Digital undivide: Dodging online scams

by Harrison Chastang

The Internet has opened up a whole new world of bargain shopping in which just about any product or service can be obtained online, often for a fraction of the cost of brick and mortar stores and shops – or often for free. There are deals being offered via email and the Internet that often seem too good to be true; and while there are tremendous deals online, there are just as many scams out there that even the most savvy Internet user should be aware of to avoid being ripped off.

No 'Online scams' buttonThe most common form of online scamming is via email. The best know email scam is the so called 419 scam, named after the Nigerian criminal code fraud section where it’s believed this type of online scam originated. The 419 scam is usually an unsolicited email from someone claiming to be a member of royalty, a government official or oil minister of an African, Caribbean or Asian nation. The email sender claims to be in the process of immigrating to the United States but is physically unable to transport millions of dollars in their bank account out of the country or is worried that government officials could soon seize the account, and that the sender is seeking to quickly make an electronic transfer to a U.S. bank.

The sender says that in exchange for depositing the money in your U.S. bank account for 30 days, there will be an award of 10 percent of the money deposited. The sender will request a bank account number and password to make the deposit. The reality is that there is no overseas money and as soon as the bank information is sent, the email sender will clean out that bank account.

A telltale sign of this type of scam is misspelled words and poor grammar in the email. The incidents of these scams are less prevalent because of email anti-spam programs, but the scams have become more sophisticated and bank security officials say people are regularly victimized by these scams.

One newer variation of this scam is an email that appears to be sent from a friend, relative or business associate who claims to be stranded somewhere outside the United States. The sender hacks into the victim’s email list and sends a blind cc: email to all the people on the list. The email usually says the email sender was robbed of everything but their passport, which is being held by hotel managers until the bill is paid. The email gives no information of the name or location of the hotel but asks the recipient to respond to the email for detail.

People who respond to the email are either advised to send money to a particular bank account or to overnight a prepaid Visa or Mastercard to an overseas address. This scam depends on quick response from friends, relatives and business associates acting out of genuine concern for a friend or loved one. The victim is usually made aware of the scam when they receive a call or an email from friends or relatives following up on the fake email.

A general rule regarding email is to delete or click spam on any email requesting money or PII, which is Personally Identifiable Information such as name, address, phone number, credit card or bank account information, or any online passwords or logins — you must Understand your credit report. Legitimate emails from banks, utilities, credit card companies and other organizations that may contain or request PII will have a lock next to the email address and some type of logo indicating it is not spam.

If you receive an email from what appears to be a secure source but looks questionable, it’s a good idea to call the email sender to ask if they sent the email. While most email programs do a good job of blocking fraudulent emails, some do too good of a job and block legitimate emails, so it’s a good idea to occasionally check the spam inbox to make sure non-spam emails are not sent to the spam box.

While there are tremendous deals online, there are just as many scams out there that even the most savvy Internet user should be aware of to avoid being ripped off.

The issue of online security is not limited to email. There are many scams on internet auction and classified sites where people buy and sell both new and used products and services. Millions of people buy and sell products and services on websites like Craigslist and eBay with no problems but, like emails, computer users have to take care to avoid scams and potentially dangerous situations when physically completing online transactions.

eBay is the oldest and best known of the online marketplace sites. Started in 1995, eBay is a place where people buy and sell everything from bobby pins to private jets, often at prices much less than what people would pay for new items or for similar products at a brick and mortar store. eBay buyers and sellers must register and both buyers and sellers pay a fee to do business on eBay. eBay sellers and buyers receive ratings based on positive experiences or complaints against buyers and sellers, and high negatives are considered red flags, a sign to avoid doing business with a buyer or seller.

Buyers can purchase products on eBay either via an auction process, where a product is for sale during a certain period, for example two weeks, and buyers bid against each other. The person submitting the highest bid at the end of the bid period wins the item for sale. eBay also allows sellers to directly sell to buyers with its “Buy It Now” process, where a buyer can bypass the auction process and purchase an item for sale immediately. On average “Buy It Now” items are more expensive on eBay than auction items, which can be very inexpensive if there are few or no bidders. eBay’s billing system is very secure and payments can be made with a credit card, debit card or PayPal account. eBay has an extensive customer service department and promises a money back refund for customers who are unhappy with their purchases.

If eBay could be considered an online farmer’s market, then Craigslist would be the flea market of the internet. In addition to being able to buy or sell almost anything on Craigslist, there are listings for jobs, personal relationship ads and full time apartment and vacation rentals on Craigslist. Unlike eBay, where both sellers and buyers must register and pay a fee to buy and sell online, there is no charge to either post or respond to ads on Craigslist or no requirement for either buyers or sellers to identify themselves. Craigslist plays no role in billing and it’s up to Craigslist buyers and sellers to communicate with each other via a link on Craigslist ads where they can leave an email address or phone number. Sellers and buyers communicate via email or phone to arrange for payment and delivering the item.

Craigslist users should exercise extra caution when arranging meetings to sell or buy items because Craigslist contains few of the anti-scam safeguards available on eBay. There have been reports of people being robbed, beaten, raped and killed at Craigslist arranged meetings. Craigslist buyers have reported that items purchased from Craigslist sellers either did not work as described or break down soon after the purchase, and people who have sent money in response to Craigslist vacation rentals have been sent keys to non-existent apartments.

Hints for buying and selling products and services on Craigslist

Craigslist buyers and sellers should insist on meeting in person during the daytime in a public place so the buyer and seller can agree that the item is as described in the ad. If the item is electronic, the meeting place should have electricity so the item can be tested. If you are buying or selling a large item such as a car, the meeting should occur at a mall parking lot, on a busy street or in front of or near a police station. People responding to Craigslist vacation ads should meet the renter at the apartment and insure the unit represents the description in the ad before agreeing to make payment. People responding to Craigslist personal ads or hiring people to do accounting, home maintenance or other work should do a Google search or conduct a basic background check to insure people advertising to offer products and services are described in the Craigslist ad.

Harrison Chastang, news director at KPOO 89.5 FM, 1329 Divisadero, San Francisco, CA 94115, (415) 346-5373, and kpoo.com, a historic beacon in the Black community and one of the few remaining Black owned and controlled radio stations in the country. Tune in his news show Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 5:30 p.m., his jazz shows Tuesdays at 6 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m., and his Computer Show every first Wednesday at 6-8 p.m. He can be reached at Harrison@kpoo.com.