A Tale of Two Internet Scams

I have a boat for sale on the Internet and have been contacted by three people who want to buy it and ship it overseas. I was asking $4,300 and one person wants to pay more. I feel like something is wrong here. -P.F., VA

And from another boat owner...

We were contacted by a Canadian group who expressed an interest in purchasing our 53 ft. Ta Chiao ketch, which was advertised on the net for $209,625. They offered to pay 25% as a deposit to allow them the time to survey and sea trial the boat. We agreed. Then they sent us back a bank draft that was more than $27,000 over the amount we agreed on for the deposit. We called to offer to send it back. They responded that we should go ahead and deposit it, but a few days later requested that we send a cashier’s check for the overage. Fortunately, my wife was too sharp to fall for this. The bank draft has yet to clear and was probably a fake. If we had sent a cashier’s check we would now be out tens of thousands of dollars. - W.C., Corpus Christi, TX

Just about everyone with an e-mail address has received at least one message from someone in Nigeria or another country asking for help in transferring millions of dollars to a bank account here in the U.S. for safekeeping. In return, you're promised a sizable cut. Of course, these promises are just that, says the Federal Trade Commission. Those who fall for these scams have found their bank accounts drained — or worse, their identities stolen.

Well, now there's a new twist to what the FTC calls the “Nigerian Money Offer” scam.

In recent weeks, BoatUS has heard from several people, including P.F. and W.C., trying to sell boats on the Internet. Seems that they've been contacted by con artists overseas who pay for boats with bank drafts written for more than the asking price — with the stipulation that the seller here in the States send them back a cashier's check for the overage.

Some of the con artists are pretty clever. W.C. in Corpus Christi said he was approached by someone from what turned out to be a bogus law firm in Toronto supposedly representing a “celebrity whose identity needed to be protected.” Because of the hush-hush nature of the deal, they said “W.C.” had to sign a non-disclosure agreement in which he promised not to discuss the deal with anyone. W.C.’s wife contacted the Toronto Law Association and learned that no such lawyers’ group existed.

In P.F.’s case, the “buyer” wrote in an e-mail, “I have a client that is owing me the sum of $8,000 and I have told him to send it to you and you will have to refund the balance to me VIA MONEY GRAM TRANSFER [writer’s emphasis].”

You can see where this is going.

Bank drafts or checks aren't guaranteed and, coming from a foreign bank, may be slow to clear, if they clear at all. Cashier's checks or certified checks on the other hand clear right away because the bank sets aside the money in the account specifically for that withdrawal. Thus, the crooks get their money and the "mark" gets nothing but a hole where his bank account used to be.

Because these scam artists operate outside the country, it is very difficult to bring them here to face charges.

Complaints about Internet scams should be reported to the National Fraud Information Center/Internet Fraud Watch, 800-876-7060 or www.fraud.org, and to the Federal Trade Commission, www.ftc.gov. Even if legal action is unlikely, the agencies will issue consumer alerts to help others avoid getting ripped off.

W.C. sent reports to the FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In his letter to the Mounties, he wrote, “I grew up on Sgt. Preston of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police ‘always getting his man.’ Get these guys!”

The standard advice when dealing with telemarketers or “unknowns” on the Internet is to never provide social security or bank account numbers or other financial information.

Sellers should always insist on a cashier's check, money order or certified check when selling a big-ticket item. Go one step farther. Hold onto the title and the boat until the payment clears as an added precaution.