Article

TITLE:
The Art of the Scam
SUMMARY:
The arduous journey of buying a new Macbook ... online.
KEYWORDS:
humor, computers, internet
WRITTEN:
March 26, 2016

FULL ARTICLE:

You’ve Got Scam!

It shouldn’t be this tough.

I needed a new MacBook (well, still do as of this writing). My last one was inadvertently destroyed by champagne during a New Year’s Eve party a while back. It was closed during the incident, but the champagne was heading in its direction a bit too forceful and fast. And well, no more MacBook for me. Fixing it would have been about 75% of the original cost. My company bought me shiny new MacBook 13. And the 13 is no 15.

And it also belongs to the company.

Anyway, yeah, the 13” has not the power to compete with its predecessor, so I’m going to return to the power of the quad--the quad core, which is only in the 15” model.

As far as a new one? It’s $2,000 to $2,500. They just don’t even decrease in price. Each year, Apple throws on a new sticker and says, “MUCH BETTER THAN BEFORE!” and thus, the price never drops. Yes, it’s a little faster, but most of the upgrades are really negligible.

So maybe used in the way to go. But where? Amazon? Okay, though there are not really any good deals on Amazon. And some of the places have 100% positive reviews--expect they are all phony ones. You can usually tell because the English is equally as bad on all the reviews. Mac users are not known of being lacking in the education department.

Craigslist? Hmm... Worth a shot. I tried it out. Voila! Found the perfect model: an unopened new one for $1,000. That’s over half off what Apple charges. I inquired. The response said all the right things and that the seller, “Melinda,” wanted to use eBay sales to protect the buyer and seller. Ooh. Extra security? I liked that.

Let’s review her initial email:

“Hi, The laptop is still for sale. I purchased this a few months ago and never got around to migrating to it and decided to go PC. It has never been opened, it is still sealed wrapped. It also has an AppleCare warranty good until September 2018.
I'm asking $1000 on it and will ship out through FedEx Home Delivery with signature confirmation.
Regarding the transaction I would like to do it through eBay, through their buyer and seller protection program. Their program protects both buyer and seller and it's the right way to do this. You will also benefit of a 5 days inspection period to make sure that nothing's wrong with it. As I said, it has never been opened, but that's the procedure
If you have the funds available and you're ready to buy, I will need your name and address to register the transaction, and after that eBay will contact you with all the necessary info and payment instructions.”

I replied and asked for more information. She replied soon after and well, would you look at that. I got photos of the unit and the serial number. No red flags yet.

I checked the serial number with apple it wouldn’t expire until September, 2018. Okay, check that.

But still, I wanted to meet the seller. She replied to my email and said she just wanted to ship FedEx with signed delivery. Odd. The seller was in Fremont. Why not meet? A red flag.

I decided to get a little crazy and type the serial number into Google. Let’s see what we get. Spin the wheel...

Ah, the same exact ad (verbatim) in Boise, Idaho (posting date of three weeks ago). It had expired but Google had cached it (Play cache!) Good boy, Google! Good boy! ) Another red flag (and of course a deal breaker. Scam alert!)

But I continued the dialogue. Why not see how far “Melinda” would go. I emailed and said I would have to meet in person, just to be sure:

“Hello, Melinda, It seems foolish of me to not at least meet briefly before buying, especially since your location is Fremont. I can meet in any public place you prefer and pretty much any time this weekend. I would prefer to do that first. Just want to cover my bases.

Also, was this Macbook for sale in Boise, Idaho recently?”

But I researched more. It was fun. I searched Google for the exact ad verbiage. Wow. It was posted in Miami, Florida. Red flag (as if any more were needed).

I checked her phone number location: Little Rock, Arkansas. Not exactly close to Fremont. Red flag (it’s just for fun now).

I then researched ways eBay payment could be used without eBay. It can’t. There’s even a page about a fake eBay payment scam routine, which I’m guessing is what the seller would have used. She had said that I would provide an address and eBay would bill there or something (was hard to get any detailed information, and I of course never got a URL of anything to check on eBay). But yeah, even if FedEx were used, I doubt the scam would even reach that point.

Also, the AppleCare was ending in September 2018. If it’s three years, then this MacBook was purchased back in 2015--and stolen when? Actually, there’s a chance the seller didn’t steal it, but did actually buy one, then took photos and registered it and now “she” tries to sell it multiple times across the USA.

It’s a hard scam to stop. But really, an unopened $2,500 2015 Macbook for $1,000? Come on! Caveat--buyer get real!

I now had enough red flags to celebrate Chinese New Year in Shanghai. I didn’t hear much back from the seller, though I sent a few more emails stating, “What is going on? I really want to buy your computer! Don’t you want to sell it to me? All I need is to check out that eBay payment site. ” I really wanted to know how she was going to handle that nitpicky detail about needing to verify the payment system. She finally responded and said she had already sold to someone else.

Riiiiiight.

Well, she might have. It’s an easy scam to fall for. For me, I would only buy if something were done 100% through either eBay or Amazon. Those places cover the parties. And it’s harder for scammers to use. Craigslist is like the Wild West of computer sales. No cyber sheriff around for miles.

My final email said I was disappointed and I listed those various sites that had the fake ads. I wanted her to know I knew her scam. (Actually, I would bet it’s a sleazy guy somewhere who spends life looking over his shoulder and sleeping uneasily as if this were the night the police would finally bust the door down--though I suppose internet fraud is not gender specific so “he” could be “she,” though probably not a Melinda. That’s just too nice a name.)

That said, I didn’t outright insult or threaten to call the feds. I mean, I had already given away my phone number and email. While there’s no huge risk, someone offended too much could submit both items to spam engines and what not. Best to let it go. I can’t really warn others, aside from an article for friends to read.

Let’s be careful out there.

For the curious, this is how the email thread went after my discovery:

Me: “Hello, Melinda, It seems foolish of me to not at least meet briefly before buying, especially since your location is Fremont. I can meet in any public place you prefer and pretty much any time this weekend. I would prefer to do that first. Just want to cover my bases.

Also, was this Macbook for sale in Boise, Idaho recently?” (My “snarkiness” begins.)

Melinda: “James, I'm in Little Rock, AR that's why I said I will ship it.” (And yet she posts the ad in East Bay, California because???)

Melinda: “Let me know if you're still interested in buying it.” (Er, because the fact that now know it was posted in Idaho means exactly nothing?

Me: “Ah, that makes sense.

Okay, no way to meet then I guess. That’s a little far of a drive. 🙂

And you’ll be setting up an eBay account to handle the transaction? Would you be sending the URL for me to click?” (Okay, Melinda. Are we having fun yet?)

Melinda: “I will need your name and address to setup the transaction and eBay will contact you with all the necessary info and payment instructions.” (Maybe it’s just her, or do Arkansas folks really think that little of California people?)

Me: Right on.

Is there a link I could check out on eBay for this service? I just need to review this program before supplying personal information. The usual precautionary measures. I guess I haven’t used any sort of payment system like that. I believe it’s through PayPal now?” (I bet I won’t get a link. I bet I won’t!)

(Four hours later. And still no reply. But I want to play still!)

“Hello, Melinda,

We going to make the sale? Just need to verify the payment service first. What is the web link for it?” (Is she sucker enough to think I’m sucker enough at this point?)

(No response for the rest of the day. So late the next morning, I try to continue the game.)

Me: “Melissa, What happened? I have the money all set. Did you no longer wish to sell the computer?

I just need to verify the payment service and we are all set to go.

Let’s finish this deal. :)” (I came close to saying that I wanted to up my offer to $2,000. Maybe I should have?)

(Finally...)

Melinda: “Sorry James, It's almost sold. A guy said he will make the payment today” (Poor guy, though I guess there are worse scams to fall for.)

Oh, so many possible ways to finish this. Say the feds have been called? Say, “Scammer, scammer! Shame on you!” Tell her I would have paid one million dollars!? Nah, let’s keep it simple and close to civil:

Me: “No problem. I’m actually on my way to buy another one. I feel better that I can meet in person anyway.

Plus, the issue that the same serial number is listed in Boise (March 7), Idaho and Miami, Florida, and Orinda, California, and Union City, California. And of course your phone number is Arkansas. Plus, the questionable eBay payment program.

So, so many red flags. But it makes for a good story for others.”

And a little snarky.

PART II: The Meeting

With mail delivery being out of the question, I would need to find a local seller. I searched Craiglist (CL) once again. Ooh! Some local deals. A guy in Alameda was selling one for $950. Not new, but “barely used.” The specs were good. I started a dialogue.

This guy, “Vincent,” would text only. The number wasn’t answered (Red Flag). I wanted to chat but he was at work and could text only. Okay, fine! So, Yellow flag, but two of them make a Red Flag due to the additive property of light. (Yes, this is false--a green flag would be needed and that would make no logistical sense.)

We agreed to meet at Starbucks in Alameda. I could inspect the unit and see if it was 100% working. I researched a checklist of things to inspect before buying a MacBook. It’s like buying a new car, but you don’t kick any tires. Actually, it’s best not to kick much of anything. That can make a seller angry. You can run some diagnostics though, and plug in a USB device to ensure those ports work.

I also got the serial number and validated that before agreeing to drive out.

To a point. AppleCare will verify that it’s a valid serial number and that AppleCare service exists or has expired. But that’s all. They don’t track stolen Macs. Nope. No help there. Why would they? A stolen MacBook means one more sale if it’s not found.

So how can a buyer know if it’s stolen or not?

First, a buyer has to want to know. I imagine many don’t know or care. If the computer works, great. What does it matter where it came from? Once it’s been reformatted, the trace-my-Mac option is dead. And again, no serial number tracking.

But it is a crime to knowingly buy stolen property, and even if you don’t know, and it becomes later known, you get to pony up the goods with no compensation.

Plus, there’s the whole moral aspect, which may or may not appeal to some, but really, some poor Joe or Josephina got his or her MacBook nicked; I hate to be a part of that.

So back to Google with: “How do determine if a MacBook was stolen?”

The results were slim, but there was some advice: “Before completing the transaction, have the seller log into iCloud and find the device (ensure the serial number matches) and then deactivate it.” Ah! Good thinking. Plus, it would be needed to register it under a different name.

I texted (we had yet to talk live and I was about to leave to meet up with him) and said, “We will need to de-register the MacBook from Apple will that be doable for you?” (I really hoped it would. The price was great!)

Him: “Well, I think you can call direct to them ask for sure Just 5mins...text me know when you need to meet. Thank You!” (sic)

Me: “It’s pretty easy. You log into iCloud and deactivate the product. Will you be able to do that?”

Him: “Retina Mac not have icloud?...only iphone.” (How is his English now worsening by large degrees?)

Me: “You should be able to log in at supportprofile.apple.com. From there you can find your MacBook and deactivate it from your account. That would be the final step in the sale. Will this be possible?” (Rhetorical question at this point.)

Him: “This is not a stolen...you don’t worried...sorry I had back to work.” (He’s now texting in cat memes? I can haz cheeseburger next?)

Me: “Okay. It doesn’t sound like that is possible?” (Aka -- So we’re dealing with a stolen MacBook, eh, Buddy? Come on! Say it! Saaaaaay it!)

Him: “That ok, No problem. Bye.” (Ah, he’s not even trying now.)

Me: “Okay. Where do you work?” (I don’t know why I asked. I was just curious what he would say.)

That was the last communication with “Vincent.” And truth be told, part of me just says, “Oh come on. It’s already stolen. Just buy it already.” But that’s a small part and it’s not how I roll. I wish I could have just dressed up as a police officer and sat there at Starbucks and waited for him (Yes, yes, that’s illegal and why I write these things and don’t actually do them. Plus, I’m sure he would have executed a perfect about-face and headed right back out the door at full sprint.)

I answered one or two more CL ads--pretty much stating from the get-go that we would need to deactivate the unit from iCloud. The responses seemed to drop off after that. Methinks there are quite a few stolen devices out there.

In the end, I think I’ll be buying it at the Apple store after all. This has been a fun learning experience, but the store at least offers a 1-year warranty (buying privately leaves one open to the risk of a unit dropping dead the next day). As well, I can invest in breakage/spillage insurance too--a wise choice for those who tend to forget to put away their computers before partying in the New Year.

As a consolation bonus to paying the high price of “new,” there is the option of “points” or “miles.” You see, many credit cards offer signup points of 30,000 to 50,000 miles or points for getting a new card. Now, that bonus can be equated to roughly $1,000 or more if used properly. So it’s almost like getting a discount of that much--and I can use either hotel points for my trip to London later this year, or miles to fly somewhere exciting and new.

The catch is that one often has to spend at least $3,000 on the new credit card in three months. I can’t just sign up, collect points, and cancel the card. However, if $2,000 is immediately taken off, that makes the last $1,000 much easier to manage. And if I have to buy the Macbook anyway then why not?

Okay, I don’t “have” to buy a new MacBook. But my current one is too slow.

It took me far too long to write this story! Case. In. Point!

But yeah, be careful on Craiglist. There’s no law out there. But now you’re armed with knowledge.

And isn’t that the biggest gun of all?