Selling Your Boat? Don’t Get Scammed!
Or, How I Sold the World’s Most Expensive Grampian 26
By: Imabad Buoy
Selling your boat? By now it seems most people are aware of the counterfeit check overpayment scam, but based on the number of crooks still contacting sellers, some people are still being victimized by these con men. Even if you know about the scam, you might find the following story of my encounter while selling a boat interesting reading.
Last spring I put my 1973 Grampian 26 up for sale, asking $7,800. The boat and I are in Ontario, Canada. It was listed in an on-line classified with my email address, and it wasn’t long before I got a query:
Well, how could you doubt the seriousness of this buyer? So I reply that yes, the boat is in good “codition”, no, it has no mechanical problem and I am selling it to get lots of money. I also send photos. Unfortunately the photos were for a 56’ carbon fiber racing sailboat that was for sale for $800,000 at the time. OK, my bad.
Just when I thought he had enough of a clue to realize I was having him on, I get this:
Looks like Markus William (now William Markus) must have spent his vacation at English as a Second Language camp. No doubt a low-level crook found me to be a potential victim and sold my contact information to a higher level, more literate crook.
By the way, every computer on the Internet has a unique IP number, which is its address in cyberspace. It turns out free email services like Gmail and Yahoo put the IP address of the originating computer into each email’s headers. (If that sentence doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry.) Looking up Mr. William and Mr. Markus show they’re both in Nigeria, world headquarters for online scams.
Naturally I’m curious to see how much he knows about boats, so I tell him I’m taking offers and will sell it to the highest bidder. Then:
Of course he can’t name a number; he has no idea what he’s trying to use to swindle me. After another round of “you tell me, no you tell me”, I say I’ve got a buyer interested at $64,000. (Hey, Grampian 26s are known for being roomy, having as much interior room as 56’ racer, one might say.)
It took six days to get a response. I think my price must have threw him. The crook he bought my name from probably dealt in lower value classified advertisers.
Here we go. $69,000 for a boat listed for $7,800, but he will only send $49,900 now. Of course! Banks (here, anyway) automatically phone to verify checks over $50K. If he sent me the full amount the bogus check would be detected immediately at the bank. By giving Mr. William a price above that he had to figure out how he could still scam me. It took him a week, but he came back with this ploy to stay under the bank’s radar.
If you haven’t caught it yet, here’s the scam. I deposit a check for $49,900, keep my deposit of $28,000 then withdraw and wire $21,100 to his “shipper”. When the check bounces several days later, I’m on the hook for the 21 grand I wired to this crook. More on this below.
Naturally I accept his offer ASAP (As Soon AS Possible). He also responds ASAP:
I had kept calling him Mr. William in my replies. He must have realized he had his name backwards since he switched it back here.
Mr. William of the UK now has an address, which, thanks to the Royal Mail’s website, is shown to be non-existent. “Plot 44” is how a street number would be given in Nigeria, but not the UK. The phone number is not spaced properly for UK numbers. This is probably because “070” area codes in the UK are for “personal numbers”, that is, numbers that automatically forward calls to whatever phone you want, such as work, home, or cell. Or to a phone in Nigeria. Scammers use these personal numbers to appear to be in the UK when they’re not. Since this trick is becoming well known, Mr. William formats his area code in the unconventional “(0)70” style.
Others who tease these scammers (Google “scambaiters”) tell of getting their forged checks and money orders by Fedex. 12 days for payment? Hey, I want a Fedexed check too!
Another delay, no doubt while he scrambles to try to salvage this deal. Then in quick succession:
Mr. Murphy is, in fact, in the Toronto area. Mr. William was probably unable to get a counterfeit check to me, as per instructions, so arranged for an associate in Canada to stall me by asking for my contact information again. I ignore him. Another week goes by, then:
Mr. Murphy didn’t get my contact information, so perhaps Ms. Morin might. She is also ignored. Another week, then:
Another week, another crook, now a Mr. Johnson, gets ignored.
Then, out of the blue, on July 23 I get a call from “Anna Johnson of financiaLinx in Ottawa, agent to Mr. William.” (I had provided my work number earlier.) She says she was instructed by Mr. William to cut a check for me and needed to confirm my address. She read me what she had, intentionally misspelling the street name. I corrected it, pleasing her immensely. Then she asks me which bank I deal with. Isn’t that an odd question? I do tell her, and she says she will “register” the check with my bank so that it will only be good there. She says the check will reach me in two days.
By August 1st, still no check, but another phone call from Ms. Johnson, asking if I had received the check yet. I tell her I hadn’t. She says it was just mailed the day before. Later that afternoon, what do you know? The check was in the mail:
And we have a winner! $75,500 for a 1973 Grampian 26. World record price, I believe.
The check was issued on a different bank than I use. That’s why I was asked about my bank. If their forgery was from my bank, it would be detected instantly by a teller. A plain, hand-addressed white envelope was used with no cover letter, and was mailed from Montreal rather than Ottawa. Hardly what you’d expect from a company issuing $75K checks so often the signatures are pre-printed.
A little Googling shows there is no bank branch at that address, nor is there a company called financiaLinx in Ottawa, nor does reverse lookup show that local number is used by anyone, in addition to the several technical errors on the check. The one I like is the hole punched in the bottom. The numbers on the bottom of a check are printed in magnetic ink. Bank machines use these numbers to read the check number (matches), bank transit number (too many zeros) and account number (also too many zeros). By strategically punching that hole in the account number, bank machines would kick out the check. A person would manually have to investigate to determine which bank account the check was issued on, further increasing the time until the forgery was detected.
After this long weekend I hear from Mr. William again:
Hmm. Ms. Lewis now. I do confirm to him receiving the check. The next day:
He cancelled his contract with Mr. C. and R. Johanson (whoever they are)? What, is there no honor among thieves?
Time to wrap things up.
At lunchtime I replied to Mr. William with a terse note saying his forged check was uncovered by the bank with the bank manager saying “it looks like it was made by a kid with an inkjet printer”. Obviously there is a network of contractors in this operation, so we might as well sow some conflict between them before begging off.
Not long after, Ms. Johnson called and asked if I received the check OK. I tell her I did, and even had been to the bank. She asks if the funds were released to me. I ask her what she thinks happened at the bank, trying to sound suitably indignant. She said she would have no idea and that I would have to tell her. So I said they stamped the check “counterfeit” and handed it back to me. Without a word she hung up. Not even an attempt at denial. Cutting her losses, no doubt.
Mind you, I didn’t actually go to the bank. “Uttering” forged checks is a crime, and it would be hard for me to claim I didn’t know.
It turns out Nigeria is a hive of these scammers, not just for advertised goods, but also the foreign lottery, unclaimed bank account, rich assassinated dictator’s widow needs help, and various other on-line scams. What we’ve seen here is a classic example of how a scheme works.
The bottom line is they want to trick you into putting cash in a wire transfer service like Western Union or Moneygram. In this case the scam was initially that a “client” owed money to the buyer, and would send me the money instead. The scam changed to his “agent” sending me a check that was inadvertently made out for more than the boat’s price. In either case I was to be persuaded to wire the excess money back.
The problem turns out to be that banks release funds from a deposited check before the check actually clears. In the U.S. this is the law. You check your balance after a couple days, there’s the money, you think the check was good so you wire off the funds to your scammer. Unfortunately when the check does bounce back, your bank goes after you for the money you withdrew.
Western Union and Moneygram are anonymous ways to transfer cash. Once it’s sent, it’s gone and is irretrievable. All a scammer needs is the MTCN (Money Transfer Control Number) to collect the money anywhere in the world. A common ploy is to tell the victim to put his brother’s name on the transfer, so the money can’t be collected until the victim changes the name. This isn’t true. Western Union doesn’t verify the identity of the person picking up money.
While the scammers are primarily in Nigeria, they have been finding willing accomplices in the U.S. and Canada. In June of 2008, Edna Fiedler of Olympia, Washington, was sentenced to two years imprisonment for sending out more than $600,000 in forged checks that had been sent to her from Nigeria. When arrested she was preparing to send out another million dollar’s worth of forged checks. In December 2007 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police seized over 14,000 scam lottery checks in Montreal (where my check came from, incidentally). Police describe the forged checks as being sent in bulk from Nigeria to North America where they are personalized and sent to individual victims. It looks like my scammer had gone through several of these associates before “Anna Johnson” got involved.
If you sell your boat it’s very easy to avoid these crooks. They’re in a numbers game. They contact as many sellers as they can find, looking for the few who might fall for their scam. They can’t be bothered with convincing skeptical sellers. If you don’t reply positively immediately they look elsewhere for their next victim. For instance, my Grampian 26 got a similar inquiry from “a boat dealer in Ecuador”. I said I’d be happy to sell him the boat, but will only accept cash in person or money by wire transfer. Never heard back, no doubt because I was obviously onto the scam.
These scammers don’t want your boat. They want cash. So all the cons are designed to get you to send them cash, whether they claim a “client” who owes them money sends you the (too big) check, or their “agent” makes the check out for too much, or one of a hundred other excuses to get you to send them real cash for their bogus checks. If a buyer tries this with you, send the check back uncashed and refuse to send them any form of payment.
With the prevalence of forged certified checks, if you don’t know a buyer well enough to trust them, the safest way to transfer funds seems to be by bank wire transfer. In this the buyer’s bank wires money directly from the buyer’s account into your account. That said, however, local crooks have a scam for this, too. To do the wire transfer the buyer needs your bank account number. Banks will allow a third person to deposit a check into your account if he knows the account number. A scammer can deposit a forged check unbeknownst to you, which shows up as a big deposit two days later. “Wow”, you think, “that wire transfer came through”, so you hand over your boat. A week or two later the forged check is discovered and the money removed from your account by the bank. But by now you boat is gone. So it’s best to verify with your bank that the money did come from a wire transfer, and not a check deposited by a third party, before handing over the property.
Oh, and my boat did sell to a nice young family, although not for a world record price. I ended up with a genuine counterfeit Nigerian souvenir check, you (hopefully) are a little bit safer for having read this story, and some crooks wasted their resources while providing us with some entertainment. What can I say? Life is good.Back To Top