Seller had by Internet auction scam is speaking out
Rick Skinner doesn't mind being the nation's poster boy for Internet fraud.
At first, the Norfolk resident was too embarrassed to tell even his friends that he got scammed out of the laptop computer he tried to sell online. But he landed in the spotlight Wednesday when he described his experience during a news conference in Washington announcing a state and federal crackdown against online auction schemes.
"I'm still mad about being ripped off,'' Skinner said Friday from his office at Accutronics DataCom Inc. in Virginia Beach. ``It's nice for somebody to actually listen to the story.''
Skinner, a network engineer who knows his way around the Web, never got the $1,300 for his laptop, which he shipped to the supposed buyer in April 2002. For months, he complained to the Better Business Bureau and Internet fraud organizations.
His complaints made their way to the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection, which took on his case. Regulators considered him a prime example of the vulnerability of both buyers and sellers in online transactions.
"Normally, almost 100 percent of all Internet auction cases involve a seller that failed to deliver,'' said Delores Thompson, the FTC attorney handling Skinner's case.
Skinner's situation shows that sellers, too, can turn into victims.
"We're used to hearing that consumers get tricked out of their money, but we're not used to hearing that consumers get tricked out of their merchandise,'' Thompson said.
The FTC and a coalition of 29 states have filed or settled 57 lawsuits in an action they describe as the largest government crackdown against Internet auction fraud, Thompson said. Such crime was the No. 1 Internet-related complaint recorded by the FTC last year.
Most of the cases included in ``Operation Bidder Beware'' involve scams where consumers won online auctions and paid money but never received the merchandise. The phantom items included designer handbags, dental equipment, plasma televisions and a diamond, according to regulators.
On April 16, the FTC filed on Skinner's behalf in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. The suit cites unknown defendants but targets the conduct and the Web site.
Skinner, 37, started out selling his laptop on the eBay auction site. But with few interested bidders, he took an offer from a buyer who e-mailed him directly and agreed to his asking price of $1,100, plus shipping and fees.
The buyer asked him to work through Premier Escrow, which would hold the money in an account for Skinner until the buyer received the laptop. Online escrow services claim to protect people on both sides of an online transaction.
Skinner checked out the site, examined its credentials and deemed it legitimate. He set up the account. When the payment appeared electronically, he sent the computer to an address in Spain the buyer provided.
"From the day I shipped it, I never heard anything from Premier Escrow or from the buyers,'' he said.
Internet escrow scams began to appear in complaints sent to the FTC about seven months ago. ``This is a very recent phenomenon,'' Thompson said.
Skinner said he considers himself a cautious guy. But even a consumer who does his homework must go the extra step to verify the validity of those on the other side of the deal, Thompson said.
"He represents the typical user in that he is fairly savvy. That's the interesting thing about this case,'' she said. ``These are people who know how to use computers, who use the Internet, who are very techno-savvy.''
Christine Gregoire, Washington state's attorney general, said many victims of Internet auction fraud are vulnerable because they pay with cash or money orders.
"Our single biggest piece of advice is three things: Use your credit card, use your credit card, use your credit card,'' she said. Credit-card companies offer additional protections against fraudulent transactions.
Many of the scams occurred on eBay because of the large volume of auctions there, said Howard Beales, chief of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. He said eBay has cooperated with law enforcement to combat auction fraud.
Kevin Pursglove, an eBay spokesman, advised consumers to check the feedback ratings given to auction buyers and sellers before doing business with them.
"eBay is a marketplace,'' he said. ``Users should educate themselves about the culture and practices of the marketplace.''
Until the FTC called, Skinner had written off his computer as a loss. Thompson said she aims to get Skinner the money owed him.
The court ordered the Premier Escrow site shut down and froze the assets linked to it, Thompson said.
"It's just too early to say what's going to happen,'' she said. "We're pretty confident we'll find 'em.''
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