, but the following day no car gets delivered, so after an unsuccessful attempt to call them, I email asking what’s up. A day elapses with no answer so I send a second more vigorous complaint about appalling customer service.
- They respond immediately, explaining the new policy (I now find the spammed emails) and reiterating the request for full payment.
At this stage I am 80% convinced it’s a scam, but the fact they respond does two things: it buys them a day or two while they clean up everything and disappear, and attempt a last ditch effort to get from me the other 4000 euro. You never know…
- But by now the game is over: on september 28th, I report the facts to the UK Police, and the following day to the Italian Police.
These are the full facts. Now a couple of considerations:
- you don’t set up this sort of operation for ONE victim: they probably flooded online commerce sites with fake offers and hooked up many others. (Not that it makes me feel less silly).
- they move with very good sync: I respond on aug 31st and the domain is registered on sep. 2nd. I bet Bank Accounts were set up in the same timeframe. I then send the money on sep. 15th and it must have been cleared out shortly thereafter
- they chose to operate in plain sunlight: Bank Accounts must be opened by someone (so you need fake documents), domain names also, so this points to a complex covering up of trails
- the Northern Irish Bank where I sent my money (http://digital.ulsterbank.ie/) was not very vigilant: someone walks in with a fake ID, opens an account; two weeks later money flows in from all corners of the globe, and three weeks later the account is emptied and closed and you suspect nothing? Not to mention the fact that large cash withdrawals in many countries are prohibited (or at least flagged) exactly for this reason.
I will be pursuing this with all relevant entities; in the meanwhile I wonder if I can write-off the EUR 4,000 in my next tax return “Training Course to become a Little Wiser”