Beware Nigerians seeking computer equipment

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.

Can Google compete with Paypal?

There are reports in the news today that Google may launch a Paypal-like service. Most are questioning whether Google can compete with Paypal, which boasts 72 million users.

I believe the answer is yes.Here’s why. I buy a lot of stuff on Ebay. Lately I’ve been selling too, and since the initial effort was reasonably successful, I’m going to start listing more things.

I’ll be listing for the same reason lots of people do. It’s funny how much stuff becomes redundant once you get married and your spouse moves in, and it’s cheaper than having a garage sale and you’ll usually get better prices. And, besides, for the past six weeks or so I’ve been a bit shorter on cash than I’d like to be.

Online payment systems work because a lot of people don’t want to mess with checks. It’s a pain to write a check and it’s a pain to cash one, and nobody likes waiting the 7-10 days it takes for one to clear. Money orders and cashier’s checks eliminate the waiting period, but they’re a pain for the buyer, who has to go visit the bank during working hours and pay a couple of dollars, or you have to visit the ATM and then find a convenience store that sells money orders, and pay a couple of dollars. It wastes a lot of time. And if you’re buying a $100 item, you probably don’t care about the couple of dollars, but you sure do if you’re paying for a $2 item.

The reason 72 million people use Paypal is because it’s better than dealing with checks or money orders. But it doesn’t take much.

Read through some Ebay listings though, and you’ll find lots of people who don’t take Paypal. The reasons vary, but the people who don’t like Paypal really don’t like it. Those people tout Western Union or Bidpay as alternatives, but those in reality are just an online venue to buy a money order. It saves you hopping in the car. Again, on an item whose price requires three or more digits, you probably don’t care. But they’re horrible for small transactions.

Since Paypal is so widely used but so widely disliked, there’s lots of room for a competitor.

From what I can tell, sellers of merchandise don’t like Paypal because it’s free for the buyer, but big-time sellers take a hit. (People like me who sell casually don’t.) The hit seems to vary, but resellers seem to like to tack 60 cents onto the cost of the transaction when I use it. I generally pay it, since 60 cents is a lot less than it would cost for me to use another online payment service or to buy a money order, and it’s not much more than it would cost me to mail a check.

So it seems to me that there are at least two ways for Google to compete. I’m sure they’ve done some market research on what people dislike about Paypal and they’ve looked into what they can do to provide better service. Obviously one approach they could take would be to simply charge less money.

A second possibility would be for Google to endear itself to the seller by placing the financial burden on the buyer. Charge the buyer, say, a percentage of the transaction cost, with a maximum cap of somewhere around the cost of a postage stamp. Sellers would gladly accept it if it didn’t cost them anything. Buyers won’t like it as much as Paypal since it’s not free for them, but it would give the instant gratification of Paypal while costing about as much as mailing a check. And besides, it’s the seller who sets the terms of the transaction. If the buyer doesn’t like it, the only choice is to not bid.

I believe that sellers who don’t accept Paypal are putting themselves in the same position as a brick-and-mortar store that doesn’t accept credit cards, and sometimes I’ve gotten some real bargains precisely because the seller only accepted money orders, but that doesn’t stop a lot of them.

So I don’t believe Paypal is a juggernaut. It was the first widely successful online payment service. But this field doesn’t give much credit for being first. Just ask Datapoint (inventor of what became the x86 family of processors), Commodore (first successful consumer-level computer to feature pre-emptive multitasking), Digital Research (first popular operating system for microcomputers), or any number of now-defunct pioneers.

I’m not willing to place any bets on whether Google will become the market leader in this arena, especially without having seen their service. But I also don’t think there’s much question as to whether it will survive and/or be profitable. As dissatisfied as the users of other services are, Google Wallet would have to be awfully bad to flop.

Shopping an estate sale for trains

My girlfriend loves shopping at yard sales, flea markets, thrift stores, and basically everywhere people look for bargains.

I’m not into that all that much. I’m a guy. So I just asked her to keep an eye out for tools for me if she happened to be garage sale-ing.

This week she found an estate sale with tools and trains. It started at 7:30 this morning. So I dragged myself out of bed to go.The description said "electric trains." Usually when people say electric trains, they mean old American Flyer, Lionel or Marx, because that was what those companies used to put on their boxes. "Model trains" usually means HO or N scale. Nothing against those, but they’re not my thing. And besides, you can buy those anywhere.

When I got there, it was right at 7:30. It looked like they’d started early because there were lots of people there. I noticed a lot of people glancing at the trains but not staying long. I took a look. The glossy brightly-colored enameled bodies instantly told me it was pre-war stuff. I looked at the prices. $85 for a refrigerated car. $28 for a gondola. $24 for a caboose. These guys had gone to the library and looked up the values of the cars. I know because the guy told me so.

"Are these prices about right? I went to the library and looked them up."

I explained to him that the Greenberg price guides tend to be skewed in favor of the east coast. Prices are higher there, partly because the cost of living is higher out there than in the midwest, and partly because there’s a bigger following over there. Lionel and Marx were both New York companies. Gilbert was a New Haven company. Flyer was a Chicago company before selling out to Gilbert, but that was prior to 1938. There’s more appeal to the stuff on the east coast because you find people whose grandfather or great uncle worked for one of those companies, or some other connection.

What I didn’t tell him (but should have) was that those prices are for mint condition. And while his items were in nice shape, they were anything but mint. Most of them would grade to excellent, or very good. Stepping down a grade knocks anywhere from 10%-50% off the price of the item.

The cars also weren’t 100% original. At some point the couplers on the cars had been replaced with Lionel post-war couplers. That’s an upgrade, which is probably why the original owner had done it, and whoever did the upgrade did a good job, but from a collector’s point of view, it lowers the value. It’s an advantage to people who run the trains, but someone like me isn’t going to pay extra for it.

The prewar freight set that was priced at $137 total at this sale probably would have been priced closer to $75 at Marty’s Model Railroads, frankly. Marty probably would have given him $40 total.

He also had two passenger sets. They would have graded out to Good, possibly only Fair. They, too, were priced at mint.

There was a nice prewar engine. I forget the number. It was priced at $250 for the engine and tender. That’s a fair price if it’s a whistling tender, if the engine is in perfect working order, and the paint is good. The paint was really good on the engine. But it probably at least needed a lube job. With no way to test the engine, there was no way I was going to pay $250 for it.

I spied a couple of postwar Marx diesels, priced at $50. It was an A-B pair, with the B unit being a dummy. A quick examination revealed the front had been cracked and re-glued. Diesels tend to go for more than steam engines the same age, but in that condition, and untested, a Marx should only go for $20.

I also spied a couple of pairs of Marx metal switches. They were the electric variety. I’m told metal Marx switches were prewar. I don’t know about that, since all of the metal ones I’ve ever seen were in a lot with postwar equipment. Maybe they were put together after the war with old parts. Marx was known for that. At any rate, the Marx metal switches are highly desirable. The later plastic switches sit higher than your track, so you have to shim your track for the locomotives to run right. These don’t. Also, the design allows Marx and American Flyer engines with thicker wheels than Lionels to pass through them. So a metal Marx switch lets you run any train you want. And unlike the Lionels of the same vintage, they run off a fixed 18 volts, not from the track, so they tend to work more reliably.

The only Lionel switch that compares is the Lionel 1121, which Lionel didn’t make for very long. It’s easier to make the 1121 self-tending, but in all other regards the Marx is better.

The switches were priced at $10 per pair, including the original boxes, control panels and wires (but the wires need to be replaced). That’s not a fabulous price, but it’s fair. I paid $10 per pair for some plastic Marx manual switches at Marty’s back in December. Marx switches tend to sell for $10 per pair on eBay, but then you have to deal with shipping.

So I bought the two pair of switches, and nothing else.

Later, my girlfriend told me they wouldn’t take her check. So I guess it’s a good thing I only got the switches. I wouldn’t have been able to get any more even if I’d wanted to, because I only had $24 in cash on me.

It was a mild disappointment. I took a quick look at the tools and saw the same thing. Prices were very close to what I would pay at Sears. Only at Sears, I’d get a warranty on it, and if I bought $100 worth of stuff, I’d get a $5 off coupon on my next purchase.

It was a mild disappointment. She was disappointed too. I’m going to assume it wasn’t typical. She told me it wasn’t a very good estate sale.

I think I’ll go back tomorrow afternoon, towards the end, and see if the trains are still there. Maybe then he’ll be looking to deal. Marty can charge the prices he does because he’s willing and able to sit on inventory for months or years. Individuals usually can’t or won’t do that. But he was charging more than Marty would.

If not, there’ll be more next week, or if not, the week after. ‘Tis the season, and very early in the season, at that.