x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Don't fall prey to an online scam

Feature The adage may go "Don't believe everything you read in the papers", but when you are searching for your next car purchase from your computer, keep in mind a new warning: "don't believe everything you read on the internet."

JC Butler (left) and Sim Whatley, managing partners of www.dubizzle.com. The website has employed extra staff to help combat misuse.
JC Butler (left) and Sim Whatley, managing partners of www.dubizzle.com. The website has employed extra staff to help combat misuse.

The adage may go "Don't believe everything you read in the papers", but when you are searching for your next car purchase from your computer, keep in mind a new warning: "don't believe everything you read on the internet." Online fraud, which target unsuspecting vehicle shoppers, have arrived in the cyberspace marketplaces of the UAE. Fraudsters have been keeping administrators of popular sites on their toes as they prey on gullible bargain hunters. The hook is simple - the owner posts a picture and description of a nice example of a vehicle, with a price well below market value. One of the most common scams involves duping the prospective buyer into parting with Dh5,000 to pay for shipping of the vehicle to the UAE.

The scam at work I first came across this phenomenon in August last year when I was looking for a used Porsche on www.dubizzle.com. Upon searching, the standout deal showed a picture of the car on what looked like a drizzly UK street. The owner had listed no telephone number, only a private e-mail address. Here is the email correspondence between myself and the vendor: Sent: August 28, 2008 10:44am

MODEL: Porsche Cayman S YEAR: 2007 PRICE: Dh 115,000 I am interested in your Porsche listed for sale on the Dubizzle website. I would like to know if you still have it for sale and if so, why is it so cheap? Why does it look like the car is photographed in the UK? Thanks, and I look forward to your reply. Regards, Ian Sent: August 29, 2008 9:13am MODEL: Porsche Cayman S YEAR: 2007 PRICE: Dh 115,000

I am excited to hear that you would like to buy. I love this car and brought it back to London from Dubai due to love for it. The car is left-hand drive so had problems selling it here in UK. I am now going through a messy divorce and need to sell it very quickly. No payment for the car is required until you see it and are completely happy with it. If you are unhappy with the car, it will be collected and shipped back here at my expenses. The shipping fee is Dh5,000 and I would have it delivered to your door through our esteemed shipping agents. My shipping agents will be on hand with power of attorney to transfer ownership of the car.

The shipping payment will clear in five working days, and held there, then I shall put the vehicle in shipping. It will arrive within 14 days. In my next email I shall let you know the details that are required from you to enable the bankers draft gets to you by post office. I look forward to hear back from you. Shortly after I received this, I received another email with all the details for a funds transfer to an account in Guernsey, in the Channel Islands. It was easy to see from the excuses and bizarre shipping proposal that this was a scam. However, the very fact that someone took the time to set this up means they are playing a numbers game and some unfortunate car shoppers in cyberspace are probably being conned.

Dubizzle responds JC Butler, Dubizzle.com's managing partner, says the website is working hard to combat these criminals and has some advice on how users should stay alert and report similar fraudsters. "First and foremost, we now require anyone who wishes to place an ad on Dubizzle to enter their UAE mobile phone number, and to then send us an SMS from that mobile phone number before being authorised," Butler says.

"This makes it more secure, as the vast majority of scams come from fraudsters overseas trying to convince individuals to send their money or financial information abroad." Dubizzle is also cracking down on users who violate the website's terms. "They will not be able to sign up for another account without acquiring another UAE SIM card, which can get costly," Butler explains. "Also, since a person needs to submit a passport copy to obtain a UAE SIM card, if they do anything illegal, then we will pass their phone number to the authorities to track down their identity."

Extra staff have also been put on by Dubizzle, with two full-time employees who monitor the site for any breaches of terms, such as scams and spam." We also have large scam warnings on every advert and every email sent through the website." Butler also calls on users to be vigilant and to report any suspicious activity to Dubizzle. "Users are possibly our biggest anti-scam weapon," he says. "On most days, we have upwards of 40,000 visitors, viewing our pages over 500,000 times. If an advert is somehow unacceptable, people generally let us know immediately, either e-mailing or calling us, or by simply clicking on the 'mark as spam' link."

He estimates that approximately 130 users have been blocked in the past month and more than 700 in the past year, and acknowledges that sometimes it can be a tough task, with some of them placing as many as 100 ads before getting caught. "However, since we integrated the SMS verification process, the vast majority of the users we've blocked have been spammers, usually people promoting their business, posting incessantly or in the wrong category, not scammers, such as these foreign con artists."

Other sites on alert Other UAE-based websites that sell cars have had experiences similar to that of Dubizzle. Matthew German, general manager of www. autotraderuae.com, says his site has been targeted by the same type of scam that Dubizzle is working to stamp out. "Criminals have been placing adverts on our site for cars at well below the market price," German explains. "The fraudsters then hope buyers won't notice the scam and send over payments to a foreign bank account, in advance of the car being shipped to the UAE."

"Some of these basic frauds are very easy to spot, as the cars are usually very underpriced, outside the UAE and, often, the fraudsters ask the buyer to transfer money to a foreign company because their 'UAE bank accounts are too full'." German says that Autotrader posts warnings throughout the site to keep users aware and vigilant and applies screening programmes for new ads. Anything the programme flags up as unusual is investigated by the site's staff.

KB Shajudeen, founder of www.autosouk.com, spends up to three hours each day manually approving adverts and the site has a specific warning detailing the "shipping scam" for unsuspecting users. "This is a big problem for us and our site users," says Shajudeen. "We take the time to try and verify each advertisement's contact details manually before publishing it. Any suspicious adverts, particularly those that have non-Gulf telephone numbers or expensive cars with an excessively low selling price, will not be published."

Ali Syed from www.autodealer.ae is especially vigilant about potential advertisers from outside the UAE and advertisements with too-good-to-be-true low prices. "If we suspect anything suspicious we will disable those adverts until we can clear them," he says. The site educates users about the risks with articles and discussion forums and allows users to report anything that may be suspicious. "As we get a few hundred advertisements daily, it's hard for us to manually check everything, so we have designed some sophisticated software which highlights any advertisements that look suspicious," Syed says.

Keren Bobker, a Dubai-based consumer affairs expert with Holborn Assets, also has advice for smart online car shopping. "Before handing over any money, ask for evidence of the seller's identity, preferably by sight, through an original passport with a residence visa," she says. "Ask to see any car registration and ownership documents and check the details match. Get copies of both. Also, always remember to obtain a signed receipt for any payments."

"If you fall victim and lose money, then always report the case to the police, as fraud is a criminal offence and it is your duty to help prevent others being caught out." The good news is that, while there are disreputable people out there trying to fleece the unwitting of their money, most people selling their car online are probably honest vendors. Syed from Autodealer says that it is important to keep the issue in perspective, as he estimates that only 0.1 per cent of his potential advertisers are con artists.

But a good rule of thumb takes the form of another old adage: "If it sounds too good to be true, then it usually is."