EcommerceBytes-NewsFlash, Number 421 - October 25, 2002     1 of 2

Online Escrow Fraud Hits eBay Members

By Ina & David Steiner

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In August, Frank Rafter came across a 2001 Mercedes CLK 340 on eBay Motors that seemed like the perfect vehicle for him. Now, he wishes he had never seen the car.

After the auction ended without meeting its reserve, Rafter (not his real name) contacted the seller to see if he would be willing to sell it to him. They quickly agreed on a price of $36,000 for the car, and the seller asked to have the money wired to his bank account. Following advice on eBay's site, Rafter asked to use an escrow service. He wired money to, a site suggested by the seller. He believed the escrow service would tell the seller to ship the car to him once it had received his money. According to Rafter, the car never came, and emails to the escrow service went unanswered.

In a sophisticated con, fraudsters are copying information about real cars for sale on sites such as and and are listing them for sale on eBay Motors. Buyers purchase the cars from these con men, wire-transfer money to a seemingly legitimate escrow service, and await delivery of their car. When the car never arrives, they contact the real owner of the car, and discover the legitimate seller knows nothing about the transaction. Then the buyers realize their mistake: the escrow service they’ve sent the money to is a scam, and the "seller" they dealt with never had possession of the vehicle.

Welcome to online escrow fraud. The problem appears to be growing, and it is not just affecting buyers.

Adam Owen is a graduate student who sold his laptop computer on eBay to get money for a new computer for school. After notified Adam it had received the buyer's money, he packaged up the computer and sent it off to an address in London. Like Rafter’s story, this one had an unhappy ending. Owen said the escrow site was not legitimate, and he was out his money and his laptop.

Online escrow fraud is escalating, brought about by various factors including:

  • online credit-card theft
  • the anonymity the Internet affords users
  • a lack of awareness about fraudulent escrow sites
  • Web hosting companies that allow fraudulent escrow sites to be created with stolen credit cards, and to remain on their service even after they have been reported.

Fenton Smith (also an alias) started in September after monitoring the Trust & Safety board on eBay. He said he got tired of having his posts about scam escrow sites pulled by eBay moderators. Fenton created to warn people about the problems of escrow fraud, and, he said, it has become a full-time job. Smith has listed over 100 sites that he labels scam escrow services - 47 of them still active. Smith believes many of the fraudulent sites are interrelated, based on the hundreds of emails he has received from victims and near-victims.

Some victims we spoke to are convinced there is an international twist to all the cases, blaming Romanian programmers and Russian Mafia. While not proven, the scam does have international overtones. Two seemingly legitimate sellers said they had sent laptops to an address at Wood Street in London in the UK, and never received payment from the escrow service they used. AuctionBytes contacted a business at 179 Wood Street in London, next door to the suspect address. The employee who answered the phone told us that the address in question was a residential flat, occupied by what she described as a “very large group of people from Kosovo.” A call to Scotland Yard netted us the same answer that victims commonly get from law enforcement officials: victims should report the crime to their local law enforcement agencies.

How do people fall for escrow fraud? Here's a real-life example.

A con man used a stolen credit card to register a Web site, using a domain with the word "escrow" in it. He copied the look of a legitimate escrow site to make the site appear authentic.

The fraudster contacted a doctor in Florida who was selling his Porsche on a fixed-price site called Posing as an interested buyer, the fraudster asked the doctor to send additional photos of the car via FedEx to an address in San Francisco. He then used those photos and specific information about the doctor's car to post an auction on eBay Motors.

An eBay Motors user named Steve bid $43,000 for the Porsche after checking the VIN number, a number unique to every car. Everything checked out – the VIN number belonged to a doctor in Florida.

The auction ended without a sale, because the reserve price was not met. The fraudulent seller, posing as the Florida doctor, contacted Steve, telling him he was the next highest bidder. Steve agreed to purchase the Porsche for $44,000, believing he was going through eBay using their "Second Chance Offer" feature, which allows sellers to sell an item to the next highest bidder.

Steve communicated with the fraudulent seller via email, who told Steve to wire the money into an escrow account, and Steve made arrangements to pick up the car in Las Vegas. After many delays on the part of the seller, Steve called the doctor in Florida, and was shocked to learn the doctor did not post the car on eBay Motors. The doctor, an unwilling and unknowing participant in the scam, had already traded in his Porsche for a Lexus. The con man had Steve's $44,000, and Steve was left without a car and $44,000 poorer.

The pattern on the cases that examined is the same. We decided to ask one Internet Service Provider why they hadn't shut down a Web site set up with stolen credit cards and posing as an escrow service. In a written statement, Dreamhost, the hosting service where the domain resides, told AuctionBytes that they provide “hosting for more than 40,000 domains, making it impossible to constantly monitor customers’ web sites or activities.”

And what does eBay have to say?

eBay spokesperson Kevin Pursglove said eBay is aware of fraudulent escrow sites, but said there have been "virtually no fraud cases reported" by eBay members about such escrow sites. Because eBay does not consider it a significant problem, there are no warnings on the site, he said.

Information posted on eBay's site recommends members use escrow for transactions over $500 ( and promotes a site called On eBay Motors, we found a link to a page called "Safe Buying Guide" (, where it also advises buyers to consider using an escrow service.

A visit to's home page has a large warning, "Fraud Watch, Please Read." Clicking on the warning brings up a box warning people, in part, "If you are not using escrow services at this URL, please be careful. We are not affiliated with ANY other escrow sites no matter what they may tell you.”

Pursglove suggested that eBay members selling high-priced items consider using a service like Transrow. The service helps sellers set up a bid verification process, in which auction bidders are required to submit a drivers license and credit references in order to bid on an auction.

Fenton Smith, who does consider escrow fraud a significant problem, offers the following advice:

  • Check for poor grammar on the escrow sites
  • Although the site may look like authentic, it’s usually copied. The most frequently copied sites are and, both legitimate sites
  • There are usually giveaways in the “Terms” page, which is generally stolen from another site.
  • Very often a site will leave hints of what its previous incarnation was - especially if they've just changed domain names recently.
  • Be wary if the seller insists on using a specific escrow site. Sellers don’t usually press for escrow, buyers do

Because escrow is usually used on higher ticker items, escrow fraud can result in a significant financial loss. Most auction transactions go through without a hitch, but it pays to know as much as possible about the risks or you could end up losing a bundle.

About the author:

Ina and David Steiner are publishers of and have been writing about ecommerce since 1999.

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