Auction fraud victims fight back

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You don’t want to scam Kris Hopwood. Earlier this year, he won an Eric Lindros hockey jersey on eBay, sent the seller payment, but never received the shirt. So Hopwood took a day off of work, drove 10 hours from New Jersey to Toronto, and hunted down the con artist. A few hours later, Hopwood had his Lindros shirt, and the wouldbe seller — a sporting goods store employee who had been stealing from the store — was in handcuffs. Hopwood is just one of many auction scam victims who have decided they aren’t taking the crime sitting down.

It's called a “ghost auction,” and it’s the greatest fear of every Internet auction user. Win an item on eBay, Yahoo, or uBid, send the money to the seller, and never hear from the seller again. It’s the easiest way to steal money on the Internet. And frustrated victims often find they have virtually no chance of recovering their money if they simply file a complaint with the auction Web site. Some, like Hopwood, take matters into their own hands.

But others say the only real hope getting money back from a scammer is banding together with other victims. The Internet is now full of Web pages and e-mail groups devoted to investigating con artists, swapping information, and attracting attention from law enforcement agencies.

“The basic thing is you have to have numbers,” said Robert Zornes, who operates an RV park on Washington State’s Olympic Penninsula. He led a group of 50 victims who gave about $37,000 to a seller earlier this year and never received their collectible coins. About 80 percent of the money was returned by the seller after dogged efforts got the Maryland State Police and officials from the Postal Inspector’s office to visit the seller’s home and threaten legal action. “You have to have enough money involved that the postal service or sheriff’s department are willing to go after him. If you are just an isolated guy, you’ve got very little chance, but if you can team up then you have a certain amount of clout.”

‘Sorry, the seller has been shot' 
The coin seller’s story — every con artists has a story — was particularly creative. Auction winners received a letter from a non-existent lawyer saying the seller had been shot and killed in a house burglary, and they would receive their money after the seller’s estate went through probate. That bought the con artist a little time. But Zornes called the Frederick County, Md. sheriff’s office and found out no such murderous burglary had taken place. He then e-mailed other auction winners and started the quest to get his $1,100 refund, and refunds for other victims.

Critical to Zornes’ success — he had free time. He figures he spent 200 hours and sent or received about 2,000 e-mails throughout the episode.

But having a large group of victims is the real key, according to a scam victim who last March organized the hunt for two alleged con artists who stiffed some 200 DVD buyers. The suspects allegedly made off with $30,000, working out of their Enfield, Conn. home, until the ad-hoc group of sleuths hunted them down.

“When I realized I had been ripped off ... I was alone,” the organizer, who will only identity himself as Brett, said. “My local police department didn’t know what to tell me and filling out the Internet fraud form did not make me feel any better. Once we had the group people started to listen. Each day we picked a person or agency to focus our emails on, and this person would get 150 emails from around the country.”

Staked out Toronto store
Hopwood took a very different route. After about a month of waiting for his hockey shirt, he looked at the seller’s eBay ratings, and found a fresh crop of complaints indicating he was scamming users. So Hopwood, 26, used a reverse phone book to look up the auction seller’s address. It turned out to be a private mail handling office in Toronto. In pursuit of his $88 Eric Lindros jersey, he risked a day’s pay to make the 10-hour drive across the border into Canada. He got to the store, found the right P.O. Box numbers, and waited outside.

“About 2 hours later, jackpot. He came in and opened the box, took out what looked like about 50 envelopes,” said Hopwood. “I followed him out of the store and got into my car and followed him to his ‘business.’ .... It turned out that it was an actual store. The guy was stealing from the store and selling on eBay.”

But eventually, the thief got greedy and apparently liquidated the store’s inventory of items he was auctioning. The store was fresh out of Eric Lindros jerseys

“He had none left to ship out, so about 40 or so auctions went off with no prize to the winner. Needless to say I got my jersey right then and there and the guy, well he got arrested. So sometimes it does pay to follow up on stuff but I guess in some cases that’s not possible. ”

Fromer cop gets money back
Dave Metta was able to get the $3,500 back he sent to a seller offering a special edition Les Paul electric guitar, but not without help from other collectors. He also knows his way around law enforcement agencies, which was a big help. Metta, now security manager at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, formerly worked at the DuPage County, Ill., sheriff’s office. Still, it took him nine months to get the money back, and several not-so-veiled threats. He once wrote to the seller: “Everyone has a hobby, and you don’t want to be mine.”

In this case, the seller used his real name all along. After the scam, Metta sent an e-mail to a list for guitar collectors, asking for information about the scammer. Not long after, the con artist dropped by a list member’s store to sell guitars. Now Metta had all he needed to track the alleged criminal, including a driver’s license number.

Metta filled out the fraud victim form at the Internet Fraud Complaint Center His paperwork was forwarded to the U.S. Postal Inspector’s Office, and local police. In the meantime, Metta called a local detective on his own. After the detective threatened the seller with arrest, $1,000 of the $3,500 was returned. But it was months, and several more threats, before the rest of the money was returned.

Filling out the fraud complaint form helped the process, Metta said, as a formal way of getting law enforcement agencies involved. So did his own perseverance.

“It became a principle for me,” he said. “I just wasn’t going to let this guy go.”

Power in numbers, only 
But Metta’s case — where a single victim was able to recover lost money, and there’s a real happy ending — is rare, according to groups who have hunted down auction suspects. It’s not often that all the money is returned.

Zornes says law enforcement become disinterested when the number of victims is small. That’s why, even after two months of phone calls and e-mails, six of the 50 victims he fought for were never compensated, and about $4,000 to $5,000 never returned.

“As he paid people off, it really diluted the pool. As fewer people were owed money, there was less clout,” he said. “When it got down to $4,000 owed, then it was sort of like ‘You guys are on your own.’ ”

Things are worse for that group of 200 DVD buyers. Brett says the suspects in the case just received their fourth continuance, and while the wheels of justice grind slowly, most of the victims haven’t seen a penny — even though $12,000 was recovered by police during the arrest. But the group hasn’t given up hope.

“We know the wait will probably be a long one and no one can say for sure how much money we will get back and when,” a note at the bottom of the group’s Web site says. “But we know as a group we all worked together to make a difference.”