Don't fall for this purchase order scam

A scam that started by ripping off office-supply stores by using phony purchase orders has expanded and is now luring consumers into believing they're getting work-from-home jobs, the FBI said.

Investigators believe criminals in Nigeria are orchestrating a complex array of scams that result in them getting merchandise of all sorts shipped to them for free.

"They order large quantities of items such as laptops and hard drives," FBI Special Agent Joanne Altenburg said in a statement. "They have also ordered expensive and very specialized equipment, such as centrifuges and other medical and pharmaceutical items."

Altenburg has been investigating the scam since 2012, the FBI said. The crooks use phony purchase orders from legitimate businesses to order the merchandise and then have them sent to people who are lured in by ads for work-from-home jobs or even as part of a dating scam, the FBI said.

The names of more than 85 companies and universities in the U.S. have been used in at least 400 cases that hit 250 business, leading to about $5 million in losses, the FBI said.

"These criminals are experts at posing as an employer or romantic interest online," Altenburg said. "They gain the trust of individuals looking for work or a romantic relationship, and after a period of social engineering, those individuals are convinced to serve as re-shippers on behalf of the subject. They almost never suspect they are doing anything illegal."

She said those who ship the packages overseas often are in disbelief when told they had been used as part of a scam.

The FBI warns businesses to be wary of email that appears to be written by non-English speakers and when verifying orders by phone to note when no one ever answers. In addition, when the purchase order address doesn't match the shipping address, a red flag should go up.

Consumers should be skeptical of supposed work-from-home opportunities that involve reshipping goods, particularly overseas.

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    Mitch Lipka is an award-winning consumer columnist. He was in charge of consumer news for AOL's personal finance site and was a senior editor at Consumer Reports. He was also a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, among other publications.