|EcommerceBytes-NewsFlash, Number 544 - May 27, 2003 - ISSN 1539-5065 3 of 3|
With the dramatic rise of online fraud cases over the past several years, ecommerce sites and law enforcement agencies are finding themselves playing "catch-up" in an effort to stop the increasingly clever scams of Internet con men. Frustrated by the apparently widening gap between good guys and bad guys, many victims are banding together to share information to help bring Cybercriminals to justice.
Some term these groups "Vigilantes." But, somewhere between "vigilante" and online fraud "victim" is a phenomenon that perhaps needs its own term: Cybervigilism. Being vigilant is to be watchful. When it comes on online fraud, here's one more case that proves that Cybervigilism is alive and well.
Mark and Nancy Shae offered Web-site design services and belonged to an online community of Adult Webmasters in 2002. After participating in discussion forums for 5 months, Nancy revealed in October that her husband was sick with cancer.
When Nancy Shae later wrote to fellow Webmasters in an online forum that her husband had died from the disease, members of the community reached out a helping hand. Some members donated services, while others sent Nancy money. Little did they know that the woman they thought was Nancy Shae was really Nancy Dreksler, half of a husband-and-wife team wanted for fraud by officials in Nevada and Arizona, according to authorities.
But while many members pitched in to help their colleague, one member was skeptical.
Initially, "Blaze" (his online handle) received angry responses when he questioned the truth of Nancy's claims. However, a little research uncovered some glaring inconsistencies in Nancy's story. Determined to know the truth, Blaze hired a private investigator to visit the Shaes' home in Mesa, Arizona.
"It was too late. We had apparently missed them by hours," Blaze said. "But we kept our eyes out for them and saw their next scam on eBay. We knew it was just a matter of time before they tried to take the Webmaster community again."
While Blaze was correct in thinking the Shaes were serial offenders, he was unaware of another online community scammed by the couple 10 months earlier. Authorities believe that the Drekslers defrauded members of a site set up for marine and reef aquarium hobbyists in January 2002. They believe the Drekslers used the alias Johanna Myers to sell aquarium equipment on eBay and to ReefCentral.com members. The User ID they used on eBay had been registered in October 2001, and negative feedback began rolling in on the account on January 12, 2002. eBay ultimately suspended the account, but the Drekslers popped up again on eBay.
In February 2003, members of an online-auction chat board noticed suspicious activity on an eBay account "mylittle1s." The User ID belonged to "Renee Boseli," an alias for Michael and Nancy Dreksler. One victim alerted Arizona law enforcement officials in March, and Detective Bruce Cornish of the Coconino County Sheriff's Dept. contacted eBay. On March 5, eBay suspended mylittle1s, but it was too late: Det. Cornish found the Drekslers' residence abandoned, with a post office box full of cashier's checks and money orders made out to Renee Boseli.
AuctionBytes' coverage of the mylittle1s case caught the attention of Rachel Konrad, a reporter with the Associated Press. Blaze and his colleagues read Konrad's AP article on CNN.com on March 26, and saw similarities between the Drekslers and Mark and Nancy Shae. They were a husband and wife team, the wife was named Nancy, and the eBay ID mylittle1s was a variation of a password used on the Webmaster community bulletin boards. But the CNN article reported the Drekslers had fled their Munds Park, Arizona residence.
The break Blaze was looking for came soon after he read the CNN article. His colleague "Smith" (an online handle) wrote to him about a site called AdultCanvas.com. The design of the site looked like the work of "Mark Shae." But having seen the Drekslers scared off once before, Blaze and Smith, along with Webmaster "Gleem," were determined to do their own detective work to find the couple's address without tipping them off.
The three did as much research as they could, learning that the AdultCanvas.com site was owned by "Mitch Casperella." They felt that information still might not be enough for investigators. So before they contacted officials, they went to work.
"We decided that we would arrange a deal to do design work in exchange for money or something else that would require to be couriered, require a signature, require a telephone number and require an address where someone could sign for a package," Smith said.
"I created a new online identity complete with an email address and AOL instant messenger user name and proceeded to contact him," said Smith. "I ended up making a deal for graphic design work in the amount of $250 in exchange for an Xbox and 4 games. Once we had an address, we checked it against public records and the name connected to the lease was "Nancy Casperella." This was the clincher, we knew without a doubt that that "Mitch" was the same person that had operated the previous scams."
The three men now had the address of "Mitch and Nancy Casperella." Certain that this was the same couple that had ripped off their own community and eBay members, Blaze called Detective Cornish in Arizona the next day, May 6.
Cornish secured a warrant and got in a car with a fellow detective and drove from Arizona to Westminster, Colorado, arriving on May 8. The sheriff discovered the dead body of Michael Dreksler, age 32, in the garage of the residence, an apparent suicide victim. The following weekend, Nancy turned herself into authorities in Wisconsin.
Three men acted together to track down the Drekslers using their knowledge of technology and the Internet. When asked if he thought he and his colleagues were "vigilantes," Smith said he did not think so.
"I believe that with the information that is available on the Internet and the ability to connect to each other instantly is just naturally going to lead to people working together to find people that wronged them. However I wouldn't necessarily go as far as calling it vigilantism. There is a distinct difference between someone that tracks down another person and presents the information to the law enforcement, compared to someone who tracks down another person and proceeds to "enforce" law on them."
Ironically, members of the same community that had initially reached out to help the Shaes ultimately helped law enforcement officials to track the couple down.
About the author:
Ina Steiner is co-founder and Editor of EcommerceBytes and has been reporting on ecommerce since 1999. She's a widely cited authority on marketplace selling and is author of "Turn eBay Data Into Dollars" (McGraw-Hill 2006). Her blog was featured in the book, "Blogging Heroes" (Wiley 2008). Follow her on Twitter at @ecommercebytes and send news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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3 of 3
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