It wasn’t really a 419 scam, but I think I came a little too close to falling for another Nigerian scam this week.
Some time back, I listed some computer equipment on Craigslist. Not really high-dollar stuff, but stuff I’m not using, and while I’m not in desperate need of the money, it would come in very handy. And Craigslist is a lot less hassle than a garage sale.I listed it about a month ago, and interest was ice cold. Then yesterday I got a message from someone named Anna Gray asking if I would agree to sell it to her. Interesting way of putting it, but at the time I didn’t really take much note. I was just excited at the possibility of turning a computer that was just taking up space into 50 bucks.
The would-be buyer wanted to use a money transfer. “Aren’t you in St. Louis?” I asked immediately. My whole reason for using Craigslist was to avoid shipping and money hassles. Women are rightly nervous to meet strange men for transactions (and when they aren’t, they probably should be), but I’ve handled several transactions like this lately. Standard procedure is to meet in a public place that’s as convenient as possible for both of you. I generally take my wife so there’ll be a female present. If you’re a woman and can’t take another person with you, make sure you have a cell phone with you, and to make sure the other person knows you have it, make sure the person sees you casually talking on it as you arrive (even if you’re faking it). The ability to quickly dial 911 heads off a lot of trouble.
“No, I’m not in St. Louis,” she responded.
Well, so much for that.
She said she would pay me using Moneygram. She would send them the money, and then when I shipped the item, I would provide Moneygram with the tracking number, and I would get the money.
I would later find out that’s not how Moneygram works, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Knowing it could easily cost more to ship the computer than my $50 asking price, I asked my would-be buyer if she was willing to pay the shipping. She said she would send me a FedEx ticket. Then she said she would send me the money via Moneygram. She asked me every 30 seconds if I’d received the confirmation e-mail yet. “No,” I said. “But I’m in no particular hurry.” It wasn’t like I could ship the laptop immediately anyway.
She informed me that Moneygram was having technical difficulties and begged me to be patient. I found it odd that she was able to ask and receive an answer so quickly. Usually when a company is having technical difficulties, their customer service is slow too. I didn’t think anything of it yet.
Then I got busy and didn’t write back right away. She got just plain rude. “Are u there? BUZZ!!! BUZZ!!!”
Obviously she wasn’t willing to extend me the same patience she expected of me.
Once I got less busy, I got back to her. I’d received an e-mail message claiming to be from Moneygram, and I’d received a shipping label from Fedex, and told her.
“Take the package to Fedex tonight and give the tracking number to Moneygram and you’ll get your money,” she said.
I told her I was busy that night. Which I was. I’d had plans for a week and I wasn’t going to cancel them over a $50 computer–especially now that I was going to have to go to the trouble of finding a box and packing materials for the thing.
“I guess it’ll be OK if you ship it first thing in the morning,” she said.
Umm, well, I didn’t know what time I would be in, and I had to be at work first thing in the morning. Besides, if I had to drive it to the Fedex station, I was looking at a 45-minute drive.
“Take it to the closest Fedex. But if there isn’t one, you’ll have to take it to the station. First thing in the morning.”
How considerate. But that wasn’t the first thing that came into my mind. Actually the first thought that came to mind is a not-so-pleasant one-syllable word.
I told her I’d do my best, thanked her for her help and her interest, and reminded myself that I was being paid to free up some clutter from the house. Emily would like that. And if I spent $10 of it on her, she’d like it even more. So I put it out of my mind and told myself I’d print off all the paperwork that night, when I went in search of a box.
And aside from telling Emily I’d sold the computer, I did put it out of my mind until late that night.
Emily had a box and packing material ready for me. It wasn’t perfect, but we could have done a lot worse. So I packed it all up, then I went to the computer and printed off the paperwork. The Moneygram e-mail said I would have to provide them with a tracking number, full name and address, and either a driver’s license or social security number before they would free the money.
I didn’t like that. I didn’t like it at all. Nobody needs that information.
Making matters worse, the e-mail included a tracking number on the cash. I followed the link in the e-mail, punched in the tracking number, and it said it had no information on the tracking number.
The e-mail from her containing the Fedex shipping label also contained a customs form. She asked me to print and sign three copies. Customs? That seemed odd.
I printed the label. It had a declared value of $1. While the computer isn’t worth much, it’s worth more than $1. A DEC VT100 terminal is worth more than $1 to someone who needs it. I started to realize I wasn’t dealing with a very honest person here.
Then I printed the Fedex shipping label. The address looked odd to me. It registered when I pulled the label off the printer.
It all made sense now. The unorthodox English. The belligerence. Demanding information they shouldn’t need. Classic symptoms of 419 scams.
Another rude one-syllable word came to mind. This time I said it out loud a few times. Someone in Nigeria had my name and address!
Mind you, not everyone in Nigeria is a crook, but suddenly I had a whole host of reasons to be suspicious.
So, when I was supposed to be getting up at the crack of dawn to send a computer halfway around the world, instead I was doing research.
On Moneygram’s own site, I found this:
MoneyGram is not an internet escrow service or a shipment service. We do not email a confirmation notice to inform a person that a MoneyGram transfer has been sent to them for payment of an internet purchase. Do not believe that such an email is genuine even if it contains the MoneyGram name and logo. The MoneyGram service should not be used as an escrow service.
And then I found indication that some Nigerian scammers have an affinity for buying computer equipment, particularly Apple Powerbooks, off Craigslist, using Moneygram.
Of course, seeing as part of the process asked for my social security number, losing the laptop was the least of my concerns. Once she had my name, address, and social security number, chances are she’d be able to get lots of other things at my expense as well.
Needless to say, the computer is still in my living room and I’ve kept the digits to myself.
My Nigerian buddy sent me a number of messages in the morning asking me if I had shipped the laptop, and since I had expressed some doubt in my last message, took pains to assure me that all was well. I replied to the message that said all was well, quoting that paragraph I found on the Moneygram site and asking her to explain.
I never heard another word from her. Seeing as there was a point in time when she couldn’t go three minutes without hearing from me, maybe I should find that odd.
Unless it was a scam, of course. In which case, there’s nothing at all strange about this new silence.