New York Scam: A Serious Warning For All Travellers
As people who read this stuff on some form of a regular basis might be aware we're off to New York in just over a month. Three weeks in New York, one week in San Fransisco. The key, for us anyway, is booking some decent accommodation, so we decided that, as we're going to be in New York for three weeks solid, that we'd go for a serviced apartment over a hotel room. So we started looking on the proper web-sites for places until we found one. Great location, it does exist, great photos - the lot. Perfect for our needs. The other half made contact with the 'owner' via the web-site and made arrangements to pay. We were asked to pay via MoneyGram, no biggie and no alarm bells started to ring - we've not done this before and all seemed normal. We made the first payment and got an email back from the 'owner' saying he'd gotten the payment and could we fix the rest up asap. What seemed curious was that each email was a virtual copy of the previous ones, complete with broken English. Still we promptly paid and that was it.
Not a word. We'd fire emails back and eventually we figured out that we'd been ripped off so I phoned a number we'd been provided and got an answering machine, I left a message. Nothing. Then we got another email asking for further payment, we replied that nope, and further to that we want our money back - by this time we figure we're out nearly AUST$4,000 that we can't afford - or we'll go to the cops. No reply after that.
What we've learnt is that it's becoming a fairly common scam, but we got in on the ground floor, so to speak. The scam works like this:
A person registers an apartment on a reputable web-site offering holiday accommodation world-wide. Most people who register places on such sites actually have them - these people don't. They download photos from other sites and hope that people don't do a cross check and find that the scans appear for more than address. However the addresses they give all exist, they're all buildings in the cities in question, only the person doesn't have any property in them.
A holiday maker contacts them, thinking that, as they're going through a proper site they're protected. You ain't protected by any stretch of the imagination. Most owners of such sites know about the scam but do very little to protect people from it. So they make contact and pay the money via MoneyGram. Now MoneyGram, a service I'll refuse to use from now on and I urge everyone to not use it, will do nothing to help. Won't lift a finger. Even though people have provide valid ID to pick the cash up, they will not refund or assist in going after anyone. They won't even tell you the details of the person who picks the cash up or where they picked it up from - all they'll say is that it was picked up. And why should they? They get a nice little service fee out of helping people get ripped off, so don't call them and waste time, effort and further money hoping you'll get someone who'll help - they simply don't care. That's where your involvement ends. The money is picked up, you get no further emails and you're out whatever money you've paid.
Simple scam? Absolutely. Very effective too. It got us.
Now the guys name who ripped us off was 'Gary Wilson'. As I've said, I've phoned and left messages. You can too - here's his 'phone number' (it's an answering machine): 206-339-7377 Go ahead, call it and harass whoever answers. Now 'Gary Wilson' is still out there, scamming people. We've been advised from one web-site that he was listing around 15 fake properties a day through them - using a variety of email addresses and phone numbers. Hey - here's some of them:
Phone numbers he used:
781-583-1681 (answering machine)
681 583-1681 (fake)
2124607234 (no answer)
Call 'em and email 'em and see who answers. You won't get anywhere. The web-site in question has now told us that they've now changed their site so, "that no listing can be activated without our consent." They also went on to share this with us; "This guy just loaded up another listing 20 minutes ago. He’s added around 10 listings to our site and other person’s site. I keep removing them. I’ve had reports from a handful of users about each listing, the guy is using the same money gram form and fax number for all the people he scams - 206-339-7277. It’s difficult for me to stop him, because he is creating free email accounts using aol, gmail, yahoo and new accounts all the time.
"We recorded this information when the person joined our site:
Datetime: 2007-07-12 03:19:51
Ip address: 184.108.40.206
"This person used all the fake street addresses in New York as his address when signing up. The only thing to connect you with him are the free email accounts and phone numbers he used and the ip address"
That leads to, you got it, Africa. It may very well be a new Nigerian scam. Great! That's cost us $4,000 that we don't have and has meant that we'll be scrambling to find cash, and a place to stay - it's cash we just don't have, so we're now looking for stuff to sell via the usual outlets such as eBay. Terrific. We've got the cops involved, but I don't expect any serious outcome as it's all too hard, and frankly, for a lot of people, $4,000 isn't that much. To us it's a lot to lose.
But by now you're probably asking, "Well how do I protect myself?" I think I have the answer. Last night we fired off an email about another apartment. Alarms bells rang slightly when we got the reply back - what you're looking for is any reply with bad English or poor literacy skills. If it reads bad then it probably is bad - and this is true no matter where you find the place, on an official site or otherwise. There is no safe place to book, if you're booking on-line. The reply we got back had poor English - very bad spelling. We were told that the apartment we wanted was available for the time we'd be there, all we needed to do was fill out the form giving our details, names, addresses, credit card numbers(!!!), the usual identity scamming tricks. We replied as such; "May we have the actual street address and arrange for someone to have a look at it? We have just lost $4000 to a New York scam regarding accommodation and are naturally wary." Guess what the reply was, not less than a half hour later? "Sorry the Flat it is taken" (sic). Funny that eh? Someone else 'booked' the place in under thirty minutes and paid for it, in full.
I think not.
I'd say go through reputable sites, but seriously, there are none right now. Most of the sites attempt to do the right thing, however the scammers are still getting through, so you can't count on the site vetting everyone. The best protection is to not pay, but to say, "Look, we've got friends in New York and we're going to have them come over to the place and get them to check it out. Can we set up a time?" If the person replies, sure, then find someone in New York who'll pop out and check it out for you (here's an idea for someone - start a business or site whereby you offer to check out places for a small fee and expose the scammers - you'll make money hand over fist). You'll soon find out if it's legit. If they don't reply, well move on and take note of the wording of the email, because the next scammer will be doing the same thing and might well be the same person.
The alarm bells are as follows:
Fax numbers instead of phone numbers - take a second and call the number. If it's a fax or answering machine, go elsewhere
MoneyGram or credit cards as the only form of payment
No apartment number (that one got by me dammit!)
Deals too good to be true (the truism here is real - if it's too good to be true then it's fake)
Best way to find out if it's a scam:
Say to the person via email, "Look, we've got friends in New York and we're going to have them come over to the place and get them to check it out. Can we set up a time?" You'll soon find out if it's real or not.
Remember, booking through a web-site doesn't automatically mean it's real - you'll be offered no protection by the bulk of the sites out there, nor will paying via MoneyGram or the like help you - none of the on-line payment methods will offer you any protection (and hey, MoneyGram people, if you're pissed off with me saying this then get back to me and help me get my money back) and indeed will say, "Sorry guy, you got ripped off, nothing to do with us," despite the fact that they're acting as the go between in the scam. Don't say I didn't warn you. If anyone else is going after this 'Gary Wilson' then let me know and we'll class action the bastard.
Next time I'll post the positives about the upcoming trip.