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Security Response

Escrow Scams Searching New Avenues

Created: 08 May 2013 18:10:51 GMT • Updated: 23 Jan 2014 18:07:35 GMT • Translations available: 日本語
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Contributor: Binny Kuriakose

People dream big when buying expensive items like a car or a property. When those dreams are seen with very affordable price tags it certainly attracts everybody’s interest. There are lots of websites available that allow people to post free classified advertisements online and one of the biggest categories is that of used cars. This is the new breeding ground for the old escrow tricksters.

This blog will discuss an interesting case of how a free classified advertisement and an escrow service turned out to be an online scam.
 

What are escrow services?

Escrow services are essentially mediators in trade that ensure all terms, agreed by both parties, are met. Escrow companies take the payment from the buyer and ‘hold it’ until the seller delivers the goods to the buyer and all the terms of sale are met. If you are buying an item from an unknown party without meeting face-to-face, the best bet is to use an escrow service.
 

How I stumbled across this scam

I happened to skim through the ads on a classified site for used cars in India and I came across an advertisement for a really good car at an attractive price. In fact, too attractive to be true!
 

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Figure 1.  Car advertisment
 

Even though alarm bells were going off, I just could not resist replying to the advertisement.

I got a prompt reply within an hour, which was from a lady named Karina Lommer, at least that’s what it said in the email ID. She explained to me that the car was in pristine condition and the reason why she was selling it at a very low price.
 

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Figure 2. Seller email
 

Uh-oh! Alarm bells ringing off their hooks! It was exactly what I had suspected, another one of those dodgy emails that try to lure you into a bogus deal, most likely involving an escrow scam.

I saw similar “too good to be true” deals in separate advertisements and got the exact same email reply from Mrs. Tania Shurrer and Mrs. Letticia Coleman.
 

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Figure 3. More seller email
 

It’s definitely a scam all right, but I wanted to know where this was leading to. I played along, giving them some bogus information and hoping that I could trick the trickster. I got two emails from the same address informing me that the deal was on and giving me further instructions.
 

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Figure 4. Emailed instructions
 

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Figure 5. More emailed instructions
 

The emails give the impression that the car is in India but I won’t be meeting the owner. I just need to send the money to a popular third-party online shopping service and the car will be shipped to me. Sure enough, there arrived an email which was made to look like it was from the third-party shopping website asking me to deposit the money in a local account within five working days. The email claimed that the third-party organization would guarantee the transaction and the car would be shipped to me as soon as they received the money.
 

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Figure 6. Online service used for payment
 

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Figure 7. Online payment instructions
 

Now that we can see the entire picture, it is clear that once someone deposits the money in the account, they will be down a large sum of money and still without a car.

Another possible way to trick people is to set up a site masquerading as a legitimate escrow site and con people into sending money to the fake service.

To avoid scams like the one discussed I this blog the following practices are recommended:

  • Stay away from ads that provide very little or no contact information
  • Poorly written emails and shabby formatting may be a sign of a possible scams
  • If the transaction turns out to be from a foreign country, avoid it
  • Be cautious of purchases requiring wire transfers
  • Do your research, and search for scams using similar tactics on the Internet, chances are you will find other examples
  • Most importantly, go through the site’s safety policies so that you can be better equipped to handle such situations. Notify the sites being spoofed and forward them on the spam emails received