FBI: Online ad fraud costs millions

Phony Internet ads selling big-ticket items, from cars to recreational vehicles to boats, led to nearly 7,000 complaints to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) and accounted for more than $20 million in losses, the agency said on Friday.

Victims als0 made payments for what they thought were real lawn mowers, tractors, heavy equipment and more after being lured in by fake ads.

Here's how the scam works: After seeing a fake ad, which typically has a photo and a deeply discounted selling price, the victim responds to a phone number and has to leave a message. The message is replied to with a text in which an email address is sent for further contact, IC3 said.

Once the contact is established by email, more images are sent. In addition, the crook then offers what appear to be plausible reasons for why the price might be so much lower than expected. Among them: having to move to another location requiring a quick sale; the item needs to be liquidated for a divorce settlement; and the seller is in the military and is being deployed, requiring a quick deal.

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Victims then settle on a price and are told that the transaction will be processed through eBay so they can be assured it will be safe and simple. "In reality the scammer is only pretending to use eBay," according to the agency.

A fake eBay email is then sent with details about how to complete the transaction, typically with a wire transfer. IC3 said that a phony eBay customer service number is then provided to call when the victim is ready to send the money. Once the transaction is done, the victim will be sent another phone eBay email showing the transaction was completed and offering a projected delivery date.

After that, just about any follow-up to check on the progress of the transaction will be ignored, according to IC3. The item never arrives, and since the money was sent by wire it is lost.

Here is advice from the FBI for anyone who is purchasing online:

  • Use search engines or other websites to research the advertised item or person/company selling the item.
  • Search the Internet for any negative feedback or reviews on the seller, their e-mail addresses, telephone numbers, or other searchable identifiers.
  • Research the company policies before completing a transaction. For example, ensure the seller accepts payments via credit card as eBay does not conduct wire transfers and only uses PayPal to conduct transactions.
  • Be cautious when responding to advertisements and special offers.
  • Be cautious when dealing with persons/companies from outside the country.
  • Maintain records for all online transactions.

Victims of crime on the Internet can file a complaint with the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.IC3.gov.