Prague – It normally retails at over thirty thousand crowns, yet alleged Brit Larry Smith is selling it on Czech advertising websites for fifteen thousand.
Seeing such a bargain, Tereza Kouklová didn't hesitate and ordered two Apple MacBook Air laptops at once. She sent Larry not just the thirty thousand for both machines, but also another 700 dollars (roughly CZK 44,000) for supposed tax and shipping. The money ended up with fraudsters in Nigeria and no laptops arrived. “I reported it to the police, but I haven't got much hope,” says Kouklová.
There are dozens – even hundreds – of such cases in the Czech Republic alone, and the number of victims is rapidly increasing. “There are cases where some people have paid up to seventy thousand crowns,” says Tomáš Večl, head of the European Consumer Centre. They tend to be taken in by advertisements where goods are offered by various UK companies. The scammers have no qualms about using broken Czech. “Our customers interest comes as first, and always have good feedback from them. The test will convince you,” claims one of the ads.
They are not just offering laptops, but virtually all electronics, with mobile phones particularly popular. The fraudsters have flooded the Czech Internet, offering prices typically half those advertised by Czech online stores.
Different goods, same scam
The scenario is virtually identical in all cases: the customer e-mails a reply to an offer, and the company writes back with details and sends an invoice. And here is the first red flag: the company wants the money upfront, but not by bank transfer or card, as is now customary, but wired via Western Union branches. This international network enables you to send cash virtually anywhere in the world.
The fraudsters are not content to stick with the basic price. Once you pay, new tricks come into play. “After I had paid for two mobiles, they told me that the minimum order was six phones, so I agreed with a friend that I would pass the rest onto him. But I was the one who paid,” says another of the victims, Květa Borovková. However, that wasn't the end of the payments. “The company then demanded money for shipping and customs duty, even though none is paid between the UK and the Czech Republic. A few days later, the company sent another e-mail, claiming its staff had made a mistake and accidentally sent twelve phones. They wanted me to pay for that too. This time the payment was a direct transfer to Nigeria. But the phones didn't arrive even after that,” says Borovková. The final bill for two phones that never arrived: CZK 74,000.
Western Union issues warnings
The Czech branch of Western Union is aware of the problems with these scammers.”We warn customers about these practices in our offices and on our website. We deal with quite a few cases like this and we are now practised in deterring people from making such transactions,” says Renáta Bínová from Intercash, one of the companies providing Western Union services in the Czech Republic.
The biggest problem is that people follow the instructions of someone they don't know rather than look up how the Western Union service actually operates. “Verifying the identity of persons who are to collect the money abroad will not prevent fraud if someone has already volunteered all the necessary information for payment in advance,” adds Bínová.
It is quite simple not to become a victim of these scams: just be careful where you are sending your money. “A sign of fraud when purchasing online is the requirement to wire cash in advance, through Western Union, for example,” warns Večl.
A company based in the UK places an advertisement on a Czech website (e.g. hyperinzerce.cz) offering goods at bargain prices, usually 50% cheaper than in the Czech Republic.The company confirms the order and sends an invoice. It only accepts payment through Western Union.It acknowledges receipt of payment, but then demands additional money (citing taxes or warehousing charges in Nigeria). These payments are sent directly to Nigeria.Excuse follows excuse, typically that they sent more electronics than you ordered and you have to pay the difference.No goods arrive, all lines of communication are closed.