Insult to injury
A year ago, Bob (not his real name) began searching on eBay for a big-ticket item he’d always wanted. A Sparks resident with a life-long love of motorcycles, Bob decided it was time to purchase his dream: a Harley-Davidson Softail. In an on-line, private auction on eBay last month, Bob took the bait, stupidly broke the rules by attempting a deal outside eBay’s structure and lost nearly $3,000—money he knows he’ll never see again.

“It was real cheap, just what I was looking for, and had everything on it,” recalls Bob, who hit the “buy it now” button and e-mailed the seller—who gave a name and Las Vegas address. “I e-mailed the guy and said, ‘What do I have to do to be pre-approved?’”

The seller responded promptly, saying he’d had past problems with non-payers and wanted a cash deposit. Eager to drive to Vegas and pick up his purchase within a few days, Bob fell victim to the salesman’s rush, right down to the I’ve-got-another-buyer-so-if-you’re-interested-I-need-the-money-today technique. Bob perused several pages of eBay’s “feedback” from supposed satisfied buyers and made up his mind.

“I thought he was legit because I talked to him a couple times,” says Bob, adding that their communication was solely e-mail based and that the seller claimed he’d just moved and didn’t have a phone installed yet, a red flag Bob didn’t see. “It should have been a dead giveaway.”

When the auction ended, Bob sent a $2,900 deposit, via Western Union, with the intention of paying the balance when he picked up the Harley. Bob did not heed eBay’s “Tips for Buyers,” “Buyer Protection on eBay” and “Fraud Protection” guidelines, though, and bitterly regrets he wasn’t more cautious. The seller and the money had vanished.

“I didn’t do my homework. That’s the last time I ever heard from the guy. I was too trusting. I can’t believe I was duped. Looking back, I was blinded by the light because I wanted something so bad, it was such a good price, and it was on eBay.”

When Bob alerted Western Union and eBay to the scam, he discovered an entangled black hole of enforcement, jurisdiction and blurry legal boundaries.

As it turned out, Bob wasn’t the only person being scammed. The account number itself had been stolen. “The recent activity on [the seller’s] account took place without the account owner’s authorization,” responded eBay Motors’ Trust and Safety Department, which also said that by acting outside eBay, Bob is not protected by the Web page’s buyer protection programs.

Furthermore, eBay referred Bob to the Internet Fraud Complaint Center, a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, also in alliance with the United States Postal Service and the Internal Revenue Service. In 2002, the IFCC referred more than 48,000 fraud complaints to law enforcement.

FBI Cyber Squad supervisor Alan Peters said cyber crimes are now the bureau’s third-highest priority, and that people should take precautions to protect their identities and property.

“Shred everything,” he said, “and check your credit report. if there’s something there that doesn’t belong, check it out.”

After contacting IFCC, Bob called Western Union, assuming the company would tell him where the money was picked up. Without a case number from local authorities, however, Western Union wouldn’t disclose that information to him.

“First and foremost, money transfer is specifically designed [for consumers] to send money to people that they know,” states Danielle Jimenez, director of external communications at Western Union. “I want to come back to the adage, ‘If an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is’.”

Still determined, Bob filed a report with the Sparks Police Department, which has a limited scope of power in federal Internet fraud cases.

“It is a major problem,” says Sparks Police Department Detective David Adams. “Victims need to file a report with the IFCC. One of the hardest problems is, who are victims talking to? Whose fingers are on the keyboards? Are [sellers] who they say they are, or are they someone else?”

Sparks police also directed Bob to the IFCC. Ultimately, the private investigator Bob hired uncovered the real location where the seller’s e-mail account was actually hacked into: Romania. Last Nov. 4, the IFCC posted a “Romanian Warning” on its web site.

After years of reading media stories about other people’s Internet- related losses, Bob, owner of a Sparks business, says he never thought he’d become a statistic himself.

“When I was looking to buy a Harley-Davidson, I didn’t care about how many other people in the world got ripped off under different circumstances. It never entered my mind.”

Still, Bob can’t shake the thought that law enforcement entities are too swamped to ever get around to his case and believes his best bet for solving the crime remains the private detective he hired—a rather expensive last resort.

“I was willing to spend a few bucks to try to run this guy down,” Bob says. “I doubt that’s going to happen… Why should I waste any more time on this? Buyer beware.”