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Buyer beware: Nigerian car scam targets car deals

By JOANNE H. McDONALD

For the Mirror   

When Kathy Kislyak placed an ad for her uncle Victor’s 1998 silver-blue Honda Prelude in a Seattle newspaper recently, she did not expect to become entangled in a Nigerian scam.

The 23-year-old Federal Way resident got a quick response from a person who called herself Jeanne Manning and said that she lived in Greece. The e-mailed reply to the ad sounded legitimate, Kislyak said.

However, she later discovered that the e-mails and subsequent telephone calls from the person actually originated in Nigeria, not Greece, and the cashier’s check for $16,500 provided for the sale of the car and shipping costs was fraudulent.

This car purchase scam is a variation of the "Advance Fee Nigerian Scam," according to Lori Takahashi, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general. She has issued an alert about the scam on AG's Web site.

"The first step in these scams is that the con artist tries to befriend you,” Takahashi said.

The respondent to Kislyak’s ad said she grew up on Whidbey Island but now lived in Greece because of her gift-basket business. She exchanged several e-mails with Kislyak about the Seattle area and their children, discussing the local Greek festival and Seattle-area landmarks like two friends catching up on news. The car would be a surprise birthday gift for her husband, she wrote.

The woman agreed to the price of $13,000 for the Honda and said she would add $3,500 for the cost of shipping the car. “I can imagine how my husband will baby the car when he sees it,” the purported con artist purred in an e-mail.

She also claimed a friend in the United Stated owed her money and would send Kislyak a cashier’s check for $16,500. She emphasized that the $3,500 for shipping be sent to the address she provided for a shipping company immediately after the check was deposited.

Kislyak found out by calling UPS with the tracking number that the package containing the cashier’s check originated in Nigeria. The check looked legitimate, but Kislyak said she was suspicious and decided to wait to see if the check cleared before sending the shipping amount. While waiting, she received calls from the long-distance car buyer on a relay system for the deaf, requesting that the $3,500 for shipping be sent immediately and telling her when the car would be picked up. 

The relay system is used by Nigerian criminals who pose as deaf people to take advantage of a publicly funded tool designed to let hearing-impaired people use America’s phone system, according to Bob Sullivan, technology correspondent for MSNBC.com. The caller avoids long-distance charges.

Use of this system also disguises a caller’s broken English and creates an air of sympathy that might make people drop their guard, Sullivan wrote in an Internet article.

Luckily, Kislyak, who is originally from Russia and now works for the Social Service Administration, didn't drop her guard and wasn't surprised when her bank called to tell her the cashier’s check was counterfeit. She called the police. The relay system phone calls were later traced to Nigeria.

“I don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” Kislyak says.

However, indications are that advance fee fraud –– including this car purchase scam –– is happening across the United States. According to the Secret Service, the fraud grosses hundreds of millions of dollars annually. The losses are continuing to escalate.

Officials with Washington's attorney general offer these tips to avoid becoming a victim:

• Don’t do business with anyone you don’t know.

• Before you give any money or any personal information out to a stranger, check them out thoroughly. Call the attorney general (1-800-551-4636) to see if any complaints have been lodged against that person or business.

• Avoid any business deals that involve sending postage or shipping costs if you don’t know who you are dealing with. It is common for scammers to request costs to cover shipping and handling, particularly through legitimate organizations like Western Union.

• If you are unsure, wait for any checks received to clear the bank before you send shipping money.

• Never give out more personal information than is needed.

• If someone is pushing you to “act now,” don’t. The deal can wait if the buyer or seller is legitimate.

An AG Web site dealing with "Nigerian scams" also advises to never pay anything up front for any reason and to never expect the Nigerian government or your government to bail out victims.

Joanne H. McDonald is a freelance writer living in Tacoma.

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