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Scammers are victimizing people who sell things online, FTC warns

The agency says consumers can protect themselves by selling to a local buyer

Online scam concept
Photo (c) anilakkus - Getty Images
With inflation continuing to gnaw at our pocketbooks, some consumers are trying to make a few extra bucks by selling items online at platforms like eBay, Poshmark, Facebook Marketplace, and Craigslist. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of scammers who are trying to swindle unsuspecting sellers.

In fact, these scams are so prevalent that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued a warning to consumers and is providing information on how they can avoid becoming victims.

Here's how some of these fake scams work: Let’s say you have a bicycle helmet sitting in the garage collecting dust that you think you can get a few hundred dollars for, so you put an ad up online on a selling platform. A scammer then comes along posing as a buyer and says they want to buy the item. Cha-ching! 

However, when it comes time to pay, they insist on paying you via a mobile payment app like Venmo or PayPal. They then send you a fake payment notification and hope you send the item before you realize it’s a scam.

There’s a slight variation of that angle too – one in which the scammer says there was an issue with the payment they sent. For example, they might say they accidentally paid you twice and ask you to refund one of the payments.

Fake check overpayment

The next scam on the FTC’s list is one in which a scammer offers to give you a check for more than the selling price of the item you've posted online. They tell you to deposit the check and send the difference back to them. When you check your bank account, you see that the check is listed and you assume that all is well. 

But the problem is that the check is fake. While you might think that a bank would catch that ahead of clearing those funds so you can use them, that’s not how banks work. 

“When a bank says the check cleared, that doesn’t mean it was a good check. It can take weeks for the bank to figure out the check was fake,” warns FTC official Alvaro Puig. “By that time, the scammer has the item you sold and the money you sent back. And the bank takes the money from the fake check out of your account.”

Fake verification codes

Another favorite ploy among scammers is posing as a buyer who says they’ve heard about fake online listings and wants to verify that you’re a real person. They then send you a text message with a Google Voice verification code and ask you to let them know what that code is. 

However, if you give them the code, they’ll use it to create a Google Voice number that's linked to your own phone number. The scammer can then use your number to rip off other people. 

“If someone tracks the Google Voice number, it’ll be linked to your real phone number. That’s how the scammers conceal their identity,” Puig explained.

Advice for selling things online

Puig says consumers who want to sell personal items should try to sell them locally first to protect themselves from online scams.

"Many sites recommend selling your stuff to a local buyer you can meet in person and only accepting cash payments. If you’re not selling locally, see what seller protections the site offers,” he advised. 

The FTC also offers these tips for those who want to sell items online:

  • Don’t accept a mobile payment from someone you don’t know.

  • Never deposit a check for more than the selling price.

  • Don’t share your Google Voice verification code — or any verification code — with someone you don’t know. Regarding the Google Voice scam, ConsumerAffairs found some extra protection tips in the user-run Google Voice forum

As far as apps are concerned, the FTC says certain services offer consumer protections. Cash App’s support phone number is 1 (800) 969-1940; Venmo’s is 1 (855) 812-4430; and PayPal’s is 1 (888) 221-1161.

Level of protection may vary with apps

While there are some protections, consumers should know that some payment apps don't catch everything in time to stop scammers from stealing money. In fact, in consumer-written reviews of Venmo or PayPal, a good number of people expressed frustration with how those services failed to protect them when they were victimized by a scam artist. 

"I paid for an item via a debit card tied to my PayPal acct. The scammer withdrew the money directly from my checking acct as if it was an e-check pmt bypassing the debit card and protection plan," wrote Rex from Douglasville, Ga., in his ConsumerAffairs review of PayPal.

"PayPal allowed them to do this knowing it would relieve them of any buyer protection. Neat little loophole they’ve created to rip off buyers."

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