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Internet auction and private selling sites provide a useful service for the public. However, like other areas of business, they have become the targets of fraudsters, with several thousand would-be traders falling victim every year.
How internet auction sites work
These sites work as facilitators for transactions between sellers and buyers. Sellers post items for sale with terms and conditions set, and potential buyers make ‘bids’. The person who makes the highest offer within an allotted time wins. Arrangements are then made between the two parties for payment and delivery of the goods.
Payment is often arranged through an escrow service. These services hold the buyer’s payment in trust until the goods have been received and checked. The buyer then authorises the escrow service to release the payment to the seller.
How internet fraudsters operate
Internet fraudsters operate in a variety of ways such as:
‘Invisible goods' fraud
The buyer sends the payment, but no goods are delivered and inevitably, the seller cannot be contacted, as false details were originally given. Using a legitimate escrow service can help protect the buyer from this type of fraud.
Buyers can also fail to pay. This can happen where the seller agrees to payment after delivery. It can also occur if a stolen credit card is used to make payment to an escrow service, and this is not discovered until after the goods are sent.
Please bear in mind that this is different from the case where there is no payment made as a result of a dispute between buyer and seller. This is a civil matter.
Online escrow fraud
Unfortunately, a number of fraudsters have created apparently genuine websites offering escrow services in order to defraud would-be customers.
The seller follows instructions on how to pay his money to the escrow site, usually by means of a cash transfer system such as Western Union. The escrow site then fails to pass the money on to the seller, and can no longer be contacted by either party.
These fraudsters also use a number of other methods to maximise their gain from such a website. Escrow fraudsters can commit invisible goods frauds or can contact the losing bidders for genuine auctions, claiming to be the seller with a similar product for sale. In both cases, the fraudster insists that payment is made through their fraudulent escrow service, with the same result as before.
In addition, escrow fraudsters can ensure winning bids on genuine auctions for high-value goods, again insisting that payment is made through them. When the seller checks the escrow service, he sees that payment has been made by the buyer and sends off the goods (usually to a foreign address). The seller thereafter loses contact with the buyer and the escrow service, and does not receive the promised payment.
There are a number of steps that can be taken to minimise the risks associated with carrying out business on the internet.
- Familiarise yourself thoroughly with the auction site terms and conditions.
- Get to know the seller/buyer - if possible, check the auction website for feedback on this person. Find out details, such as a permanent address and landline telephone number. Carry out online checks to verify that information.
- Ask questions about the goods. Try to verify that a seller has the items in front of him. Consider the payment arrangements requested. Fraudsters will often insist on high-risk payment methods such as cash, cheque, wire transfer or cash transfer systems such as Western Union or Nocheques.
- Consider the seller/buyer's location. Very few internet auction frauds occur with the buyer and seller in the same police force area. Although these fraudsters do operate within the UK, they often prefer to commit their frauds in foreign countries, playing on the difficulties of international crime investigation.
- Check out escrow services - especially if the other party insists on using a particular service. These sites are often well presented and appear genuine, but fraudulent sites may have a number of spelling and grammar mistakes.
If you do find yourself a victim of internet auction fraud, report the fraudulent transaction to the internet auction site itself. You should then contact your local police office.