A month or so ago, I wrote about One-Eyed Jack, the retired guy who takes on the tractor scammers, the evil folk who grab someone's eBay account so they can try to sell a piece of expensive machinery that doesn't exist. Read The retiree waging war on the eBay tractor scammers.
Now he tells me he has found the most tragic victims ever of this scam – an elderly couple who do not even possess a computer and do not know the difference betweeen eBay and the Bay of Bengal.
The story attracted loads of comments – sadly for the auction site, there were none they could use as positive affirmation of their multi-billion pound business. It quite rightly raised questions about the quality of items posted and the lack of sufficient consumer protection on this and similar sites.
Any big ticket item will do
But it's not just tractors and it's not just eBay. The same grab your money and disappear racket is popping up for mechanical diggers (the smaller size housebuilders use), tarmac layers, cars, and top of the range audio equipment.
I don't know much about tarmac layers but I would never pay for a car until I had seen it – you know that old saying about kicking the tyres.
Phishing scam victims that didn't even own a computer
But there are more victims than just those who lose their cash. People whose eBay accounts are hi-jacked for this purpose also suffer. They are usually those who respond to one of those "phishing" emails which ask for details of your eBay account details including passwords, pretending these need to be to reset after "suspicious" actions.
It's bizarre that fraudsters use our security fears to increase our insecurity.
The saddest, most tragic victims of phishing are a couple from Northern Ireland who have never even owned a computer. Jack, who spends hours doing what eBay security could - and should - do discovered a piece of building site lifting equipment, a sort of mini-crane. The pricing indication was low, but still in the thousands of pounds.
It had only been up for a minute or so. He bid for it and his bid was accepted. Well, who wants an unneeded small crane hanging around? Once the bid is accepted, details of the seller become obvious, including enough to find a phone number. Of course, the fraudsters don't expect anyone to call – they just want the cash first so they can disappear.
In this case, he found the number led to Northern Ireland. He called, asking for the person who was apparently the seller.
He says: "The seller was a man. The phone was answered by an elderly sounding woman. When I asked for the seller, there was a long silence followed by a voice shaking with emotion which said that her son, whose eBay account was used, had died a month ago. He had committed suicide following a long history of depression.
"Both his mother and his father were obviously shaken by my call and equally obviously I did not know I was intruding into their so recent grief. Eventually, the father said that neither he nor his wife owned a computer or knew anything about them."
Tracking down the scammers
Jack believes the fraudsters have become more alert and know someone is on their trail. They are shutting down dodgy bids in a minute or less once he rumbles them – he used to have an hour or so.
And – here's a hint for security – he believes that he has tracked down a substantial part of this particular scam to a "factory" in West Africa where they are carrying out this racket on an industrial scale. Scam merchants can sometimes get careless. He traced one back to an old, legitimate, website in Ghana which had been hi-jacked. It's not positive proof, but a start.
There really does need to be a start on stopping this scam. Jack says the criminals have recently upgraded their activity. It used to be five or six a day with weekends off, keeping UK office hours (Ghana is on UK time minus one hour at the moment).
Now the action has increased to 30 or more a day, without any weekend break. So whether you are offered a crane or a car online, be very careful before you part with your cash. They may sound like great bargains, but if they don't exist, then they will be the most expensive purchase you will ever make.
If you are worried, go to One Eyed Jack's Facebook page. And this should also be a destination for the security staff of online sales sites. It would be great to see positive action rather than PR platitudes – if only to prevent further agony to the likes of that elderly Northern Irish couple.
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