Watching Out For Scammers on the Ham Boards, by R.B.

I’m a Ham operator and recently got scammed. I want to share my story and to give some pointers to those less educated, concerning what to look for when buying Ham equipment from ads posted online on any of the various Ham forums. I’m not talking about buying in person; I’m talking about buying sight unseen, like non-Ebay or non-Amazon purchases.

My Story

I was looking for an ICOM radio amp and found one. The price was reasonable for a used amp, so I contacted the person. He said, in broken English, that it was still for sale and he was selling it because he had just hurt himself working on his roof antenna, so he needed to sell the rig to pay his bills. I asked about payment options, and he instructed I send a bank wire. He kept asking me if the money had been sent. It was mildly annoying me, but given his situation it made sense to me. I provided my information for shipping. We agreed on DHL because this was going from the U.S. to Germany. At the top of all of his emails, I then started to see some DHL banner, which even took me to the DHL web page. I then wired the money to his wife’s bank account. The money did not go through. I found out the account had been closed. I asked about using PayPal, and he said he could not use Paypal because his account had been hacked. I get the new bank account information from him and wire the money. It goes through. He acknowledges receipt. He asks me if I knew anyone else who might be interested in his remaining gear. I said yes and sent out the information to those people, who I later told to disregard as I got frustrated with him. At this point it begins to get interesting.

He used some shipping company other than DHL. I had never heard of them, but this company said it was affiliated through DHL on its website. I noted that its name was very similar to another company. Its website was non-user friendly and not that professionally done, as far as I was concerned. However, I had a tracking number, so I was content. Then I got an email from the seller saying that the package was held up in customs. He said that the shipping company needed money for insurance, customs fees, and some tariff. This was a $5,000 amp, so I thought maybe this was legit. However, the additional amount was $1,540! My internal alarm FINALLY went off. I’ve ordered items to be delivered overseas, and this was new to me. I knew that these fees were paid upon delivery, not shipping. I told the seller I was not paying those fees. He sounded all sorry about it, and said he would help. I contacted the shipping company and was told that I had to pay the fees or else customs would not release the item. This sounded fishy. This went back and forth for about a week. I asked the seller and the shipping company to ship it to a stateside address. The company said it could not because the fees had to be paid first and that customs would not release it until I paid those fees. So, I demanded to know where the item was being held. They told me El Campo, Texas. So I called DHL (since the web page said they worked with DHL) for help, and the gentleman there was very helpful. He could not verify the other shipping company, but he added that it may be possible DHL works with them. In the end I asked him if there was a customs facility in El Campo, Texas. He replied that he did not of one there.

I searched the customs web page for such a facility and could not find one located there. I then called the El Campo Police Department and asked if such a facility existed; the Desk Sergeant said, “No.” I then contacted the seller, who said he had contributed over $420 toward one of the fees and that he was trying to help me. He also said that if I would just pay the remainder, to include the refundable insurance fee, then everything would be okay. I thought that was rather nice of him, possibly too nice of him. (I thought that perhaps he was trying to salvage his reputation.) I then contacted the shipping company and told them that I knew there was no customs facility in El Campo, Texas. They then asked me to call them. I refused to do so because that little voice inside told me not to. I believe they were privy to me knowing that they were full of hot air and I feared they might try something funny, if I called them. I then shot the seller one final email calling him to task and never heard back from him.

Realizing that I had probably been had, I didn’t want anyone else to be a victim, so I began to look for other postings by this person and notified the web owners what had happened to me. I provided them screen shots of my emails and gave my handle, which would allow them to somewhat verify my name against my email address. The ads were in about five to seven places, including England. Why were they still up even after he had “sold” it? Meanwhile, I also began to fervently report what had happened to me to the USPS, DHS-CBP, BBB in Indiana and Pennsylvania, AOL (since it was an AOL email account), the shipping company’s ISP, and some FBI Internet fraud unit. (This contact with the FBI was to go after the shipping company because that company was probably a front used by scammers, after all even the CBP said the fees were fraudulent.)

As the ads came down, I noticed that someone else had been scammed. It was a guy in Argentina. He said beware of this one female, because she had just scammed him. I recognized the name as the seller’s wife (from the bank account information) and noted the date of his post was barely 1.5 weeks old and concerned the same item. I wondered how it was possible that he only had the name of the seller’s wife? He also posted the bank account details she used. A few seconds later, it hit me full circle. I was at first unsure of a scam, but now I was 100% sure that it was a scam, as what was posted was the second set of bank details that I had– the new account– that I had inadvertently alerted the “seller” to establish. Also, something else had still not clicked yet. Was this a couple operating together or a solo operation? And what about that shipping company?

I thought I was making good progress until I kept seeing a common theme in many a web page about Hams getting scammed involving stolen call signs. I learned that many people had gone full throttle to report someone, only to find out that someone else was using that person’s call sign! After all, you can easily go to the FCC and look up a call sign and get enough information about a person to pretend to be them, set up an email address, and head out to bring in the first victim. Learning this bit of information, I had to backtrack to the various agencies and state that someone could be acting as “Mr. X” and using his credentials, but that the facts of the case were still the same.

Next, I contacted my bank and the host bank and told them what had happened. Did I get my money back? No. My last attempt was to call my bank to contact the receiving bank and see if they could contact the account holder to see if she would return my money. I was given no guarantees. I knew it was hopeless, but I had to give it a try. I considered it extending God’s grace to this person before the hammer falls…spiritually. About a week later, I received a call from the bank telling me that Mrs. X declined to return the money. Okay. She should read Psalm 73– no one gets away with anything. Mr. X, I determined, probably never existed. Anyway, that’s my story. However, I did not feel I had closure concerning this whole episode. I needed to get the word out in some fashion so that others in the Ham community would not make my mistake. So let me share what I learned from this ordeal and from visiting other Ham sites dealing with this issue.

The BLUF (bottom line up front)

  1. Is to be very cautious if the seller:
    1. has a sob story,
    2. is located overseas,
    3. demands a wire payment,
    4. is elusive in providing information,
    5. cannot provide you with a recent photo of the item, and
    6. is constantly pressuring you to send the money because “they need it in a hurry”.
  2. Keep all of your emails from the seller. Keep all documents. You may need them later on to provide to either Ham forum moderators or the appropriate authorities.
  3. Wiring money, whether from your bank to another bank or through Western Union, does not protect you. You have no recourse. Don’t ever do it unless you really know the person or have some other form of bona fides that is equivalent to Jesus vouching for the person.
  4. If the person is overseas, outright refuse to transact. International deals appear to be among the most fraudulent. The reasons are obvious. Legally pursuing a scammer from another country is nearly impossible because it’s very impractical. To avoid being scammed, it is best to stay within your own country.
  5. Lastly, if you do use a wire, what is the person’s address given in the wire as compared with the location of the item and the given seller’s location? This is in no way definitive, but you should ask if your gut instinct kicks in.
  6. Even money orders still have inherent risks. If this is your option, at least get confirmation and a return receipt. I bought my first two radios by this means. It works, but the risk is still present.
  7. If you can, arrange to meet the person. I’d say use this as a test: “Hey! I live near you/have a friend who lives near you, can I/he come over and see the equipment?” You’ve got to look out for yourself. I’d use this tactic only once you start to suspect fraud. A legitimate seller will say, “Sure, come on over!”, whereas a fraudulent one will balk.
  8. Verify the ID. It is easy to assume the ID/call sign of another. Scammers will use information from old ads, or they may just find a call sign and use it. You can go to the FCC website and at least verify some information on the person. You can also Google the call sign and see if there are any complaints.
  9. Regarding shipping, absent you trying to buy a regulated item, there are no fees to be paid upon shipping an item. Fees are paid to the customs officials in the receiving country. Only use reputable shipping companies. Insist on this, and get invoices.
  10. If the seller uses a P.O. Box or the like, beware. Of course, this is not true of all sellers, but it is an indicator. If the return address (seller location) and shipping from (item location) address are different, beware.
  11. Get the phone number and call the person. You’ll learn more by talking to the person than through an email. Does the area code match the zip code of the item location? With cell phones, it is harder to verify the seller’s location, since most people hang on to their old phone numbers and calling plans, but it’s another way to check.
  12. Demand a picture with something current (preferably local) placed next to it (and readable). Scammers will scour the Internet looking for images of an item like the one you are buying, and they will even modify it to make it look like theirs. This is what the scammer I dealt with had done on other web pages. Only a close inspection revealed that that piece of cardboard with pen scratchings on it, which was leaning on the amplifier, was indeed a clever use of photoshop. A Google image search of the item you are buying may yield an image from years ago that is the spitting image of the item you are purchasing.
  13. Third-party (PayPal) financial sources are best. If at all possible, use a service like PayPal (though I’m not endorsing them). These kind of third-party financial services force legitimacy into a transaction. They also provide fraud protection in most cases.
  14. If you ask for any of the above forms of verification and the person balks, beware of a scam. A genuine seller will bend over backwards to sell his wares.
  15. Don’t be pressured to rush the deal. This is a tactic to lower your guard. Since most people in the Ham community are honorable, you may feel that you have to uphold your reputation and show the best faith imaginable. Fast is smooth, and smooth is fast. If you are being pressured, take a step back and examine what you are doing. Ask a friend his opinion.
  16. If communicating through email, verify the IP. Does it match? You can verify the origin of your emails with the seller. Does the IP match the location of the product? Here’s what you do:
    1. Go to your email listings. Right click on the email subject header, and select “View Message Source”.
    2. A new screen should open. You need to copy the header. This will be the portion from the top until you see a break where the text of the email starts. Copy that portion.
    3. Next, go to a web page that supports this function and drop the header into the box. It will show you the IP address.
    4. Then, look up the IP and see where it originates from. This is not foolproof, as good scammers know how to mask themselves behind a proxy.
  17. If the seller asks you if you know of any others who want to buy their other gear, refrain from doing so until your transaction is complete.
  18. If you do get scammed, don’t stop there and accept defeat!! Report what has happened. Here are some steps to take:
    1. You need to notify all of the applicable forum owners about what just happened. This person made $6,000 within two weeks off of me and another guy in Argentina! If you don’t go after the fraudulent ads, someone else will fall victim. Do screen shots of your emails and include them when you shoot off your emails to report the fraud.
    2. Search for wherever that person is advertising that piece of equipment. Again, I was able to find about five to seven postings and notified all of the owners. Since I had proof and provided some bona fides, all of the ads came down. One person replied that in the nearly ten years of his running his forum, this was the first time he’d ever had to deal with a scam.
    3. Notify the local, state, or national authorities who have jurisdiction over these kind of matters.
    4. Notify the bank and tell them that one of their accounts was used for fraud, and be sure to provide them all proof (use those screen shots) or else you could be coming across like an angry ex-spouse trying to soil one’s reputation. You might even consider getting a lawyer, but I think these scammers know that the cost of a lawyer versus what you lost and the subsequent court fees, will discourage you from going that route, since in most cases it’s literally not worth it.

In closing, Ham forums are generally safe. I bought both of my radios using the forums and even used money orders. Those days are not over, but be vigilant in your purchases. There are some crafty folks out there. I look back and slap my forehead and wonder how did I miss all of those warnings? Well, it was my past positive experiences with these forums that led me to believe that I had nothing to fear. Be sure that you don’t want an item so much that you ignore that little voice inside screaming at you to beware. Again, if you do get scammed, get those ads pulled down!