The Art of Scam

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The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3)—a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center (NWC3)—recently released its 10th annual report on cybercrime complaints reporting the 2010 figures.

Keeping in mind that according to the FBI, the vast majority of cybercrimes are not reported—the common wisdom indicates that about one cybercrime in seven is actually reported—these figures are best viewed as that part of the iceberg which you can actually see above the waterline.

2010 saw a total of 303,809 reports made on the IC3 site; of these 121,710 were referred to law enforcement. While this was the second highest number on record, it is still down from 336,655 reports made in 2009, of which 146,663 were referred to law enforcement.

This means that approximately 25,000 reports were made per month, which indicates that the total number of crimes actually committed were closer to 200,000 per month.

Of these cybercrimes, whether we consider the reported figures, or the much higher actual figures, about 14.4% were non-delivery/payment of merchandise (non-auction); 13.2% were FBI-Related scams, where the scammer is masquerading as the FBI in order to defraud victims; 9.8% were identity theft.

5.9% of all reported cybercrimes were Auction Fraud.

That is one category which has dropped drastically over the years. In 2004 Auction Fraud constituted 71.2% of all cybercrimes referred by the IC3 to law enforcement. In 2010, however, Auction Fraud only made up a little over 10% of referred crimes.

The IC3 is not clear on precisely why Auction Fraud has dropped, but speculates that these complaint levels have dropped as businesses and consumers discovered and implemented ways (such as online escrow) to “make previously unchartered areas of online commerce safer and more reliable.”

Still, when seen from another angle, these numbers show that crimes related to Internet Commerce—which include Non-Delivery/Payments of Merchandise, Advance Fee Fraud, Overpayment Fraud, as well as Auction Fraud—were by far the most reported offense in 2010, comprising as they did 32.2% of all complaints.

Yearly Comparison of Complaints Received Via the IC3 Website
(Source: IC3)

Yearly Comparison of Complaints Referred by IC3 to Law Enforcement
(Source: IC3)

2010 Top Ten Types of Reported Cybercrime
(Source: IC3)

2010 Top Ten Types of Referred Cybercrime
(Source: IC3)


Looking at this overall picture I don’t think that the use of the word epidemic is misplaced. Certain strata of society—whether here in the United States or abroad—seem to prefer the “something for nothing” formula of living rather than actual work, which is pretty much the definition of a criminal.

Cybercrime is growing epidemic for a couple of reasons. The first is that due to the nature of the Internet itself, the cybercrime almost uniformly crosses jurisdictional boundaries, and such crimes are always harder to not only pinpoint, but also to investigate and bring to justice, involving by necessity, as they do, multiple agencies and law enforcement—local, state and federal, not to mention international.

As a result, the criminal may be the guy next door, or he or she may be in Russia, Romania, or Nigeria.

The other reason this is turning into an epidemic is that despite many a campaign alerting the population to the spread of cybercrime such as identity theft, it seems that part of our non-cynical (read “good”) human nature is to always think the best of people, and to take them at their word.

We simply do not like to distrust what we’re told, and if we hear that a friend of ours has been robbed of all his money and credit cards and now is in dire need of cash, we will normally, without thinking twice, Western Union some cash to help him or her—not even considering that some scammer might have stolen our friend’s identity and is now emailing our his or her every Facebook acquaintance for easy cash.

At this point I’d like to suggest that one of the biggest red flags (and we’ll return to those) you can get from a scammer are the words “Western Union” or “MoneyGram” (or other money transfer services).

Whenever you’re asked to Western Union money, for any reason whatsoever, know that in ninety-nine cases of out a hundred you’re dealing with a scammer.

The Heart of a Scammer

Don’t forget that all scammers are con men, and the art of the con is the art of persuasion.

And know that the scammer, by some uncanny instinct (since he or she does not possess one of his or her own) knows your heart.

He or she knows that you are basically decent, and want to do the right thing by others. He or she knows that we, as people, don’t want to be cynical, and we want to believe what other people say. So if someone claims to be a soldier who was shipped off to Iraq before he had a chance to sell his pickup truck and is now desperate to unload it for some cash (which, for him to get it has be Western Union’ed, sorry), well, we want to sympathize and we want to believe. And we don’t want to believe that some people are simply out and out cons who depend on your good heart and your trust and your sense of fair play in order to skim you of your last dime.

The heart of a scammer is, as I said, absent. He or she does not have a conscience, and will gladly take a recent widow’s last dime without a second thought. That is what we must confront. That there are people out there who are outright vile, and care for nothing but his or her own welfare, however gotten.

Yes, in these Internet times, we have to subscribe to a certain amount of cynicism, if for no other reason than to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

The Art of Scam

The art of scam entails being (a) utterly believable, (b) worthy of our sympathy, and (c) seemingly offering a great deal—their loss is your gain.

To work, these three points depend on the good nature (which they see as gullibility) of the average citizen.

Utterly Believable

Knowing that we basically want to believe our fellow humans, the scammer will spin the most amazing tales, and as spun they as a rule do make sense.

These tales span the gamut from the reason they happen to have two extra Super bowl tickets, and why you have to Western Union the money for them to how it is that they have a 2008 Honda Civic listed at $1,500 on Craigslist.

If we didn’t want to believe them, we wouldn’t; for in each and every case the tale seems just a little too good to be true—that you should be so lucky, in other words. Let’s face it, it doesn’t quite add up.

Worthy of Our Sympathy

In order to play your heart-strings to the fullest, they often masquerade as someone that we normally respect or sympathize with, such as soldiers, firemen, recent widows, stranded (in a foreign country—and could you please MoneyGram the money) US students. The tale of woe is designed to kindle our sympathy, but to not go so over the top as to be unbelievable (no one will even accuse the scammer of being stupid, only heart-less).

The Great Deal

The only person who stands to gain by the fact that he or she just had to rush off to war is you—or so you’re supposed to believe.

The tale spun is mostly one of woe, and one which explains why he or she is willing to lose money for your benefit.

Again, unless we were predisposed to believe our fellow human beings, we would laugh this offer out or the house. But often we don’t. And we listen, and we figure why should we not gain a little if we also help someone else at the same time.

To Be or Not To Be (a Cynic)

I don’t think that self-preservation in the face of some 2 million cybercrimes committed a year (300,000 of which are actually reported) is cynical. I think that you owe it to yourself and to those you love and who depend on you.

Neither does it mean that you should stop buying or selling things online. It only means that you need to be smart about it.

Three Rules

Three very basic rules:

Number 1: If it sounds too good to be true—it is. Always, always, always. You cannot go wrong with that attitude.

Number 2: The words “Western Union” or “MoneyGram” are the biggest red flag in existence. An offer that even smells of money transfer services should be shunned, scrapped, abandoned faster than you can say “scam.” Never Western Union or MoneyGram cash unless you know the recipient personally.

Number 3: Unless you can afford to lose the item bought or sold (or its value) INSIST on using an online escrow service. Always, always, always. And do not take no for an answer. Know instead that this is where the scammer’s imagination and amazing story-telling comes to the fore: he or she will provide the most amazing arguments why you should not use an online escrow or at least not the one you suggest (which is bona fide—you have researched it and know it is). You will be amazed at the seemingly very valid reasons you’ll be given. Buy none of them. INSIST on using a bona fide online escrow service.

Litmus Test

Rule number 3 is actually a very good litmus test for flushing out scammers. Insisting on the use of a bona fide online escrow will have the scammers scramble for the hills, never to be seen again. For they know that they will not pass inspection by the escrow company; they know that they mean to deceive you and that the escrow company will flush this out soon enough.

Rule 3 is paramount: Always INSIST on using an online escrow service.

We could even add a Rule 4: When in doubt—Escrow.

Online Escrow

A word about Online Escrows. The principle here is the same as with buying and selling real estate—where, of course, the escrow company is deemed indispensible due to the amounts involved.

It works something like this:

  • The buyer or seller opens an account with the online escrow company;

  • The prospective buyer of an item sends payment by wire transfer (not to be confuse with Western Union or MoneyGram—a wire transfer, bank to bank is a different animal altogether, and is preferred by online escrow services since such transfers are traceable), check or credit card to the escrow company;

  • The escrow company verifies that the funds indeed do exist, or that the buyer is who he represents himself to be and is in possession of the credit card used—in other words, the money is good;

  • Upon verification that the funds are good, the escrow company places them in a non-interest bearing trust account;

  • Once this is done, the escrow company asks the seller to ship the merchandise;

  • Merchandise is shipped, and seller submits tracking information;

  • Once the shipping site shows the merchandise as delivered, the escrow company double checks to ensure the buyer has the goods in hand;

  • The buyer now has an agreed-upon amount of time to either accept the goods or return it to the seller;

  • Once accepted by the buyer, the escrow company releases the funds to the seller, less any processing fees.

Straightforward enough.

There is only one catch. For every legitimate online escrow there seems to be five that are not.

Internet Escrow Fraud

Handling, as it does, substantial amounts of money, the escrow company is often itself a target of fraud—where look-alike phishing sites try to con you into using them rather than the bona fide site; and the escrow company concept itself is also flagrantly abused by criminals who set up fraudulent escrow sites where money will only travel one-way: you guessed it, away from you.

In fact, the problem of fake on-line escrow sites is so substantial that some reputable and legitimate escrow sites have simply thrown in the towel.

Many of these apparently bona fide escrow companies, established for the sole purpose of enriching the criminal, are set up off-shore—predominantly in Russia or China—where lax cybercrime laws (and sometimes questionable cooperation with U.S. Authorities) makes it more difficult to shut the sites down and bring the perpetrators to justice.

The Legitimate Online Escrow

How do you establish the legitimate credentials of an online escrow? It is not that hard. All you have to do is to get these questions answered:

Question 1: Does the online site offer a phone number and a physical address—and does someone answer it when you call?

The fraudulent online escrow rarely if ever posts a phone number and an address, and even if there is a phone number, no one will answer.

Question 2: Does the online site offer proof that they are fully licensed and accredited as an escrow company?

The fraudulent site, search as you may, offers no such proof, for the simple reason that they are neither licensed nor accredited. The bona fide site will offer license numbers which, if in doubt, can be verified with the states in question.

Question 3: Can the company offer referrals from established, major corporate clients which do not mind you checking?

Google “Online Escrow” and then ask the above three questions about those companies that look legit. If you can talk to them, view their license numbers, and then speak to their satisfied clients, you have found a site that you can trust, and that you should INSIST on using in any online transactions of value.

You should also keep in mind that any legitimate site is always secure, and therefore will display “https” (for secure http) on your browser’s URL line.

You can also verify escrow site legitimacy on, which keeps a close tab on all the scammers, while also maintaining a list of bona fide sites.

And remember the three rules: If it’s too good to be true, it isn’t; never Western Union or MoneyGram money anywhere; and INSIST on using an online escrow.

And number four: When in Doubt—Escrow.

Coeur d’Alene, Idaho-based Ulf Wolf ( writes about Internet Commerce Fraud for


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