Don’t play games with online scam artists

It’s like a modern-day bazaar, with sellers and prospective buyers meeting, sans middleman, to haggle over everything from guitars to cars., the online classified service, can be the place to find a deal on just about anything. But, like anyplace else in the online universe, it’s also a place where the unsuspecting, the careless or the naive can be the target of classic scams dressed in digital duds.

“You’ve got to be savvy and smart when using it so you don’t get scammed,” said Elisabeth Shurtleff, spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Business and Industry and chairman of the state’s Fight Fraud Task Force.

Shurtleff said it’s difficult to pinpoint how widespread online scams are. For one thing, victims may be reluctant to report having been taken. And, even if the victim does want to do something, there’s often little that can be done.

For example, scams involving real estate often “originate outside the country,” Shurtleff said. “So what happens is that somebody wires somebody a (security) deposit, and there’s no way for somebody to get that money back.”

The bogus-and-unreturned security deposit is one example of a classic scam. It seems many online scams are variations on the classics.

“What we’ve seen,” Shurtleff said, is “not so much that there are new scams out there as it is taking advantage of the new media.”

Ethan Arenson, a staff attorney for the Federal Trade Commission, said online scammers may use as the basis of their scams whatever is on consumers’ minds at the moment, be it stopping a foreclosure, repairing a credit history or merely lusting after some Michael Jackson memorabilia.

“Scammers follow the news very closely,” he said.

Locally, the Better Business Bureau of Southern Nevada refers complaints about online scams to the FTC. Housing-related scams seem to be common here, noted Rhonda Mettler, the agency’s operations manager.

For example, she said, a prospective renter will make a rental deposit to an online landlord or property owner, then be told the house is unavailable. The victim, of course, will never see the money again.

While scams can be difficult to detect, consumers can rely on a few red flags. For example, Shurtleff said, being asked to wire money to someone “is 99.9 percent of the time a scam,” because it’s nearly impossible to track down wired money after the fact.

The effects of an instance of online carelessness can ripple beyond the immediate transaction. A buyer who already has lost money to a home security deposit scam can be victimized again via identify theft if he or she also provided such personal information as a Social Security or bank account number, Shurtleff noted.

The bottom line online is the same as it is in real life: Buyer beware.

“Do your homework about who it is you’re dealing with,” Arenson recommended.

Shurtleff agrees. Scammers, she said, “count on us being trusting and count on us not doing research.”

A simple Google search can reveal if an online business or seller has a physical home, too. It also can lead to online postings by others who have been victimized by the same scammer.

“You’ll often find 15 or 20 other people who have posted that they’ve gotten ripped off by the same e-mailer,” she said.

If you’re considering renting or buying property, “drive by the property,” Shurtleff suggested.

Sometimes, a scammer might have access to the property. But, Shurtleff said, “you may find cars in the driveway and kids playing out front. It sounds like a simple thing, but it can make a difference.”

If possible, meet the person who placed an online ad in person. Note, too, that Las Vegas craigslist postings can be placed by out-ot-towners, and that the photos seen on postings may not be of the actual item or property.

“If you deal with folks you can meet in person, you can avoid 99 percent of scams,” Arenson said.

And, Shurtleff cautioned, “when you meet with people, take general safety precautions.”

The amazing thing is how creative scammers can be. That, Shurtleff noted, is “the insidious nature of people whose minds work like this.

“I often say, if these guys would use their power for good, we’d really have an amazing society, because some of them are just really clever.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@ or 702-383-0280.

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