Randfontein - One of the most heartbreaking aspects of my job is hearing from victims of scams; people who’ve lost a small fortune to slick fraudsters.
The masters of deception lay their traps on the internet and then reel in their unseen victims, playing them along until they make payment and then go silent on them.
And there’s absolutely nothing I can do to help them.
Mmathapelo Mokoena of Greenhills in Randfontein e-mailed me last week, having lost R30 000 to an online car scam.
She spotted the car, a white 2009 VW Polo 1.6 Trendline, with a claimed mileage of 105 000km, on the website Used Cars South Africa.
The contact person’s name was given as Stewart Downey.
Mokoena sent an e-mail to “Stewart Downey’s” Yahoo address. First red flag.
She got a response from a woman claiming to be Stewart’s wife, Diana. “We are in the UK at the moment. The car is still available and it’s in excellent shape inside-out, no accidents, always garage kept, never smoked in.
“It has no mechanical problems, dings, dents or scratches. There are no loans on the car. My husband is a DAS Shipping Company employee and he can deliver the car at no cost everywhere.
“The transaction will be managed by eBay, so everything will go smooth.”
The car was said to be in Joburg. Mokoena, a 36-year-old sales rep, bought the story.
With her fiancé being about to start a new job in sales and needing a car urgently, she had to act fast. So she applied for and got a R30 000 loan.
PACK OF LIES
Here’s the real horror: “Only afterwards I read the terms and conditions and saw I’d be paying back R2800 a month for four years!” Mokoena says.
It was the eBay lie which got her, she says.
“I was told that my money would only be released to the seller after I had inspected the car and was happy. The eBay e-mail address was fake, but I fell for it.”
She was then asked to do a money transfer via Moneygram or Western Union, given that the sellers were in the UK.
Yet another red flag.
And “Diana” gave her a useful tip, too: “Don’t mention to the guys from Moneygram that you are sending the deposit for a purchase because they will charge you additional fees for the business transfer. It happened to me last time, you can tell them that you are sending the money to a friend or relative and you can save some money.”
Robert Cole from eBay’s Trust & Safety Customer Support Team was also super helpful.
“If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us,” he told Mokoena. “We are here 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Like so much on the internet these days, it was all a figment of a fraudster’s cunning imagination. Mokoena did exactly as she was told, and then waited for her car to be delivered.
Why did she think an international shipping company was needed, if the car was in Joburg?
“That only occurred to me afterwards,” Mokoena says.
MOVING TOO FAST
“I was moving fast and not thinking straight. Later I contacted the shipping company and was told that there was no Stewart working there, and that it was all a scam.”
The car never materialised and all those friendly people suddenly stopped corresponding with Mokoena.
If she had done her checks in advance, she would also have discovered that eBay doesn’t interact with other sites or receive payment for anything unless it was purchased directly from its site.
“Looking back, I was stupid, Mokoena says. “And now I feel like I am being physically stabbed every time I think about it.”
She’s going to be thinking about it for the next four years, as she pays off that loan at a killer interest rate. The R30 000 is going to cost her more than R134 000.
A very expensive lesson indeed. Next time, she says, she’ll go to a dealer and ensure that she can see and drive a car before making a purchase.
Buying online is an extremely risky business unless you’re dealing with an established, reputable site. Check everything out thoroughly before committing.
If you pay by credit card, you have the protection of “chargeback” – a money-back mechanism provided by the credit card companies via the issuing banks – should you not get what you paid for.