Thursday, February 19, 2015

A classic scam, 2015 version

Back when we still lived in Omaha, we discovered Craigslist. We had a couple small items for sale -- a cheap computer desk, an old aquarium -- and it seemed like a good way to get rid of them. Neither was worth bringing to a consignment shop and for sure we didn't have enough stuff to justify having a yard sale. So I listed them on Craigslist.

The first response we got was for the desk. This was a small computer desk that I'd gotten on clearance at Office Depot for maybe $20. It was one of those assemble-it-yourself mini-work stations that involved some metal tubing and laminated beaver puke. It was exactly what it sounds like: a useful piece of furniture but not exactly Chippendale.

Anyway, we get an email reply from someone purporting to want the desk. Says it's clear from the picture that it's exactly what that person was looking for and yep, they definitely will buy the desk. I respond saying, great, when would you like to pick it up? Get a response back with some nonsense about sending a money order, the money order will be for more than the value of the desk, and some other stuff that made absolutely no sense when you're talking about a desk being sold for what was essentially a pittance. My response was, of course, are you fucking nuts?

Right about the same time Craigslist started doing the scam alert message, and, bingo, suddenly it all made sense. There were scammers buying stuff using counterfeit money orders or bad checks. The naive seller would accept a check for more than the value of the goods and then hand some of that money back to the buyer's agent to pay for the shipping or moving or whatever fees. At the time, it seemed to me that someone was going through a lot of hassle for not much of a pay-off. Now I realize that when it was a low value item like that desk, the scammer wasn't going to bother with it at all. The responses to my replies to the first message were all just computer-generated robo-replies. If I had given the supposed buyer our address, there would have been no money order in the mail and no one would have ever shown up in person to pick up the desk.

Well, that scam is still making the rounds, albeit with a few embellishments. The museum recently decided to list two items on Craigslist that I'd found in the attic but that didn't fit in with the overall mission: a really nifty African tribal mask and an Azande spear. The mask is ebony and a design that's been common for several decades as a tchotchke to peddle to tourists visiting west Africa; the Azande are a people who reside in the Congo region. My assumption is that someone picked them up years ago when on a church mission or perhaps volunteering with the Peace Corps. How they wound up in the museum's attic is a mystery.

Anyway, the historical society voted some time ago that we would start selling things we do not need because we have so many duplicates (multiple buck saws, for example) or that don't fit the museum's mission, which is actually rather narrow -- we focus on Baraga County. If we knew that someone significant in county history was associated with the African items, we'd keep them, but when they're provenance unknown? Nope. They'll get sold. So I did a Craigslist ad a week or two ago.

You can guess what happened. The museum received an email reply to our ad. It was kind of a strange, wordy message from someone who wanted to know if they could come look at the item "after church." So I did a response saying that wasn't possible; please give an alternate time. That's when the bullshit started. This person was really, really interested, thought it looked great in the photos, but wasn't going to be able to get there in person. How about an address where a check could be sent and she'd make arrangements for her son to pick it up? Sounded okay to me, which is when the next message came: couldn't send a check for some odd reason, but would do a money order instead and it would be for more than the amount we were asking for and could we please . . . the usual scamming spiel.

Calling the way I felt "annoyed" is one of those understatements. I was really pissed -- both at the waste of my time and at myself for being gullible enough to not catch the scam with the first message. Then again, other than that one time with the computer desk, we'd sold a fair number of items without having any scammers slither out of the electronic woodwork.

What was the clue that should have tipped me off with the very first message? There were several. One was that other than the reference in the subject line, the name of the actual item was never mentioned. In addition, a real buyer would have asked some questions like "How much does it does weigh?" Most telling, our ad very clearly stated the mask was being sold by the Baraga County Historical Museum. If it hadn't been a robo-script, the buyer would have asked questions like "When is the museum open?" or "Where are you located in Baraga?"

And you want to hear the best part? I'd barely gotten done deleting the emails about the mask from the museum's gmail when guess what lands in the In Box? A response to our Craigslist ad about some curtain stretchers. This time there were no references to being a god-fearing person or wanting to stop by after church, but other than that it was word-for-word identical with the message about the mask. Christ on a crutch, what a waste of band width. . .

I now realize, of course, that the scamming messages have minimal human thought behind them. Someone turns the robo-script loose and it just trolls Craigslist ads regardless of item type or the price it's being sold for. If it happens to hit pay dirt on a big ticket item, the scammer will step in and do the final reeling in of the sucker. And how do I know for sure it's all done by spambots? Would any real live human actually want a set of curtain stretchers? I don't think so. . .

Actually, what I said about the best part isn't the best part. The best part is what I found when I did a Google image search for an appropriate graphic and found this:
You got it. It's the exact same message the museum received. Should I take comfort in the fact that obviously we're just one of the gazillion people this crook has tried to deceive? Or should I feel like a total chump for not recognizing the very first message as garbage? Maybe I'll just claim the recent subzero cold spell has frozen my brain cells.


  1. I played along with one of these once when I had a few spare minutes at work. It was hilarious as they didn't realize that since they were "in town" that they were no more than a few blocks away.
    The other rampant funny scam is the one where they trust you to use your bank account to stash their uncle's (the late king)millions and will give you a portion. Just send you account number and bank routing. No problem!

  2. I've never used Craigslist.

    I know that most museums have gift shops but shouldn't they also have a sale area to get rid of what they don't want to keep?

  3. The museum does have a small gift shop area and we do include items in that were donated but we have no use for. Our season is so short (Memorial Day through Labor Day) and hours so limited even then that we figured we'd try online selling, too, just to increase the odds we could get rid of some of the stuff.

    I actually spent a couple hours yesterday re-arranging the gift shop area. We had a big ugly display rack that had come from some store that went out of business It took up way too much space considering only about half the spaces on it were the right size to display the books we have for sale. The S.O. helped me haul it to the local transfer station. Cost $1.70 to get rid of it, which I consider money well spent.

  4. I have has Nigerian scam emails from all sorts of famous people and relatives even. Never answered one of them. I am still hoping for one from Winnie Mandela as that one I will answer


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