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Online scams: Spot them before they catch you

The reality is that e-fraud is growing as fast as e-commerce, so while you may be thinking "no way would I ever fall for that puppy scam", you may go online to buy something else - a football jersey, maybe, or a camera - and end up unwittingly transferring money into a fraudster’s account.

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Listen to Wendy on the topic below, or read the details under the podcast.



So a lot of the red flags in this scam story will apply to other online scams.


Durban resident falls victim 


Here’s Susan Parish of the Berea’s story, which happened just last week.

Her husband Russel had been doing some internet research into a buying French bulldog puppy, without telling the rest of the family. 

After exchanging many emails with the puppy owner, Chantel, who claimed to be based in the northern Cape, they agreed that he’d pay R2500 for the pup, via Pep voucher, and she’d fly the little thing to Durban.

Russel then left on a business trip, telling Susan to look out for an email from Chantel confirming the flight details. Instead she got an email from “EagleOne Courier”, saying they had the puppy, but the crate was not acceptable and the couple needed to pay R3000 for a temperature controlled one, R2950 of which would be refunded to them on its return.

No way, Russel said. Forget it. But Susan, who was picturing the little pup sitting in the wrong crate, all alone at an airport, paid that R3000, and that’s when Chantel and her sidekick Robert disappeared.

“We were gutted,” Susan said. "It was like we had a death in the family. Russ felt awful; his intention was to bring happiness and enjoyment to the family, and here some sick people came and stole our money and our happiness. 

"We were so angry with ourselves for both falling into the trap. It was a double whammy. We were clearly not as streetwise as we thought we were - someone was more clever than us on that day.”

So I decided to pose as a would-be French bulldog buyer and go looking to engage a fraudster online.

I hooked one on my first try. I put “want to buy a French bulldog” into a Google search, and it spat out quite a few adverts. I picked one with the typical scam red flags - over use of capital letters, loads of photos, inappropriately flowery language, and a too-cheap price  - R 5,850 for the pup, including the flight home, in the care of a pet specialist, if you don’t mind.

“Ryan” the seller said he lived in Heidelberg and gave me an address, saying I could pop in and see the puppies.

I asked a lot of questions based on what he told me in his email.

(Photo below: One of the many adorable pics send to the Parish family by frausters posing as puppy sellers based in Heidelberg.)

PRETEND PUP

Wendy Knowler questions an alleged online fraudster

  • Are you a breeder?
  • Please send me a photo of the relevant vet book page showing the puppies have had their shots.
  • Please explain what you mean by a health guarantee?
  • What is a "pedigree and puppy kit"?
  • What sort of crate is the pup transported in, and does the R5850 include the cost of the crate?
  • Which "pet delivery agency" do you use?
  • Which airline do you use?
  • Who pays for the “pet health specialist”’s airfare?

I didn’t get answers, so I asked again. And I never heard from Ryan again.

I also did other things. I put the Heidelberg address into Google Earth and it became very clear that the house I could see in the dozen or so photos of the pups was not a fit for that neighbourhood - at all.

Then I put the pics of the puppies into TinEye.com - which searches for images among the billions on the Internet, and got a hit on an Italian classifieds site.

Bust.


So there’s the advice:

If you really must buy something from an individual or business you’ve never heard of online - any entity other than the big well-established online retailers - read their responses very, very carefully and ask a lot of questions and for photos backing up what they are saying.

Check that courier companies and other entities which they name actually exist - by Googling them yourself and making a call. Never rely on the contact details the “seller" gives you.


If they don’t respond you know you’ve dodged a bullet, if they do check out what they tell you - Google Earth, TinEye.. put their names into a search engine with the word scam.

Believe me, whatever you’re buying, there’s someone - probably many - pretending to sell it. I’ve heard from people who’ve been scammed buying everything from a consignment of ostrich feathers to a generator.

Just as the internet empowers them to defraud the unwary, so it should empower us to spot them before they catch us.

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