Stolen photos conjure up cars for eBay scam
By BRYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
Ralph Goddard looked at his computer screen. It said a 2001 Volvo V70 Turbo station wagon had sold on eBay for $23,000. And he could see that the auction for a 2001 Chevrolet Corvette ended with a bid of $30,500.
But Goddard knew both cars were sitting outside his office on the lot at Dimmitt Chevrolet in Clearwater unsold. The dealership hadn't put them on eBay.
With a few clicks of a computer mouse, someone had stolen the photos of cars posted on his dealership's Web site and used them to create the eBay auction listings. They were complete with plagiarized descriptions of the cars, right down to the actual vehicle identification numbers. The thief had used computer software to black out the dealer tag.
"This is a systematic approach to defrauding people," said Goddard, the Internet sales manager for the dealership. "This is a whole system."
With quick e-mails, Goddard warned the would-be buyers. Now, Goddard is prodding eBay and law enforcement authorities to put a stop to the scam.
Tampa FBI spokeswoman Pam Salerno said her agency does investigate such cases, but she would neither confirm nor deny it is investigating this one.
The online auctions used unbelievable prices -- and the information stolen from dimmittchev.com -- to attract buyers across the nation. The seller or sellers claimed to be in Florida. Yet they sent instructions for 15 percent deposits to be wired to a bank in Latvia, a former Soviet state, through Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas in New York.
Goddard and his customers discovered three of the bogus listings, and on Tuesday, the St. Petersburg Times found four more. All the auctions had ended with a winning bid.
Each listing showed an expensive vehicle offered for less than it was worth. Each listing showed a different e-mail address at hotmail.com as the seller. Each promised a "problemless car" and showed photos from the Dimmitt site. And each listing demanded a "15 percent nonrefundable deposit due within 48 hours of auction completion, wire transfer only accepted."
Winning bidders told the Times they received wiring instructions along with a note in broken English and with misspellings: "Thanks very much for your winning bid on Chevy auction. What can I say . . . It's really great car that never been to any problems. Looks great and runs great. No accidnts, no paintwork. Was never smoked in and interiour is in great like new shape."
After the Times inquired Tuesday, eBay deactivated most of the eBay accounts used in the listings.
"Please be advised we have recently ended all listings for (this) seller as it appears the account has been compromised and used by an unauthorized third party," eBay wrote to auction winner Mark Sirb of Alpharetta, Ga. "If you have already sent payment, please cancel if possible."
EBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove said Tuesday that after receiving the auction numbers from the newspaper, the company took action. It had failed to act on an earlier complaint by Goddard because they thought he was worried about copyright infringement, not fraud.
"I've asked my customer service team to have this turned over to our fraud team and to take the appropriate action on these people," he said.
The company encounters similar frauds periodically, he said.
Hackers sometimes figure out passwords to inactive accounts of legitimate eBay users and hijack them for use in frauds. That's especially handy when, like all the accounts in this case, the account had received positive online feedback over several years.
It was Thanksgiving Day when Sirb sat at his computer and searched for a new family car, something beefier than his minivan.
He found what seemed like an unbelievable deal on eBay: a 2002 Chevrolet Suburban in St. Petersburg with only 15,300 miles. He knew it should be worth at least $26,000. But there was an option to "Buy It Now" for $21,000. Sirb clicked his mouse.
Not 20 minutes later, someone e-mailed to ask Sirb to wire a $3,150 deposit. It wasn't obvious that the money would end up in Latvia.
Sirb paid for a background check on the car's title. Because it was a real Dimmitt VIN number, the check came back clean. Sirb excitedly bought plane tickets to Tampa to pick up the car the next day.
The wiring instructions began to make the former securities dealer suspicious. Then, he got no reply when he tried to contact the seller again to set up a face-to-face meeting in St. Petersburg.
Sirb called off the trip. Though he lost the $180 he spent on plane tickets, he is glad he never sent the bank wire.
"I'd rather lose 200 bucks than lose a lot more money and a day down there with no way to find this guy," he said. "I'd hate to be stuck there like a dipstick."
Sirb found some other auctions using Dimmitt pictures and used e-mail to warn those buyers not to wire any money.
Mike Mitrovich of New York City was one. He was the top bidder on a GMC Yukon sport utility vehicle. He said Sirb's note just confirmed his unease.
"I had sent the (seller) three or four different e-mails," he recalled, with unsatisfying or no responses. "I said, 'What happens if I wire the money, and this guy splits?' "
Phil Wing, a San Diego lawyer, came in second place for an auction for a Toyota Sequoia sport utility vehicle and received e-mails supposedly from a woman who said she had to sell the car in order to move to Europe on short notice. She offered to sell the car to him if he sent the deposit by wire.
"I would not have wired any money without someone taking a look at it first," Wing said, adding that the seller stopped communicating when he did not immediately wire money.
Rosalinda Baldwin of the Auction Guild, a New York-based advocacy group for online auction users, said online auctions are safe and convenient 99 percent of the time. Though she thinks eBay should do more to prevent fraud, she said people must use common sense like these buyers did to recognize warning signs.
"In our society and in the world, there is a small percentage of the population that consists of con artists, grifters, thieves," she said. "They are very good at conning people out of their money. These people use whatever tools are at hand. The Internet is just one more tool."
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