The internet is a double-edged sword. It has effectively made the world smaller by bringing people together from all over, who otherwise would have never met. This has opened up a vast new universe for sharing ideas, techniques, products, and merchandise. It has also made it much easier for crooks in foreign countries to prey upon unsuspecting and naïve victims.
One of the main industries in many African countries is scamming Americans, and has been for many years. I remember receiving a version of the Nigerian inheritance sharing scam letter back in the 1980s, by post office, before the internet and email. In the 1990s, email made it so much easier and cheaper to contact millions of prospective victims at a time. If just one person in a million responded, the crooks would be rewarded.
The moderators at the Taxidermy Net Forums have made great strides in curtailing the scam artists that used to populate the For Sale bulletin board. New moderator Michael Vaden has made it his mission to weed them out, remove their messages and ban them. He has been very successful at this and scam artists are at an all-time low on the Forum, but some new crooks will inevitably find their way in. It is best to approach any transaction with a stranger with a health dose of skepticism, especially when dealing with taxidermy. Michael has developed some great detective techniques, some of which I will not divulge, as we don’t want to give away all of the methods we use to identify a scammer, as they are quick to adapt to new situations.
One of the more recent reactions to our success at stopping scammers from posting has caused some of them to go “underground” and only respond via PMs (private messages) or email to posts in the Wanted category. This way, the scammers feel as though they can escape the scrutiny of the moderators. I have seen some new scammers create and account and do nothing but respond to wanted posts. They seem to have an endless supply of everything on earth! It is quite comical to see an African exporter who says, yes we have mule deer, and yes, we have largemouth bass, and yes, we have a used fleshing machine plus hornbill skulls.
If someone responds privately to your Wanted posts, there are a few things you can do to determine their authenticity. Begin by checking out their posts count number on the Forum. If they have none, or only a hand full of posts, you will want to ask for references from other buyers.
By using the internet, it is quite easy now for foreign scam artists to appear to have phone numbers with US area codes, and request that you wire the money to a US Western Union or WalMart MoneyGram facility. This is the number one red flag! If someone will not take PayPay, postal money orders or credit cards, but insists on wired funds, and you have never dealt with them before, it is probably a scam. (If he uses the phrase, “The Western Union (or WalMart) is located only meters away from me,” then he is definitely a scammer, as that is right out of their play book!)
Once you wire money to someone, it is gone. There is no recourse. You will never get your money back. It does not matter if they fulfill any promises or not, your money will be gone forever. You should only wire money if you trust the recipient completely, totally 100%! Using PayPal has its drawbacks, but it is easy to set up if you are legitimate, and the seller is protected after the sale.
Of course, when buying anything over the internet, you will want to see a photo of the merchandise, right? The latest scam strategy involves lifting existing photos off of other sites (like eBay) and sending them to victims as proof. Many scammers on Taxidermy.Net were caught when people recognized a merchandise photo from another post, or even identified it as their own!
If you need a photo of anything, it is quite easy to do an image search in Google and copy a photo. So a quick google search on your own may show you if the photo they sent came from another source. But this is not always a foolproof method, so how can you really determine if the seller has a certain item in their possession? Sheriff Vaden uses a simple but effective method that works every time. Ask the seller to send a new photo of the merchandise, but include within the photo his hand, holding up two fingers (or three fingers, or a cup, or his email on a piece of paper, or any random thing you can think of). A scammer will likely not respond, while a legitimate seller will have no problem taking another photo with his cell phone and sending it to you right away.
Product knowledge is key as well. Use your common sense and listen to the language of the seller. Do they seem to have any sense of the market and the product they are trying to sell? You can even ask an erroneous nonsense question that would trip them up, like, “Does it have a nice bell?” to see if they try to make up an answer.
Although we monitor the posts, most of the hundreds of new posts each day are not seen by moderators, unless they are reported for review. Therefore, some scammers can and do get through with new posts from time to time. Although we remove most of these posts and ban some members, they will always be some new scammers that manage to get through. Once banned, some scammers will simply create new accounts and start all over. Although we limit this by banning some IP addresses, there are ways they can get around this. Scammers are adept in using proxy servers which mimic other IPs and hide their true locations.
Many have asked why we don’t just ban posts from entire regions like Africa. We do ban some regional IPs, but there are still some legitimate vendors in all African countries, and this is the world-wide web. Many foreign members use the Taxidemy Net for transactions within their continent, or between Europe, Africa and Asia, where wildlife laws are different. What is illegal here in the United States may be perfectly legal for a transaction between Cameroon and Scandinavia.
Also, in Africa, many people use internet cafes, where many users may share the same IP location. This may cause a legitimate seller to share the same internet IP address with a group of scammers. So IP addresses alone are an imperfect means of identification. Also, many of the professional scammers know the ropes for hiding their IP addresses from bulletin boards.
If you are going to make a purchase with a stranger, you should always talk to them on the phone first, to gauge their language skills and knowledge of the products. Scammers will give you any excuse at all to avoid this, from, “I’m deaf,” to “You never called me.” If they refuse to speak with you on the phone, don’t send them any money.
Here are my top ten rules for avoiding scams on the internet.
1. Never wire money to a stranger. There is no recourse.
2. Never accept a cashiers check for more than the amount of the sale, and refund the difference.
3. No one wants to share their inheritance with you.
4. Pay attention to language skills.
5. Verify merchandise by a unique photo.
6. Verify by phone as well. If they won’t talk to you, walk away.
7. Verify by question and answer which requires knowledge of subject of transaction.
8. Make sure you are not dealing in illegal items.
9. Trash any email which claims that your bank suspended your account, your email won the lottery, or someone wants to loan you lots of money. Don’t click on any email attachments unless you are expecting them from a trusted source.
10. When you get an email from someone you know who says they were mugged in a foreign country and needs your help to pay the hotel bill, it only means that your friend’s email account has been hacked by scammers.
When dealing with scammers across continents, it is like the wild west. There is no law that will protect you from your own naïveté. You must be diligent and use all of your wits to protect yourself against the army of scammers out their trying to steal your money. Hey, let’s be careful out there!