It was so easy to steal. It was just a little white lie at first, a lie worth about $30. Then $50. Then $100. What’s the harm, thought “Hue.” Buyers didn’t seem to even notice that the laptop computers he sold were much slower than advertised. “These guys are total idiots,” Hue thought. “I could pass these off as the world’s fastest computers.” Scamming Internet users is clearly child’s play — Hue was only 15, but he had already become an accomplished con artist.
INTERNET CON ARTISTS may have no scruples, they may be deceitful and deplorable, but they’re not stupid. You are. At least, that’s what the criminals think of you. Stupid consumers mean easy money. And thanks to the Internet, fishing for vulnerable buyers has never been easier.
Just ask Hue. Before his 16th birthday, Hue had stolen $5,000 running auction scams on Yahoo and eBay.
Hue says he’s now haunted and guilt-ridden over his scamming past. Here’s his confession, and as a form of voluntary penance, his advice to potential future victims. He shared his story with MSNBC.com, with anonymity as a condition.
Most auction cons are hardly elaborate schemes meant to outwit bidders. They are simple, obvious ploys that separate fools from their money. Hue’s ploy was simple; he bought junk, advertised it as high-end laptop computers, and made a killing. At least for a while.
It all started about 18 months ago when Hue visited a Circuit City electronics store near his West Virginia home. An electronics aficionado, Hue fell in love with a $3,000 souped-up laptop computer. But how could he afford that?
SMALL BUSINESS TURNS TO CRIME
Hue had healthy entrepreneurial urges. Months before, he scooped up dozens of late-model laptop computers from a bulk seller on eBay. After providing a little TLC to the computers, he resold them on eBay or Yahoo for about $50 apiece, earning a small but steady $15 profit on each. But now he needed $3,000.
“Selling one or two a week, that would take me forever,” he said. “So I decided maybe I can forge the speed and features of laptops I’m selling ... I sat down, and actually calculated it out.”
He dipped his toes into the criminal world slowly; 25MHz-speed laptops became 33 Mhz. Profits doubled, and no one noticed. Then 33MHz became 75Mhz, and he made $60 on each sale. Again, no complaints. Then, greed took hold.
” I was getting excited about the money I was making, and how easy it was to pass these off as slightly better computers. I never once had someone E-mail me to tell me about the problem,” Hue said. “I began to pass the same 25 Mhz computers off as 166 Mhz, 200 Mhz, and 233 Mhz. I sold about three this way, making over $200 profit on each one. I was amazed. I started stealing pictures off other peoples auctions, and posting them on mine. Sales soared to around a computer a day, still making over $200 profit.”
With dwindling inventory, and what now seemed like a license to print money, Hue went for one more big sale. He sold what he claimed to be an 800 Mhz laptop for $800. When the auction closed, he mailed a $25 piece of junk to the lucky winner.
Then he cashed the money order, and walked back into Circuit City with $5,000 cash in his hands, and ordered a top-of-the-line Compaq laptop.
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“I got options galore ... it cost over $3,000,” Hue said. “They asked me if I wanted to pay now, or wait until it was delivered. I said ‘I’ll pay now.’ And I pulled out $5,000 cash and plopped it down. They gave me a strange look, but I just gave them a strange look right back.”
‘I AM THE MAN’
Hue had gotten away with it. Days later, the computer came in the mail, and he still had hundreds of dollars to blow on gifts for his girlfriend and plenty of movie tickets.
“You were young once,” Hue said. “It’s like driving down the road speeding, thinking, I don’t care, thinking I can’t get caught. I was thinking, ‘I am the man. Look at me I am the king of the world. I pulled this off. I got what I wanted.’ ” He was already starting to plan his next con, with an eye toward having the cash to buy a car — as soon as he could get his license.
Then, it all came crashing down. The bidder who paid $800 for the laptop was the first to complain. Soon after, a second menacing e-mail arrived from another auction winner, who thought he had purchased a 250 Mhz computer. At first, Hue thought he could still pull off the charade.
“I told one of them I was in a bad car accident, and that got him off my back,” he said. “The other one, I just ignored.” Hue changed his e-mail address and tried to forget about the complaints, but couldn’t resist checking the old e-mail every day.
Several weeks went by with no more threatening notes.
“I thought, well, maybe I just outsmarted these guys, they got tired of dealing with me or whatever,” he said.
Then, almost simultaneously, Hue’s two outraged customers tracked down his phone number and called. One had already spoken to a police detective and was demanding a refund, threatening legal action. Suddenly, Hue got scared, and figured he had to come up with about $1,000 fast to stay out of jail. “I was getting really nervous because the police were involved. I didn’t want a record,” he said. But all his money was now gone, and he couldn’t issue refunds. He had to go to his parents to borrow the refund money. He told them everything.
“I thought my parents stopped loving me, the way they yelled at me,” he said.
He paid off the two noisy complainers, but there were still about 30 other victims who might come after him.
COULDN’T ESCAPE THE GUILT
And all along, Hue said, he had “one thread of consciousness” that what he had done was very wrong. Snapped out of his euphoria by the threats of legal action, the guilt started to grow.
“Every time I looked in my wallet, I knew I was looking at someone else’s money,” he said. “The whole time I was basically looking over my shoulder afraid to answer the phone or check my e-mail.”
Eventually, he sold the laptop computer he had so coveted for about $1,000, less half its real value, in an attempt to escape the guilt.
He thought about contacting his “victims,” but he had no compensation to offer them, so he decided against it. But the guilt still haunted him. So he volunteered at a local animal shelter for a year, in an attempt to earn back his parents’ trust, and to prove to himself that he had changed. After Sept. 11, he decided to join the Civil Air Patrol as a way to give back to the community. He even said that he fantasized of dying in a war.
“I was thinking if I do get killed, I would be at rest,” he said. “At least I’d be able to get over the whole fact that I did something extremely stupid and wouldn’t have to worry about it ever again.”
In recent months, Hue said that his father has been confined to a hospital bed in the Mayo Clinic, diagnosed with severe diabetes. His mother has spent most of the time in Minnesota with her husband, leaving Hue home alone. The traumatic episode has given Hue the chance to prove his responsibility. In his parent’s absence, he has kept the house clean and kept his grades high. He said that he feels he has finally regained his parent’s trust.
NOT EVEN A ‘STOP THAT’
He also says that he has sworn off participation in Internet auctions. But he still observes eBay and Yahoo, and sees the endless stream of scammers operating in relative impunity. When he thinks about his 6-month scamming spree, he wonders why eBay and Yahoo never contacted him. He knows that eventually, many of his victims complained to the sites.
“I was always wondering why Ebay or Yahoo left me alone, not even a ‘stop that.’ ” he said.
Given the ease of running scams on auction sites, he says, bidders need to protect themselves. Aside from the obvious advice about avoiding “too good to be true” prices, Hue offered other warning signs.
* Avoid auctions that list a picture taken directly off a manufacturer’s Web site. The picture should be “homemade,” as a means for the seller to prove they really are holding the item they claim to be selling.
* If you are bidding on a computer, look at several other auctions for that model, and notice if the same “homemade” picture is used by different sellers. That’s a sign that something’s wrong.
* Avoid sellers who list “a ton of auctions all at once.” More than 10 or 20 auctions is usually a bad sign, Hue says. Even if sellers have a high rating, a very credible seller’s account may have been recently “hijacked.”
* Avoid sellers who don’t know much about their products or who list items with very short descriptions.
* Inspect delivered merchandise carefully. To cheat his victims, Hue simply used bleach to erase the “25 Mhz” label on the 1989 laptops he sold, and that was enough to fool most of his victims.
Most of all, Hue said: understand how easy it is for criminals to thrive in — or be tempted by — the anonymity of Internet sales. Scamming is so common, for a reason. “It was the easiest way I’ve ever earned money,” Hue said. “But it’s also the worst way.”