7/31/09

A Cautionary Tale

Two weeks ago we finally put our house on the market. A day after it appeared on Zillow.com, we got an email inquiry from a fellow in Edinburgh, Scotland, who was with the U.N. Development Corporation and was being posted to the U.S.. He liked what he saw, but had questions: Did we have weatherstripping? Were there cracks in the walls? Other maintenance issues?

After about five more exchanges of emails, the man and his wife were sure: they wanted our house. They had recently sold their own house and could offer a cash contract (no contingency, hurray!) They would be in our state by the end of July to sign a contract, but they would have the New York office send us a binder immediately, taken from his hefty travel allowance.

Then we heard that he was posted to a 3-day conference on AIDS in Benin (Africa), after which he would visit the New York offices and then fly on to see us.

A few days later, a Fed Ex package arrived with three money orders of $950 each. It was never our intent to accept a binder to take our house off the market, and we had told him that; nevertheless, there it was, and it was more than the $1,000 he had said was coming.

So the next day we got an urgent email. The secretary had screwed up and sent more than she had been directed to, and now our would-be buyers were going to have trouble with getting to the States. (Are you beginning to get an uneasy feeling here?) So would we please wire the overage of $1,850 to his travel agent in Benin?

My wife, bless her, politely replied that there was no way we would send money, his or ours, to a travel agent in Benin. I probably would have been less politic.

Did you get the scam line? Send money to Africa. Yeah, sure, like we never heard of the Nigerians who wanted to sneak stolen government funds out of their country and only needed a little help from an American contact, for whom they'd split the take. (If you have ever fallen for such a scheme - I'm sorry for reminding you of a sore subject. I betcha wouldn't do it now!)

We started this exchange with the worry that it was "too good to be true." An Internet bite for a full price contract on our house the first week it's up for sale, in this market?? We decided to treat it as legitimate unless or until the other party revealed his desire to have us send money somewhere or give details of our bank accounts. But across half a dozen contacts, each with homey concerns like, "My wife is a school teacher. Will she be able to work in your state?" we began to trust. When the URGENT email came, although we knew not to follow the directions, we grieved some for a deal we hoped was going to be legitimate. Ah, well.

So I hope that this exposition will help YOU avoid being bitten by this clever scheme that relied, not on our sense of greed, but the building of a bond of trust.

Postscript - Some other things we discovered once we looked online for evidence of this scheme. We felt kinda good that the other guy was out the money for his Fed Ex package. Probably not so. It turns out these mailings are usually funded through stolen credit cards. So, if your identity was stolen, it might have been used to facilitate a scam to get major money out of someone else. The money orders? Faked. Close examination revealed giveaways, and online research shows that denominations of $950 are very common in scams, for some reason. There were over 3,000 complaints in one forum about faked money orders. Suffice it to say we ascertained that there is no such payee as shown on the money orders we got. Indeed, people targeted like us for scams are sometimes arrested for trying to cash these fake money orders. Check out Craig's List, read about money order scams there - you'll never want to accept a money order for anything, ever again!

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