The Romanian Scammers
A group of Romanian fraudsters who infested TradeMe from 2003-7 produced some of the most sophisticated phishing scams ever seen on the site. In February 2006 TradeMe initially described one phishing scam as the "first" to ever target their site, and claimed that only a single scam auction had been attempted - ScamBusters had logged more than forty scam auctions from the Romanian gang that weekend. TradeMe eventually had to back down and admit that there had been other phishing scams specifically targetting their site.
The Romanians cut their teeth on eBay scams but when security was stepped up on the site, they looked around for easier targets. TradeMe was still a relative newcomer to the online auction world and at the time their security team was inexperienced. They made an ideal target for this organised criminal group. To describe these characters as persistent would be an understatement. To say they once constituted TradeMe's biggest scam problem is bordering on the obvious.
These phishing scams proved to be very successful for the Romanians and resulted in hundreds of hacked TradeMe accounts. And once you have control of someone's TradeMe account, you can merrily list hundreds of expensive items at stupidly low prices and attaract dozens of bidders. Of course the goods never existed, but that didn't stop gullible punters from making contact with the group via email or even TradeMe's own Q&A facility.
How the scam worked
They always listed expensive items: plasma teles, Rolex watches, laptops, guitars, motorcycles, Nokia N95 phones... the more desirable objects of a consumerist society. And they were selling for around a third of their real value.
The thing is, our Romanian friends were never running auctions. They didn't give a damn who won or whether the auction even ran to its natural end. These people only wanted to make email contact with gullible victims. That's it! That's when they started making their money.
The low prices quickly attracted bids and the scammer had to make email contact with the potential victim before the account was disabled. That's why you always found throwaway email addresses (Hotmail, Yahoo Mail or Gmail) listed in their auction descriptions.
Once email contact is made the scammer would promise anything to induce his victim to send money. The average wage in Romania is around $200 a month, so every bit of cash they got from kiwis went a long way. On average our Romanians would net close to one thousand New Zealand dollars for every successful scam they ran. Not bad for a morning's work.
As a gesture of "goodwill" the scammer often offered his victims a deal. "Send half of the money in advance, I'll dispatch the goods and only when you're happy with them do you send the balance."
There never were any goods and numerous kiwis were conned out of tens of thousands of dollars by these people.
How we spotted Romanian Scams
Luckily for us, the Romanians usually used the same method every time they listed a scam auction. They'd cut and paste genuine auctions from eBay so an obvious giveaway was the little eBay watermark on the bottom right of their photographs (see photo). However that this watermark alone was not enough to declare an auction a scam. Sometimes the scammers cropped stolen photos to remove this mark, and some genuine traders "borrowed" photos from eBay.
When we suspected that an auction might be dodgy, we tried cutting the title and pasting it into an eBay search. If the scammer was lazy you'd probably find the same auction within minutes. Another technique was to find a unique string of text or a mispelling in the auction description. Shove it into Google and you'd be surprised what may turn up. For example, this image comes from a scam for a Fender guitar listed on TradeMe - note the distinctive line, the capitilisation of the P in "plays" and the lack of a space after the comma.
FROM A SCAM AUCTION ON TRADEME
And here's the exact same piece of text in an eBay auction.
THE GENUINE AUCTION ON EBAY
Whenever you find an eBay auction that contains exactly the same text, punctuation and photographs... you've just discovered a TradeMe scam. The ScamBusters became adept at spotting these Romainan scams and used the TradeMe message boards to alert other traders. That's when TradeMe decided it was easier to silence us than to remove the Romanians from their site. While that's history now, anyone with an interest in corporate stupidity may wish to read our brief history covering these shameful events.
We found it quite ironic that on the eve of TradeMe's sale to Fairfax, the first two prominent auctions listed on the front page of the popular auction site all evening (see below) were both scams being operated out of Romania. Here's a screenshot.
A little bit of irony
We tried several times to contact TradeMe that evening… we even called their 0900 number a few times, but they were closed! That was an extremely poor show for a 24 hour business.
TradeMe's chief spinmeister Michael O'Donnell spoke about TradeMe's Trust & Safety team on RadioNZ's Insight programme (11 Feb 2007). He said, "They work 24/7 really." Our members knew that he was telling porkies, but he had a habit of doing that when it came to ScamBusters. Part of Michael's job description at the time included discrediting our group - we were the only active critics the company had and the only people who maintained a public record of the extent of scams on TradeMe. We existed to keep TradeMe honest, whether MOD liked it or not... we were not going away.
Other Warning Signs
Most phishing scammers favour Hotmail, Yahoo or Gmail addresses, usually promise shipment via UPS and require payment via Western Union. Of course neither of these services are big in New Zealand.
The scammers often listed their location as a small town like Te Anau or Raglan.
ScamBusters often asked questions on their auctions like...
"I see you're in Dargaville. I'm just down the road in Queenstown. Can I pop in and view the plasma TV before I bid?"
While a genuine kiwi trader would always respond in a geographically correct manner, the scammer will usually just offer you an email address.
Remember, these people are not running auctions - they need to make contact with potential victims if their scam is to succeed.
I've think I've spotted a scam - what next?
If you spot a scam please report it to TradeMe via the Community Watch link at the bottom of every auction page. You can also post scams on our forums. Experienced traders will be able to advise if you have any questions.
How to spot phishing scams
Main Scams page