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,
Micke

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.

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10 ways to keep your credit card and memories safe during the holidays

Every year Cyber Monday sets new sales records. The Monday after the U.S.'s biggest brick-and-mortar shopping day a year opens the online shopping season with a flood of sales and deals that are often better than what you'll find in person, without the crowds. But whether you're shopping for presents or not during the next month, advertisers and online criminals will assume you are. And if they aren't targeting your wallet, they may be after the private photos and videos we all keep on the hard drives of our computers or devices. Right now, you can get our F-Secure SAFE protection on 5 PCs or devices with 200 GB of free secure cloud storage. Until December 6, we're giving away one free license for SAFE on 5 devices along with 200 GB of storage and a SAFE hoodie for free each day on our Facebook page. Read the the rules and enter now. And while you're shopping on any device, stay skeptical. Stay focused. And keep up the same online shopping and storage hygiene you should be practicing all year long: 1. Make sure your system, browser and security software are patched and protected. If it's software, it requires updates. As developers have become better at reminding you to update your software, there's become more to update. So keep up with your operating system updates and make sure you're running updated security software. 2. Do all your shopping in in one browser. No Java. Our Security Advisor Sean Sullivan advises that you do all of your financial transactions in one browser that you only use for shopping and banking. “Too many tabs open, too many things going on – that’s when you’re most prone to click on a malicious link or download something you shouldn’t have," he said. So use Chrome for surfing and Firefox for the serious stuff. Whichever browser you use for your transactions, you should disable Java in it -- and all your browsers if possible. If a certain website you need to use requires Java, enable it in just one browser that you use only for that site. 3. Stick to stores/sites you trust. Bad grammar and poor design have been the warning signs of malicious sites and emails for years. But criminals are always upping their game. Your best bet is to avoid untrustworthy sites in general, just as you likely avoid unprofessional looking stores and people who randomly try to sell you stereo equipment from their van. Avoid shopping via Google. Go directly to sites you trust and search there. 4. Only shop over a secure connection -- VPN and https. If you're shopping via Wi-Fi, make sure you're on a network you trust or secure yourself with a virtual private network like F-Secure Freedome. This will encrypt your data to protect your passwords and other private data. Freedome also protects you from scams and trackers, which may use your data to sell you things that do not fit your budget. To make sure your data is secure as it's being transmitted, don't enter your private data unless you see you're on a secured connection where the url starts with "https". If you're not seeing that, move on to the next store. 5. Use one credit card for all your online shopping. Limit your damages. If your data is captured by a crook, chances are your credit card company will catch any irregularities. However, you still may be left without a card during the holiday season. Using only one card for online purchases also makes it simpler to keep focused on how much you're spending. 6. Check your statements. You do this? Right? If you don't check your statements to make sure all the charges are yours, who will? 7. Do not reuse passwords. It's like putting the same lock on your house, car, boat and safe. Your passwords for your crucial accounts are sacred and need to be unique and strong. This isn't easy, which is why we recommend a password manager. You can use our F-Secure KEY on one device for free. 8. Have a secret email account for online shopping. Sites like Amazon allowing you to use your email for a login, which is convenient. It also means anyone who knows your email, knows your login and is halfway to cracking your account. A simple solution is to use a special email account that you with with no one that you use as login for financial accounts. 9. Back up everything. What's on our devices and PCs is worth more than the hardware themselves because they represent the thing we can never get back -- time. During the holiday season, your phone is filled with memories of celebrations and gatherings that will only happen in that exact way once. So make sure all your devices are backed up, all the time. 10. Use a cloud service you can trust. As you know from the series of nude photos of celebrities released this year, the security of your cloud storage matters. The more people you have trying to hack you, the more your content is at risk. Using a service -- like our younited -- that offers two-factor authentication and is designed to protect your privacy. Happy holidays, Sandra [Photo by Mike McCune via Flickr]

Nov 25, 2014
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What is a supercookie and why is it more important than you think?

Many techie terms in the headlines lately. Supercookies, supertrackers, HTTP headers and X-UIDH. If you just skim the news you will learn that this is some kind of new threat against our privacy. But what is it really? Let’s dig a bit deeper. We will discover that this is an issue of surprisingly big importance. Cookies are already familiar to most of us. These are small pieces of information that a web server can ask our browser to store. They are very useful for identifying users and managing sessions. They are designed with security and privacy in mind, and users can control how these cookies are used. In short, they are essential, they can be a privacy problem but we have tools to manage that threat. What’s said above is good for us ordinary folks, but not so good for advertisers. Users get more and more privacy-aware and execute their ability to opt out from too excessive tracking. The mobile device revolution has also changed the game. More and more of our Internet access is done through apps instead of the browser. This is like using a separate “browser” for all the services we use, and this makes it a lot harder to get an overall picture of our surfing habits. And that’s exactly what advertisers want, advertising is like a lottery with bad odds unless they know who’s watching the ad. A new generation of supercookies (* were developed to fight this trend. It is a piece of information that is inserted in your web traffic by your broadband provider. Its purpose is to identify the user from whom the traffic comes. And to generate revenue for the broadband provider by selling information about who you really are to the advertisers. These supercookies are typically used on mobile broadband connections where the subscription is personal, meaning that all traffic on it comes from a single person. So why are supercookies bad? They are inserted in the traffic without your consent and you have no way to opt out. They are not visible at all on your device so there is no way to control them by using browser settings or special tools. They are designed to support advertisers and generate revenue for the mobile broadband provider. Your need for privacy has not been a design goal. They are not domain-specific like ordinary cookies. They are broadcasted to any site you communicate with. They were designed to remain secret. They are hidden in an obscure part of the header information that very few web administrators need to touch. There are two ways to pay for Internet services, with money or by letting someone profile you for marketing purposes. This system combines both. You are utilized for marketing profit by someone you pay money to. But what can and should I do as an ordinary user? Despite the name, this kind of supercookies are technically totally different from ordinary cookies. The privacy challenges related with ordinary cookies are still there and need to be managed. Supercookies have not replaced them. Whatever you do to manage ordinary cookies, keep doing it. Supercookies are only used by some mobile broadband providers. Verizon and AT&T have been most in the headlines, but at least AT&T seems to be ramping down as a result of the bad press. Some other operators are affected as well. If you use a device with a mobile broadband connection, you can test if your provider inserts them. Go to this page while connected over the device’s own data connection, not WiFi. Check what comes after “Broadcast UID:”. This field should be empty. If not, then your broadband provider uses supercookies. Changing provider is one way to get rid of them. Another way is to use a VPN-service. This will encapsulate all your traffic in an encrypted connection, which is impossible to tamper with. We happen to have a great offering for you, F-secure Freedome. Needless to say, using Freedome on your mobile device is a good idea even if you are not affected by these supercookies. Check the site for more details. Last but not least. Even if you’re unaffected, as most of you probably are, this is a great reminder of how important net neutrality is. It means that any carrier that deliver your network traffic should do that only, and not manipulate it for their own profit. This kind of tampering is one evil trick, throttling to extort money from other businesses is another. We take neutrality and equal handling for granted on many other common resources in our society. The road network, the postal service, delivery of electricity, etc. Internet is already a backbone in society and will grow even more important in the future. Maintaining neutrality and fair rules in this network is of paramount importance for our future society.   Safe surfing, Micke   PS. The bad press has already made AT&T drop the supercookies, which is great. All others involved mobile broadband providers may have done the same by the time you are reading this. But this is still an excellent example of why net neutrality is important and need to be guaranteed by legislation.     (* This article uses the simplified term supercookie for the X-UIDH -based tracker values used by Verizon, AT&T and others in November 2014. Supercookie may in other contexts refer to other types of cookie-like objects. The common factor is that a supercookie is more persistent and harder to get rid of than an ordinary cookie.   Image by Jer Thorp  

Nov 18, 2014
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5 ways to get ready to ask Mikko anything

It's like a press conference anyone can join from anywhere. And even if you don't have a question, you can upvote the ones you don't like and downvote the ones you do. President Obama did one. Snoop Dogg/Snoop Lion did one. An astronaut did one from outer space. And our Mikko Hypponen will sit down for his second Reddit AMA on December 2 at 9 AM ET. If you have something you've wanted to ask him about online security, great. If not, here are five resources that document some of Mikko's more than two decades in the security industry to prod you or prepare you. 1. Check out this 2004 profile of his work from Vanity Fair. 2. Watch his 3 talks that have been featured on TED.com. [protected-iframe id="7579bbf790267cc081ac7d92d951262c-10874323-9129869" info="https://embed-ssl.ted.com/talks/mikko_hypponen_fighting_viruses_defending_the_net.html" width="640" height="360" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" webkitallowfullscreen="" mozallowfullscreen="" allowfullscreen=""] [protected-iframe id="fdf818f4afa2f7dcb179c5516c44918c-10874323-9129869" info="https://embed-ssl.ted.com/talks/mikko_hypponen_three_types_of_online_attack.html" width="640" height="360" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" webkitallowfullscreen="" mozallowfullscreen="" allowfullscreen=""] [protected-iframe id="54be2fe9bce28ae991becbe3d4291e56-10874323-9129869" info="https://embed-ssl.ted.com/talks/mikko_hypponen_how_the_nsa_betrayed_the_world_s_trust_time_to_act.html" width="640" height="360" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" webkitallowfullscreen="" mozallowfullscreen="" allowfullscreen=""] 3. Check out his first AMA, which took place just after his first talk at TEDglobal was published. 4. Take a trip to Pakistan with Mikko to meet the creators of the first PC virus. [protected-iframe id="8c0605f62076aa901ed165dbd3f4fcd7-10874323-9129869" info="//www.youtube-nocookie.com/v/lnedOWfPKT0?version=3&hl=en_US&rel=0" width="640" height="360"] 5. To get a sense of what he's been thinking about recently, watch his most recent talk at Black Hat "Governments as Malware Creators". [protected-iframe id="54b24406f022e81b15ad6dadf2adfc93-10874323-9129869" info="//www.youtube-nocookie.com/v/txknsq5Z5-8?hl=en_US&version=3&rel=0" width="640" height="360"] BONUS: Make sure you follow him on Twitter to get a constant stream of insight about online security, privacy and classic arcade games. Cheers, Sandra

Nov 14, 2014