Bargain Box seller not fooled by check scam
While most people know the old adage, "buyer beware," Carla Cooper of Edgartown will tell you the same holds true for sellers. When a $100 tennis racquet she recently sold through The Times Bargain Box netted her $2,500, she knew there was more than one racket involved in the deal.
Luckily, Ms. Cooper's common sense and caution, coupled with good advice from staff at the Bank of Martha's Vineyard, kept her from being the victim of a scam.
Ms. Cooper won a brand-new Head MicroGel tennis racquet, valued at about $150, in a silent auction. After getting it strung, she tried it once and decided it was too light for her. Having successfully sold several used tennis racquets through the Bargain Box before, Ms. Cooper submitted an ad to The Times online to sell the racquet for $100. She checked a box on the form to approve running it online and in the March 20 print edition.
Shortly after the ad went online, Ms. Cooper received an email on March 24 from a Dr. David Johnson expressing interest in buying the tennis racquet.
"He gave me this big story about how his wife is pregnant, how she really wanted this tennis racquet and he was getting it for her," Ms. Cooper recalled. "I thought, wait a minute - you're a doctor and you're buying a used tennis racquet from the Bargain Box?"
Dr. Johnson asked Ms. Cooper to provide her name and her physical address so he could send a check to her by courier service. He also requested her cell phone number so he could keep in touch.
"With handling transaction this way, I must admit fear," Dr. Johnson wrote. Since he did not know her, he said he was "...looking forward to you being honest and worthy enough to handle this purchase and in order to even strengthen relationship."
Ms. Cooper emailed him with more details and some photos, reassuring him of her trustworthiness. Dr. Johnson wrote back, "Please keep all other buyers off! And consider the racquet sold."
Ms. Cooper told her husband Doug she thought the whole story sounded fishy, especially since Dr. Johnson gave no contact information other than his email address. She tried to find out more about him by emailing him back a few times. When he did not reply, she went ahead and emailed him her address and phone number.
On March 31, FedEx delivered an envelope to Ms. Cooper containing a check for $2,500 from "Big Mac Tank Truck LLC" in Enid, Okla., with a return address in Bluffton, S.C.
"I didn't even connect it with the tennis racquet because there was no note in the envelope," Ms. Cooper said. She took it to the Bank of Martha's Vineyard's Four Corners branch on Main Street in Edgartown where branch manager Jim Irwin and head teller Claire Apostolides examined the check, issued from Wells Fargo Bank and stamped with an illegible signature.
Although they agreed it appeared to be legitimate, they shared Ms. Cooper's concern that something wasn't right. Their skepticism was well-founded. As the Massachusetts Attorney General's website points out, checks sent by scammers may look and feel real, and may even be from a legitimate business or corporation - but written fraudulently.
Mr. Irwin advised against depositing the check until she found out more about it. On her arrival home, Ms. Cooper answered a phone call she described as sounding like a "crackly, cell phone connection."
A man with a thick foreign accent said, "Did you get the check?"
"Is that check from you?" she asked.
"Yes - the tennis racquet," he replied and hung up.
If it sounds too good to be true...
Ms. Cooper returned to the bank to tell Mr. Irwin what happened and about the tennis racquet connection. "You know what? This is a scam," he said. "He's sending you $2,500, and what he's going to do is say, 'Oops, I made a mistake - can you write me a check for $2,400 for the difference.'"
Fraudulent checks clear quickly, according to the attorney general's website. Although the money is available to withdraw, the bank may discover a forgery a few weeks down the road and the check may bounce, the site explains. If an account holder deposits a check that bounces, the bank withdraws the original dollar amount credited to the account.
In a phone call last week, Mr. Irwin said he recognized what Ms. Cooper described as a variation of a check scam he learned about from talking to Federal Bureau of Investigation officers in Boston.
"I think it's called the Nigerian scam," he explained. "Someone offers to buy something online, sends a check for an amount much larger than the agreed-upon price for the item, and then asks the seller to return the difference. By the time the check is deposited, there are no funds in that account, and the seller is out his money, and possibly the goods as well."
Ms. Cooper asked Mr. Irwin to call the Wells Fargo Bank to see if the check was legitimate. Although the bank confirmed the account was valid, as Mr. Irwin explained to her, because of privacy issues most banks only verify whether an account is active and not whether funds are available.
A dead-end scam
Although Ms. Cooper took his advice and did nothing with the check, she followed up with some detective work of her own. She Googled the return address in Bluffton, S.C., on the FedEx envelope and tracked down a name and phone number. No one answered her call and there was no answering machine. The same was true for Big Mac Tank Truck.
Ms. Cooper also emailed Dr. Johnson several times confirming she received the $2,500 check and offering to return it if he sent her a check for $100. She heard nothing back.
"I'd love to do a sting operation against these people," Ms. Cooper said. "You know, they suck you in to make you think that they're really good people and you've got to win their trust - it's just so slimy!"
Although Ms. Cooper avoided being a victim of the scam, she plans to take the advice of Edgartown police officers and notify the Attorney General's office about the incident. "I thought it would be good to let other people know who might be using the Bargain Box online to be careful, because this could happen," she added.
The way to avoid such a scam is to insist on a check for the exact amount, preferably from a local bank or a national bank with a branch in your area, or deal in cash, according to online advice from the attorney general's office. "There is no legitimate reason for someone who is giving you money to ask you to wire money back," the website says.
Anyone who suspects being a victim of a scam should call the Attorney General's consumer hotline at 617-727-8400. Information is available online at www.mass.gov. Choose "Attorney General" under "government links" at left on the homepage.
On a box on the attorney general's page under "consumer protection," click on "scams and identity theft."