messing up a Paypal scam

37 ways to mess up a PayPal scam

Night at Hellsö marinaI have a boat for sale. The sea is still one of my big passions, but I simply have too little time to use it. So I decided to let it go. I will buy a bigger one later, when and if I have more time. It’s still winter in Finland and all the small boats are on dry land covered by snow. But spring is approaching and the boating fever is spreading. It’s the right time to publish an ad on the net.

Soon I get a mail from a nice young lady. Let’s call her Mrs. Witney De Villiers, as that is what he or she called herself. (Probably a randomly picked false identity, any similarity to real existing persons is purely coincidental.) She was very keen on buying my boat and we had a nice conversation over a couple of days. I did unfortunately not sell the boat, but I got a nice story to tell instead. I will not bother you with all the details, so here’s a shortened version with all the important parts included.

– Hi, I’m in Mexico and I want to buy your boat. How long have you had it? What’s the final price? (Well, I’m in Finland and this is the point where I became more or less convinced that it is a scam.)
– I have had it for five years.
– OK, the price is fine. I want to buy it. Please take down the ad. What’s your PayPal account info so that I can make a payment? I’ll cover the PayPal charges. (Needless to say, the ad remained up.)
– Good news. I can accept wire-transfer which would be a lot cheaper for you than PayPal. (She can’t accept if this is a traditional PayPal scam.)
– Sorry, but I can’t do wire-transfers now. I only have access to PayPal because bla bla blaa …. (Yes, another scam-indicator.)
– OK, I created a PayPal account. Here’s the account info. But there’s some paperwork we need to handle before we proceed. Please fill in the buyer’s part of this attached contract and mail a scanned copy to me. I also need a picture of your photo ID. (The provided PayPal account info was false.)
– Great! I have made the payment. “Check your mail as there should be a confirmation mail from PayPal. I made an extra payment of 3650 € and I’am sure you noticed that, you’ll have to send the extra amount to the Shipping Company through Western Union right away, so that they can come ahead for the pick up and also you should send your address where they have to come for the pick up and also the necessary Western Union Payment Information.” (All the key elements in this very traditional scam becomes visible at this point. This is where you should realize what’s the name of the game, if you haven’t figured it out already. A faked mail from “PayPal” appears in my spam folder.)
– Hold your horses. We need to do the paperwork first. See my previous mail.
– “I want you to know that I have made an arrangement for you to receive the copy of my ID and my other necessary data for the boat. I want you to know that the courier representative coming over for the pick up has all he said documents in an enclosed confidential envelope with him which he will deliver to you in person.”
– Well, we really need to close the deal and have a legally binding agreement before we can arrange for transportation.
– “I understand your concern and certify that all sales is final. Your show of concern has given me a very good fact that you are indeed an honest seller hence, the reason why I am using this medium to confirm to you that all sales is final and I am satisfied with the present condition of the Boat.. so you can now proceed with the western union and get back to the paypal with the western union scan receipt so they can release all the fund into your account immediately..More so, send me a copy of the western union receipt… i look forward to read from you…” (Contract and passport files attached. Oh gosh what a poorly faked British passport!!!)
– Thanks, but you forgot to sign the contract.
– “Oh sorry, I write my name as the signature.. i hope to receive a copy of western union receipt from you today…” (That “signature” was typed, not handwritten.)
– Just want to let you know that I need the SIGNED contract before 3 PM. Otherwise I will not have time to go to the bank. And I’m traveling tomorrow so I will be unable to handle transactions. (To create urgency is a common scammer tactic.😉 )
– “Have signed on the contract.. i wait to read from you with the western union receipt..” (Printed, handwritten and scanned this time. It’s 4 AM in Mexico when this part of the conversation takes place.)
– WTF!!! The bank refused the transaction. The recipient is on some kind of international blacklist, apparently suspected for criminal activities. (Well, I wasn’t completely honest here.)
– “How about you go there and split up the money in to 2 and send on two transaction.”
– I’m certainly NOT going to send any money to a blacklisted company!
– “here is another shipping company info [another private person in US] I wait your story again” (We enter the threatening phase. A while later a mail appears in my spam folder. “PayPal” will take “LEGALACTION” and hand me over to FBI if I don’t pay in 24 h.)
– What are those clowns at PayPal up to now? They talk about some legal action against me even if I haven’t entered into any legally binding agreement to transfer money. Do you have any clue, or maybe I should contact PayPal directly and ask what they think they are doing? (Let’s see how/if they react. Contacting PayPal would reveal the scam instantly.)

Next I got a long mail pointing out how honest this lady is and how keen she is to do business with nice and honest sellers like me. But she can’t unfortunately do anything about the PayPal actions as the purpose of all that is to protect both the seller and buyer. She points out that even a smaller sum would be enough to release the payment into my PayPal account (ok, we are in the bargaining phase). At this point I decided that this blog post is becoming far too long and chose to not respond at all. She didn’t get back to me either. They probably realized that they are not going to get 3650 € from me and gave up.

As you have noticed, I became wary at a pretty early stage. There were several details in this conversation that made me suspicious. 37 to be more precise:

  1. The boat is of a local brand made for the Finnish market and totally unknown pretty much everywhere else. Why did she want this particular brand and model? Boats are also different in Mexico and Finland. My boat would be a real oddity over there.
  2. The boat is far too cheap to make it feasible to ship across the Atlantic.
  3. Smaller boats are inexpensive and widely available in the US. Buying one from Europe would be madness even if shipping was free.
  4. Buyer showed very little interest in the object. A 10 years old boat is not a bulk item. Every such boat has a soul of its own. One would be mad to buy without seeing it.
  5. Only one question was asked about the price. And it was no problem to proceed even if I ignored that question. Well, price doesn’t matter if you have no intention to pay.
  6. The buyer paid a lot more interest in the payment process than in the object of the deal.
  7. The buyer was extremely keen to pay and close the deal, but not to make any official papers that would prove her ownership. It should really be the buyer who cares about the papers and the seller who cares about payment, and not the other way around.
  8. Messages in the beginning of the conversation were very generic boilerplates. They were designed to work for any kind of goods. It doesn’t sound very convincing when selling a boat and the other part insists on talking about “the merchandise”.
  9. No other method of payment worked except PayPal. Naturally, as their scamming technique is based on PayPal.
  10. I’m supposed to make a payment to a courier company, which indeed do exist. The address to receive the payment has however nothing to do with that company. Both courier companies seem to use private persons in US as their billing contacts. Strange.
  11. A common tactic throughout the conversation was to ignore questions and requests that were not part of the script. They were addressed only if they stalled the process.
  12. The buyer had no problem “sending the money” even if the provided PayPal account was false. “PayPal” also had no problem sending mails to this non-existing account holder.
  13. The scam includes sending a fake message from PayPal stating that the money is on hold until the shipping agent has been paid. This fake is obvious if you know how PayPal works or know how to check the sender’s true mail address.
  14. The whole scenario match the very common scam where the victim is lured to pay money to someone and is promised more money later. The Nigerian scams belong to the same group and use a logic that is quite similar.
  15. At one point they claim to be satisfied with the present condition of the boat. They have made no attempt to find out in what condition the boat is.
  16. This Mrs. Witney De Villiers seems to be a true cosmopolitan. She is using an address and phone number in Mexico for this deal but her passport is British. At one point she also mentioned a phone number located in the British Virgin Islands. A Google search revealed that young ladies with an identical picture are living in at least two different places in US, but are using different names.
  17. If the husband of Mrs. De Villiers is still around, then he should do some Googling too. Seems like at least two dating sites have profiles with the photo of his wife.
  18. If you look European and hold a British passport, one could assume that you know English. But I guess that means nothing, people are so sloppy with grammars nowadays …
  19. And the passport. Oh gosh! Where should I start? The name has apparently been replaced, very bluntly, I might add. The first thing that strikes the eye is that the new name is in a different font than the rest of the passport. The font isn’t even close. But they did at least get the color right. All text is black. That’s an achievement considering their overall Photoshop skills!
  20. The background behind the replaced name does not have surface structure that is coherent with the rest of the passport.
  21. They didn’t apparently know how to scale pictures in Photoshop as the passport’s photo is smaller than the place reserved for it. (The photo of “Mrs. De Villiers” can be found on the net with more than sufficient resolution to fill the whole space.)
  22. The empty space around the passport’s too small photo is very badly cloned.
  23. If replacing part of a text line, make sure the new text is vertically aligned with the old text. It looks funny otherwise. Using the same text size also helps. And yes, I mentioned the font already.
  24. The passport’s signature is readable. But wait a minute! It reads Gabriella B and not Witney De Villiers!
  25. The embedded metadata in the passport’s picture file reveals that it isn’t saved by a camera’s firmware. The file comes from Adobe Photoshop CS4 for Windows.
  26. The content of the optically readable bottom lines do not match the standard for passports.
  27. Got a contract with a typed signature instead of handwriting. The habit to handwrite signatures should be fairly well known globally.
  28. When I finally got a signed contract, the signature bears no similarity to the signature in the passport, even if both are supposed to be signed by the same person. They didn’t even try to mimic he signature in the passport.
  29. The signed contract seemed to be scanned with a Konica Minolta multifunction device. “Mrs. De Villiers” mentioned however earlier that one of the reasons why she couldn’t do wire transfers was that she was out boating. Well, she could of course be cruising with a well-equipped boat, but buying mine would be a big step down in that case.
  30.  “Mrs. De Villiers” is very keen to get the receipt of the transport agency payment herself. The faked mails from “PayPal” do however clearly state that it is PayPal who need the receipt to clear the transaction, and not the buyer.
  31. This young lady in Mexico seems to have unusual working hours or staff that works shifts to answer her mail. Replies are received promptly throughout the European working hours.
  32. When the payment is delayed they start to threaten the victim. “PayPal” claims that legal actions will be taken if the payment isn’t made, and the seller hasn’t fulfilled that part of the “agreement”. Interesting in a situation where the seller hasn’t made any legally binding commitments to relay money.
  33. When they enter the threatening phase, they try to use FBI to scare the victim. Finland is not part of the US, which the scammer may or may not know. Looking up the name of the local police, or even using Europol, could have increased the scare-factor. They do mention the “World Law Enforcement Agency”, but selecting an existing agency might have been more effective.
  34. The first threat mail arrive less than 48 h after the initial notification that “PayPal” has a pending transaction. No previous mails do however contain any information about a deadline for the payment or anything about legal consequences if no payment is made.
  35. At one point she started bargaining and suggested that I should send at least some money ASAP and the rest when I have got the money on my account. 20 minutes later I receive a mail form “PayPal” that clearly states that the full 3650 € must be paid before the funds are released. There were many more discrepancies between the messages from “Mrs. De Villiers” and “PayPal” even if both came from the same source.
  36. When the bargaining starts, she mentions that I can pay a smaller part first if I’m short on cash and need to borrow money. Well, a couple of days ago I claimed that I had tried to transfer the whole sum, so it should be clear that I have the money.
  37. Some of their boilerplates seem to have been in use for many years. Googling key phrases will reveal the scam immediately and point to discussions and warnings that are several years old.
Fake passport. Some parts blurred to protect victims of identity theft.

Fake passport. Some parts blurred to protect victims of identity theft.

Sounds hilarious, doesn’t it! The scam is so obvious when presented in this way. And forcing the scammer out of the ready-made script makes the act crack up even more. But the sad fact is that people are lured by these guys daily. A lot of this seems to be done in volume so they must be dealing with a significant number of victims every day. Their way to do business very quickly and easily may seem feasible for smaller bulk items, and may not ring the alarm bells in the same way as when dealing with bigger items. Big or small item, it’s always a good idea to take a critical look at the whole case and look for discrepancies like this. Many of the points listed above are on their own enough to spot the scam. Also make sure that they can’t orchestrate the show on their own. Think about what you need to be able to trust the other part, and be persistent about getting what you want. Reluctance to comply is a pretty strong sign that something is fishy.

The core point for anyone who runs into cases like this is however to understand how the scam works. That’s the key to recognizing it in practice. You are promised money but something must be paid before the transaction can be completed. Sounds familiar? Yes, this is basically the same scenario as in the Nigerian scams. The core of the scam is that the money you are to receive is just a promise, but the money you transfer to someone else is real. The PayPal-based scams may be somewhat more effective as many people trust PayPal. It’s not an official bank, but many people think of it as a bank. You may believe that this trusted party is holding the money and securing the transaction. In reality, all you have got is a faked mail. There is no PayPal transaction and the promised money is just numbers written in the mail.

If you fall for the scam and pay, the scammers will vanish like smoke in thin air. PayPal can’t help you as this has nothing with them to do. The scammers have just misused PayPal’s name. And the payment method used to collect your money is always irreversible and provides no security for the sender.

So to summarize. If you ever consider engaging in a transaction with strangers and where money is relayed through you, you should:

  • Validate the reasons for the transaction. Most proposals of this kind are scams.
  • Make sure that you really know who you are dealing with. Demand proof of identity.
  • Make sure that the money is under your own control before making any payments to others. Cash or a deposit in your own account is pretty safe. (Added: See the comments below for an issue with this.)
  • Make sure that you are not engaging in money laundering.

What really strikes me is how poorly this false buyer’s role is created. Some simple Google searches is all it takes to reveal the scam. And many discrepancies would have been so easy to fix. Are these guys really “America’s dumbest criminals”?

Maybe, maybe not. The point is probably that you need to be suspicious before you turn to Google. And once there you will find descriptions of this type of scam no matter how well the scammers have tried to eliminate discrepancies in their story. So once you get suspicious, it’s game over for the scammers anyway. The most profitable tactic for them is maybe to run the scam en masse without caring about the details, and just harvest those who won’t get suspicious until it’s too late. Or maybe they’re just stupid and can’t do any better? (Believing that anyone would fall for that fake passport would indicate the latter.)

Well, the boat is still for sale. Anyone interested?

Safe surfing,

Message from "PayPal". Note the sender's address and the scam warning. The warning is actually authentic and copied from real PayPal messages. This may be good advice against phishers, who just know the mail address but not the victims real name. All "PayPal" mails in this case had the correct name in the beginning.

Message from “PayPal”. Note the sender’s address and the scam warning. The warning is actually authentic and copied from real PayPal messages. This may be good advice against phishers, who just know the mail address but not the victims real name. All “PayPal” mails in this case had the correct name in the beginning.

More posts from this topic


Why are Android bugs so serious?

Yet another big vulnerability in the headlines. The Metaphor hack was discovered by Israel-based NorthBit and can be used to take control over almost any Android device. The vulnerability can be exploited from video files that people encounter when surfing the web. It affects all versions of Android except version 6, which is the latest major version also known as Marshmallow. But why is this such a big deal? Severe vulnerabilities are found all the time and we receive updates and patches to fix them. A fast update process is as a matter of fact a cyber security cornerstone. What makes this issue severe is that it affects Android, which to a large extent lack this cornerstone. Android devices are usually not upgraded to new major versions. Google is patching vulnerabilities, but these patches’ path to the devices is long and winding. Different vendors’ practices for patching varies a lot, and many devices will never receive any. This is really a big issue as Android’s smartphone market share is about 85% and growing! How is this possible? This underlines one of the fundamental differences between the Android and iOS ecosystems. Apple’s products are planned more like the computers we are used to. They are investments and will be maintained after purchase. iOS devices receive updates, and even major system upgrades, automatically and free of charge. And most users do install them. Great for the security. Android is a different cup of tea. These devices are mostly aimed at a cheaper market segment. They are built as consumables that will be replaced quite frequently. This is no doubt a reasonable and cost-saving strategy for the vendors. They can focus on making software work on the currently shipping devices and forget about legacy models. It helps keeping the price-point down. This leads to a situation where only 2,3% of the Android users are running Marshmallow, even half a year after release. The contrast against iOS is huge. iOS 9 has been on the market about the same time and already covers 79% of the user base. Apple reported a 50% coverage just five days after release! The Android strategy backfires when bugs like Metaphor are discovered. A swift and compete patch roll-out is the only viable response, but this is not available to all. This leaves many users with two bad options, to replace the phone or to take a risk and keep using the old one. Not good. One could think that this model is disappearing as we all grow more and more aware of the cyber threats. Nope, development actually goes in the opposite direction. Small connected devices, IoT-devices, are slowly creeping into our homes and lives. And the maintenance model for these is pretty much the same as for Android. They are cheap. They are not expected to last long, and the technology is developing so fast that you would be likely to replace them anyway even if they were built to last. And on top of that, their vendors are usually more experienced in developing hardware than software. All that together makes the IoT-revolution pretty scary. Even if IoT-hacking isn’t one of the ordinary citizen’s main concerns yet. So let’s once again repeat the tree fundamental commands for being secure on-line. Use common sense, keep your device patched and use a suitable security product. If you have a system that provides regular patches and updates, keep in mind that it is a valuable service that helps keeping you safe. But it is also worth pointing out that nothing as black and white. There are unfortunately also problematic update scenarios.   Safe surfing, Micke     Photo by etnyk under CC

March 18, 2016
Tracker Mapper

Want to Pwn Internet Trackers? Here’s How

A recent PEW report says that 86 percent of people have taken action to avoid online surveillance, including simple things like clearing their browser cache, as well as using more effective methods, such as using a VPN (virtual private network). The same report says that 61 percent of participants indicated that they’d like to do more. Many people understand their privacy is at risk when they do things online, and want to do something about it. But that’s easier said than done. Not only do you have to have the will to make it happen, but you have to know where to start. Who do you want to protect your privacy from anyway? Facebook? The NSA? Nosey neighbors? PEW’s report says that 91 percent of people agree or strongly agree that consumers have lost control over personal information that is collected and used by companies. So if you want to take this control back, the first thing you need to do is figure out who’s stalking you online. F-Secure’s Freedome VPN, which you can try for free, has baked-in tracking protection technologies to help people protect their privacy while they’re surfing online. It also has Tracker Mapper – a feature that people can use to control how they expose themselves to Internet trackers. Tracker Mapper has been available for Macs and Windows PCs for about half a year, and was just launched for Freedome’s Android and iOS apps. So how does using Tracker Mapper help you control your online privacy? Here’s our Chief Research Officer, Mikko Hyppönen, talking about how online tracking threatens people’s privacy, and how Freedome (and Tracker Mapper) can help people protect themselves. [youtube=] I ran a little experiment to help me learn how to limit my exposure to trackers while planning a vacation. I used Alexa to help me find some popular travel websites that I could use to shop for deals on hotels. After that, I turned on Tracker Mapper (which is turned off by default, because we respect the fact that people don’t want apps to create logs without permission) so I could find out which of these websites used the most tracking to study me as I used their site. I chose 5 of the more popular sites, and then I spent about 10 minutes on each, and left a bit of extra time so I could check out the results in between. The whole thing took me about an hour, giving me a one-hour log of the tracking attempts Freedome blocked while I browsed these sites. Tracker Mapper creates an interactive visualization of the blocked tracking attempts, and gives you information on what trackers attempted to monitor you on different websites. It also shows how these trackers link together to create a network capable of monitoring you as you navigate from website to website. These are screenshots showing how Tracker Mapper visualizes online tracking, as well some of the statistics it provides. The capture on the left shows the entire overview of the session (which lasted exactly one hour). The shot in the middle shows the sites I visited ordered by the most tracking attempts. The capture on the right shows the actual trackers that attempted to track me during my session, ordered by the number of blocked attempts. Based on this, Trip Advisor appears to have made the most tracking attempts. But you can learn even more about this by combining Tracker Mapper with a bit of online digging. You can tap on the different “bubbles” in Tracker Mapper to pull up statistics about different websites and tracking services. The first screen capture shows how many tracking attempts from different services were blocked when I visited Trip Advisor. The next two show the most prominent tracking services Freedome blocked – the tracker that TripAdvisor has integrated into its website (, and a tracking tag from Scorecard Research ( As you might have guessed, TripAdvisor’s own tracking service is only used on their website (it’s what’s called “first-party tracking”). That’s why Tracker Mapper doesn’t show any connections between it and other websites. The second one, Scorecard Research, is used on both Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet. That’s why there are lines connecting it with both (it’s what’s called “third-party tracking”). Scorecard research is a marketing research firm that provides tracking and analytic services by having websites host their “tags”, which collect information about those website’s visitors. The Guardian has an excellent write-up about Scorecard Research, but what’s missing from the Guardian story is that you can opt-out of Scorecard Research’s tracking. Basically, they put a cookie on your browser, which isn’t an uncommon way for tracking companies to allow web surfers to protect their privacy (and oddly enough, a common way for them to track you). Stripping trackers out of websites lets people take control of who’s monitoring what they do online. PEW’s survey found that this idea of control is central to people’s concerns about online privacy - 74 percent of respondents said it’s important to control who can get information, and 65 percent said its important to control what information is collected. However, opting out of every tracking service (and for every browser you use) by installing opt-out cookies isn’t as convenient as using Freedome. And as F-Secure Security Advisor Sean Sullivan pointed out in this blog post, it actually works much better for your browsing (one experiment found that Freedome can reduce the time it takes to load web pages by about 30 percent, and decrease data consumption by about 13 percent). You can download Freedome for a free trial and find out for yourself if how it can help you control your online privacy. And right now, you can win free annual subscriptions, as well as cool swag (like stylish hoodies) by posting a screenshot showing your blocked tracking attempts to F-Secure’s Facebook wall, or on Instagram with F-Secure tagged. The contest is open till March 23rd, and 5 winners will be randomly drawn after it ends.

March 16, 2016
going back in time with macro malware

Hack to the Future: The Return of Macro Malware

We who write stuff in the security industry are used to dashing off sentences like, “Online attacks are becoming more and more advanced” or “Malware is continually evolving in sophistication.” But in the past year we experienced a surprising throwback to one type of malware from an earlier era. Malware that uses a rather old technique, but it’s causing plenty of trouble nonetheless. It kinda feels like we've gone back in time. I’m talking about macro malware. It’s something we hadn’t seen prominently since the early 2000’s. And now, as touched on in our just released Threat Report covering the 2015 threat landscape, it has reared its head again. What is macro malware? Macro malware takes advantage of the macro feature in Office documents to execute commands. And macros are simply shortcuts the user can create for repeated tasks. For example, let’s say you are creating a document in Word and you find yourself repeatedly editing text to be red with a yellow highlight, 16 point, italic and right aligned. To save time, you can create a macro of your commands and then whenever you need that kind of style, simply run the macro. A little history Macro malware was common back in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. The first macro malware, Concept, was discovered in 1995, although it was basically harmless, simply displaying a dialogue box. In 1999, one of the most notorious macro malware, Melissa, was discovered. Melissa emailed itself to 50 addresses in the user’s address book, spreading to 20% of the world’s computers. But macro malware wouldn’t last long. When Microsoft released Word 2003, the default security settings were changed to stop macros from automatically running when a document opened. This made it more difficult to infect a computer through macros and attackers mostly dropped them to focus on other methods. So what happened? Why is it back again? The re-emergence, according to Sean Sullivan, Security Advisor in F-Secure Labs, may be correlated with the decline of exploitable vulnerabilities due to security improvements in today’s common software applications like Microsoft Office. Exploits have been one of the most common ways to infect machines in recent years, but with fewer software holes to exploit, malware authors seem to be reverting to other tricks. How it’s successful Today’s macro malware attempts to get around Microsoft’s default settings with a simple trick. When a document is opened, the information inside doesn’t appear properly to the viewer – for example, sometimes the document looks like scrambled gobbledygook. Text in the document claims that macros, or content, must be enabled for proper viewing. Here’s one example: Curiosity? Just plain unaware? Whatever the reason, as Sean says, the malware’s reappearance has been successful because “People click.” Once macros have been enabled, the malicious macro code is executed – which then downloads the payload. Macro malware is used by crypto-ransomware families like Cryptowall and the newest threat Locky. These families encrypt the data on a computer and then demand payment to unencrypt it. Although we don’t know for sure, it’s possible it was macro malware that was used in the holding of a Hollywood hospital for ransom last month. The banking Trojan Dridex, which allows attackers to steal banking credentials and other personal info from infected machines, also uses the technique. How to avoid it Fortunately, if you use security from F-Secure, you’re protected from these threats. But aside from that, the old advice still holds: Be wary of email attachments from senders you don’t know. And take care not to enable macros on documents you’ve received from sources you’re not 100% sure of.   "Back to the Future" banner image courtesy of Garry Knight,

March 15, 2016