Buyer (and seller) beware for online transactions

As the Christmas season approaches, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary is advising online shoppers to be wary of "too good to be true" scenarios on websites.

Const. Ken Duff, who works with the RNC's Economic Crime Unit, said there's a long list of internet scams currently taking place.

"There's hundreds of them out there, and there's all kinds of variations to them," he said.

"Typically what the bad guys do is that you'll see a scam, it'll run for a while, there will be some education done through people talking to friends, the media, and police trying to get the word out there. And then it makes it a little harder for that scam to pass off. So what a lot of the bad guys start doing then is they realize that this scam has kind of run its course for now, and they stop using it, and bring on a new one."

A popular scam that Duff said the public should watch out for happens on classified websites, like Kijiji, NL Buy and Sell, and Craigslist. While the sites themselves are credible, he said the people you sometimes deal with are not.

"On these classified sites, you really don't know who you're buying from, and you have no history with them," he said.

"They are set up to bring two individuals together: one that has something to sell, and one that is interested in buying that item. That's the way they're set up. They're not set up as eBay; it's not the type of thing where you should be dealing with them through mail. If you can't meet them face-to-face, you shouldn't be doing the deal."

In October, Ashley Brown thought she was finally ready to sell her set of wedding and engagement rings.

So she posted an ad on Kijiji, with a total cost for the rings of $1,500.

Within minutes of posting the ad, a buyer contacted her via text message. The buyer was not only interested, but willing to pay an extra $250 above the asking price.

The buyer claimed the extra cash was to cover shipping costs.

But before the funds could be released through Paypal, an online money transfer company, Brown had to supply a tracking number for the parcel. So she rushed to the post office to send her rings.

"That's when I first got a little bit suspicious, because the address was actually in Nigeria," she said.

But Brown ignored her initial instinct, and followed all of the buyer's instructions, sending the parcel express, which cost more than $100.

"To be honest, I just thought it was me being paranoid," she said.

When Brown still didn't have her money the following day, she called Paypal. That's when she learned the company doesn't allow dealings with the African country.

"So I called Canada Post right away, asked them what I could do. They said they couldn't stop the parcel unless there was police intervention. So they were like, 'Get off the phone right now, get down to the police station, file a report, and hopefully your package hasn't gone international,'" she said.

Unfortunately, it was too late. The package had left the country, and there was nothing that could be done to retrieve it.

Brown said she went through a gamut of emotions. At first she cried, then she said she felt angry at some friends who encouraged her to go through with the sale. Finally, she was mad at herself and embarrassed.

"I remember when my mother actually found out what was going on. She was shocked for one that I could be that naive. And just the look on her face — I think that is what killed me the most, because I felt so defeated," she said.

"I couldn't believe that it had happened to me."

Brown said anyone shopping on classified websites should focus on buying and selling items on a local level.

"Make sure it's someone that you can actually meet in person, face to face. Do it the good, old fashioned way — handshake, cash, 'Here's item B, and here's the money for it.'"

Duff said another type of scam that's been recently making the rounds is the advanced fee loan scam.

Amina Benoite brought her case to the RNC just a few weeks ago.

She was looking for a quick way to get a loan to start up her small business, and thought an online lending company seemed like a viable option.

She filled out an online application form with Atria Essential Lending Source, and was approved within minutes for a loan of $10,000.

But to get her loan, Benoite had to put money down as a security deposit — as quickly as possible.

She rushed to wire $573 through Western Union to a supposed lender in Toronto.

Fifteen minutes later, she got another call from the company, saying they forgot to include the insurance costs.

As a first-time customer, Benoite was told she needed to get a certain level of insurance on the loan, which cost $2,600.

But the representative on the phone said that since he made the mistake of not previously informing her about it, he would bring the cost down to $478.

Benoite said she felt like she had no other choice but to send the money. She wired the amount once again via Western Union.

A few days passed, and Benoite still hadn't seen the money for her loan.

That's when she decided to call Atria. Several phone calls later, she finally got a hold of the rep.

Once again, he told her she owed more insurance money — another $528 — before the loan could be released.

She said she felt trapped, and that she had come this far; she couldn't turn back now. But she told the rep that this was the last straw, and there would be no more payments on her behalf.

Benoite never got her loan. She said once she realized she had been scammed, she felt ill.

"I didn't come out of my room for three days afterwards," she said.

"I gave them the benefit of the doubt. But when things are too good to be true, it really is. Because it was too easy."

The Atria Essential Lending Source website no longer exists.

"They are fly-by-night websites that are put up online, and it looks real. It's as if you're going to your [bank] branch online. It's as real as that," said Benoite.

"When they take your identity, they take your money, it's like a little piece [of you] is taken away. And it feels not very good. All I can say is educate yourselves. Don't believe everything you see or read."

Duff said while the scams may be different, there's one important tactic that they both employ.

"What these guys want you to do, they want you to act quickly, without having time to think," he said.

Duff said members of the public should think critically before pursuing any kind of online activity involving money.

"Anytime it sounds too good to be true, it usually is," he said.

But he said the bottom line is to report the incident to the RNC.

"It is embarrassing to admit you got duped. The unfortunate thing about it is, that's what the bad guys want you to do," he said.

"They don't want you talking about it. They don't want it out in the public, because then the more teleplay it gets, the more people are going to know it's a scam, and that makes their work that much harder. So that's just playing into the hand of the bad guy. You have to come forward and let it be known that you've been scammed."

Duff said it's also important to tell family and friends.

"If you talk to your family members and tell them how you've been scammed, it lessens the chance that they will [be scammed], because they're that much more educated."

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