With its shiny maroon color and tan leather interior, Jill Ringer called her sporty 2001 BMW convertible the most fun car she ever owned.
"This is my Barbie car," she said. "I think it looks like something Barbie would drive."
But in an effort to cut back, Ringer decided it was time to sell.
"I'm done paying two car payments," she said.
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She ventured into cyberspace, listing it on Craigslist, an online classified ad site, and Auto Trader. It wasn't long before a man emailed her, asking basic questions like what the mileage was.
"A week later, he's like, 'Oh my client is now interested in buying your car. Congratulations,'" Ringer recalled. "I thought it was very easy. I was happy. I'm an optimist, so I was very hopeful that it was going to happen."
The man wrote that the car would need to be shipped to his client in England.
Too Good to Be True?
Ringer says at first everything seemed legitimate, and she thought she was going to sell her car quickly. But about a week and a half into the negotiations, she says something didn't seem right.
"Probably when I did not receive a phone call, and then he did email me like 5 days later and say that the money is on its way," she said. "Well, I then assumed that it would probably be a registered letter or something that could be traced on his end. And then it came in an envelope without a return address, and it looked like an 8-year-old wrote the envelope, and then I knew something was just drastically wrong."
Inside that envelope, she made another troubling discovery. Jill found a cashier's check, written for $23,250 -- a substantial amount over the price of the car.
"It was from Global Ministries, and there was no address, and then, the cashier's check was from a bank in Arkansas," Ringer said.
In an email, the so-called buyer agent said $16,750 was for the car; an additional $6,500 was to pay for shipping the BMW overseas. The agent instructed Ringer to wire the extra money to the shipper, as well as to an agent responsible for picking up the car. It was all one big red flag to Ringer.
"Why would a complete stranger send me a check for more than what I was selling the car for?" she wondered. "Why wouldn't he spend the $20 to wire that money specifically to these people that were going to ship the car overseas?"
Ringer stopped corresponding with the man. She says she hasn't heard from him since.
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The different locations involved in the negotiations also didn't sit well with Ringer. The buyer agent was from England. The letter sent to her was postmarked from Spain. The bank that the check was written from was located in Arkansas, and Ringer says she was supposed to send the car to Georgia.
"It's like they just wanted to confuse me, and it would be impossible for me to track them down," she commented.
It would also be tough for law enforcement.
Ringer went online again, and discovered that she almost fell prey to what's known as a check overpayment scam. The so-called buyer or agent has a reason for writing a check for more than the purchase price, and tells the seller to wire the difference, after the check is deposited. The counterfeit check later bounces, potentially leaving the seller out thousands of dollars, and in this case, an expensive car.
A Popular Scam
Ringer's experience is by no means an isolated one. The Federal Trade Commission, the consumer protection agency of the U.S., says check overpayment scams continue to be a problem for both consumers and law enforcement agencies.
"We see a whole variety of large purchases where the bad guys are using check overpayment schemes as a way of making money and also getting information about your bank account from you," said Lisa Hone, an attorney with the FTC.
Hone says scammers can easily fool consumers with checks made with today's high tech equipment.
"It's impossible for consumers to tell what's a legitimate check and what's not, and I'm talking personal check, cashier's check, business check," Hone said.
So how can you avoid being scammed? The FTC offers the following advice:
- First, know who you're dealing with.
- Second, don't accept a check for more than your selling price, no matter how tempting.
- Consider an alternative method of payment, like an escrow service or online payment service that you suggest.
- If you accept payment by check, ask for a check drawn on a local bank, or a bank with a local branch.
- If the buyer or agent insists that you wire back funds, end the transaction immediately.
- Resist any pressure to "act now."
"Because the last thing you want is to not have that item and not have the money that you thought you were getting for it," said Hone.
That almost happened to Jill Ringer. Although she still hasn't sold her car, she's grateful it -- and her money -- didn't end up in the wrong hands.
"I'm just thankful that God did protect me and give me wisdom," said Ringer.
And wisdom to pass along to others.