By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com

A collection of Web auction scam artists are ripping off plasma TV buyers, stealing thousands of dollars per victim, MSNBC.com has learned. The scam works thanks to a bit of wire transfer chicanery. Victims agree to make payment with Western Union, but are instructed to follow procedures that supposedly make the funds untouchable until the TV is delivered — the instructions, of course, are a sham. According the one auction fraud expert, thousands of eBay and uBid users may have already fallen for it.

Apparently, scammers now know many consumers have misgivings about sending money to strangers over wire transfers. So they have come up with a fast-talking method to reassure the skeptical and overcome resistance to using Western Union.

“Here {sic} what you will do to feel safe and also to show me that you want to pay me,” said one scam artist, in an e-mail viewed by MSNBC.com.

The scam artist asks the victim to send the money and make up a name to list as the recipient — perhaps the victim’s sister, or wife.

“That way, I will be able to verify if the money are sent {sic}, BUT I will not be able to collect it,” writes the scammer. He leads the victim to believe that Western Union carefully verifies the recipient’s identity.

It doesn’t. As long as the scam artists arrives at the Western Union office with the correct money transfer control number, the criminal can walk off with the money, according to Rosalinda Baldwin, CEO of The Auction Guild, an auction watchdog company.

Wendy Carver-Herbert, a spokesperson for Western Union, said recipients are required to present identification, but conceded that a good-looking counterfeit ID would probably be good enough.

“If it’s an ID that looks as if it’s official, the money would be paid,” Carver-Herbert said.

Scamsters apparently convince victims they won’t pick up the money by offering detailed instructions on what to do after the TV arrives.

“After I will see that you have sent the money I will send you the package,” the scam artist continues. “And after you will receive it and test it you will make a call to Western Union to change the receiver name into my name. It will not cost you anything.”

Actually, it costs a lot.

One victim who contacted MSNBC.com lost $3,000, which would have been a steal for a large plasma television. Instead, the money was stolen, and the TV never arrived.

Another victim said the seller just disappeared after he sent the money. “Two days after I sent the money I got a confirmation from Westernunion.com that it was picked up. At that time I was sure that I had been taken. I tried to e-mail seller with no reply,” the victim said. “I contacted Western Union to see if they had any protection against this for their customers. Got a reply (saying) they were under no obligation for lost funds,” he said. ”(I) Just wonder how many got taken on these scams.”

Perhaps thousands have, said The Auction Guild’s Baldwin. She said she’s heard of about two dozen “name-switching” scam victims in recent weeks and suspects for every victim she knows, there might be a thousand others.

“Name switching didn’t come about until con artists realized people weren’t just going to send wire transfers,” she said. “As the public becomes more aware, con artists modify what they do to overcome that resistance.”

Baldwin said auction site customers just shouldn’t use wire transfers to complete transactions because they are the easiest way to steal money without a trace and that Yahoo and uBid auctions now issue this warning to customers.

eBay spokesperson Kevin Pursglove said some customers use wire transfers successfully, so his Web site offers no opinion on the payment method. But Baldwin has a strong opinion.

“I can unequivocally state that any seller that insists the only method of payment they’ll accept is a wire transfer is a scam artist,” Baldwin said. “Wire transfers were designed for people to send money to friends and family in a quick manner, not to send money to strangers.”

Carver-Herbert didn’t disagree, saying that Western Union cautions customers to “only send money to people you know.”

Another victim, who also requested anonymity, said he knows of perhaps a hundred others who have been taken using this method. He set up a fake plasma TV auction on eBay just to warn others — the warning page pops up when any potential victim does a search for plasma TV. But the crimes extend beyond televisions, he said.

“Hundreds of people have lost thousands of dollars on expensive items like plasma TVs and Bose systems,” he said. “I will do whatever I can to stop these crooks, because they are hurting a lot of people.”

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

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