I wanted that yellow Jeep on Craigslist. But it was a scam.
My oldest son is three months from turning 16 and getting his drivers license. But I was the one daydreaming about a new ride.
On an unseasonably warm day recently, I thought to myself: It would be so nice to drive a Jeep with the top off. Just like I did when I graduated college and landed my first job.
Idea: Maybe he could drive my car and I could get myself a used Wrangler.
I searched the St. Louis Craigslist and … wow. Someone was selling a 2000 Wrangler, brilliant yellow, with custom black fenders. The description said it had low miles, mostly highway. New tires and brakes. A new water pump and coil pack. Runs great. Looked mint.
I was filled with longing.
I texted a reply to the seller’s number, which had a 314 area code. “Does it have ac?”
I looked it up on Kelley Blue Book, a car value guide: The Wrangler’s value was $10,000. I could flip it and make a couple thousand at least. Or I could drive that Jeep forever, up mountains, over sandy beaches. Who cares about the air conditioner? I needed that Jeep.
“I will come buy it right now,” I texted.
The reply: “I posted the 2000 yellow jeep for my sister.” The text included a gmail address for the sister, Megan Warren.
I emailed Megan to say I wanted the Jeep. Just needed an address. The reply I got was exciting — 45 more yellow Jeep pictures — but also very sad. Megan said it was her son’s Jeep. He had just died and she just wanted to get rid of it. How sad. But it explained the low price.
For her safety, though, she wanted to make the sale through eBay Motors, if that was OK.
My first thought was, that makes sense.
Then the investigative reporter in me kicked in. I googled the text of her email. It came up in warnings from Craigslist and eBay .
The victim sends an electronic payment, but never gets the car.
You probably saw that coming before I did.
My neighbor’s daughter just turned 16, and we’ve been talking for almost a year about how we were going to look for good deals at police auctions or on Craigslist. We had the same budget: under $3,000.
The other day, she had a 2017 Buick in the garage. Turned out they decided to lease.
I told her I might be headed in the same direction, and told her about the yellow Jeep of my dreams.
The same thing had happened to her that week — twice. People selling nice cars within our price range. Whose loved ones had just died. And who wanted to go through eBay.
We were the perfect suckers — parents of new drivers willing to suspend disbelief in the quest for a deal.
“The worst part is, I still go back to the email to look at pictures of the Jeep,” I confessed.
I can spot the scam pretty easily now. It is all over Craigslist. It’s not obvious unless you know what you’re looking for. The car is well described, including minor problems that were fixed. The number is local. The posting has just the right amount of typos to feel authentic. Too many and it’s clear the posting came from Russia, or Nigeria.
The first clue — really the only clue — is the price. The car is listed at a great price but not an impossible one.
I respond to ads now just to mess with the scammer. “Interested in the BMW,” I texted to a number in the 636 area code. “Call me.”
The reply came about two hours later. The scammer knew not to appear too eager at first. Keep me thinking about the car.
“Hi, the 2005 BMW X5 xDrive it’s still available,” the scammer texted. “If you want more pics and details please provide me your email address.”
I did, and got 21 pictures of the vehicle from someone named “Angela Weston.”
Now she was in a hurry.
“I am selling it at this final price of $2,500 because my husband died 1 month ago and it brings me bad memories and that’s the reason I want to sell it a.s.a.p. I want to use Amazon services for the safety of both of us so if you’re interested in purchasing this vehicle.”
I responded: “Hi — I am actually a journalist. I’m curious about these scams and who is behind them. Would you consider an interview with me over email? I’m curious about how this works.”
I added, “It might be interesting for you also to tell your story.” But “Angie” doubled down. “As I have told you in my previous email, my husband died recently. I had to move out and now I am living with my parents in Lawrence, KS. At the moment they are the only ones I can rely on. The car is at the shipping company, sealed and ready for the shipping. … If you are interested in knowing more info about how it works, I can ask Amazon to send you an email with more information on how to purchase it.”
But I still wondered: How does the scammer use eBay or Amazon to get the money?
Alas, Christina Nieto knows the answer.
The St. Louis woman wanted to buy herself a car with her tax refund in February. She responded to an ad for a 2008 Honda Accord with 126,000 miles. The price was $2,000. (Kelley Blue Book says the car would be worth more like $5,000.)
“Corporal Maria Dickson” explained in an email: “I am selling this vehicle because I am in the military and my unit will be sent back to Afghanistan. I don’t want it get old in my garage. The price is low because I need to sell it before February 12th.”
Made sense to Nieto. Plus, an email from eBay said the transaction was guaranteed.
Later on, though, she realized the email was from Ebay@support-payment-motors.com. A fake email address.
“She wouldn’t listen to me,” said her aunt, Vernita Molina.
“Maria” asked Nieto to send the money to Rodolfo Franco, an agent from eBay who was handling the transaction.
Franco’s address on the MoneyGram receipt was listed as Rogers Avenue in Poteau, Okla. I looked the street up on Google Streetview: a dusty alley in a small town.
I reversed the address and called the number. It was a state of Oklahoma work-placement office. The woman who took my call had never heard of Rodolfo Franco. But someone picked up the money. Probably at a supermarket or convenience store. Maybe even in Poteau. Moneygram knows where and when. Was there surveillance video?
Nieto said she called the St. Louis police and was told they would not take a report. She said it was the same with MoneyGram.
I left messages with a representative from MoneyGram, who did not respond.
I hope someone helps Nieto get her money back.
“This is a very serious problem for society right now,” said Yi Yang, director of the cybersecurity program at Fontbonne University.
Scammers and phishers work with impunity. The fraudulent ads almost never work. They pop up and disappear too frequently. The scammers create phone numbers and email addresses, and use proxy servers to hide their locations.
Every once in a while they catch someone. The Better Business Bureau says another woman lost $5,000 last year in the scam.
Every Craigslist posting has a link at the bottom to language that warns users to buy only from someone local, in person, and not with an electronic transaction. And Craigslist removes ads as soon as fraud is detected.
Yang said she thought authorities should run more sting operations to try to identify and ensnare scammers.
I responded to an ad for a pretty red 2006 BMW X5 on Friday and got an email with pictures (and a sob story: another dead husband) right away.
Then I went back to the St. Louis ad and found Craigslist had removed it.
I texted back: “Do you have one in blue?”