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How to spot a motorcycle scammer


Warning | Fraudster | Con man | Con artist | Western Union | PayPal | eBay



Bike scamming is now a cottage industry. All over the planet from Nigeria to Northampton, from Clacton to California there are people sat behind computers firing off phoney adverts in all directions and fairly sure that sooner or later some mug like you or us will happen along, swallow the bait for a sight-unseen motorcycle, then shake hands across the internet and send a lot of cash to a bogus account.


At Sump we've blocked a few such con artists, but unfortunately we know of at least one instance where a buyer lost around £7,000. He saw an ad. Listened to the promises. Sent money for a bike he'd never seen. And never received the bike or got his money back. As hard as we try and police Sump's Bikes for Sale adverts, we can't possibly spot all the crooks. No one can. There are too many out there.


But we stay vigilant, and so should you. Here are some indicators and warning signs that might help prevent you from falling victim.





1. GOOGLE IMAGE SEARCH. Scammers usually snatch their adverts from online, and then re-present them as new ads. Consequently, the photos and text are placed on eBay (or other sites) but with a new email contact address (more on this contact address in a while). If you know how to grab the image off screen, you can do a REVERSE IMAGE SEARCH.


Google will help there. Just open a fresh window on your computer, or instruct your phone, and copy and paste the picture of the bike. There's a good chance that Google will then turn up other images of that machine, and that could be revealing. The bike might well feature in another advert with the same copy, but with different contact details. It might turn up in other evident scams. Just check.


But remember that there are no guarantees that Google will find that bike. However, we've used the image search feature successfully many times. When it works, it works.


One more thing here: look for a number plate on the bike. Some sellers obscure that number for security reasons. We understand that. But some scammers are, in spite of their shrewdness and deviousness, pretty stupid. Where possible just check that the number plate and location makes sense. A French number plate on a UK registered bike is a red flag. A Florida plate on an Oregon bike would make us ask questions.


ironhead-sportster2. CHECK THE AD COPY. Sometimes scammers are lazy and don't properly read their own ads. So there might be clues there. For instance, a bike that's never seen rain might be more believable if it supposedly lives in Southern California, USA rather than, say, Wales, UK. And ripping-off people from overseas is often an important part of the con. Distant bike. Hard to view before a sale. Low price. Bargain. Send money quick. Etc. And cross-ocean scams operate in both directions, note.


Also, if you get to talk to a scammer, he or she might be hazy about some of the detail of the bike. For instance, they might be trying to sell a Harley-Davidson Sportster and not know the difference between an Ironhead and an Evo. They might not know that airhead BMW motorcycles run Bing carburettors and not Amals or Mikunis. So try and "trip up" the seller. If he/she is genuine, they probably won't mind. If he/she is a crook, they'll soon start to get rattled. Why? Because they knows that the longer they engage with you, the more they reveal. The mere hint of your suspicion can be enough to switch off the sale and see him or her fly.


Also, copy and paste some of the ad copy into a search bar and see what comes up. That new advert on Google/Yahoo/Safari might show up on one or more pages elsewhere on the net.


3. LOOK AT THE CONTACT DETAILS. Many scammers hide behind an email address and offer no landline phone. But note that there might be a mobile/cellphone number given. However, chances are that it will be a cheap, disposable phone that will be dumped after the scam.


If there is a landline, factor that in. But it's not conclusive. The scammer could be using a guest house or pub/bar phone, or they might have figured out another dodge such as a payphone in the street. Landline numbers only support other information (or not). They're not to be relied on. Stay alert.


Scammer's telephoneWhatever number there is (landline or cellphone), and if you're still interested in the bike, make a call. Interrogate the seller, and take nothing at face value. Always ask for a landline number (if applicable) as soon as you make contact. If you can't get one, make a mental note. A scammer might tell you that he or she simply doesn't have a landline. Fine. Ask if you can contact them via another landline. A friend's address. Or at work. Or at their favourite bar. Be shrewd. Yes, the seller might think it's a bit odd, so gauge their response. Factor it in. What you need is to pin the seller to a specific location. They might tell you that they're in Yorkshire, or France, or Colorado. But they could be anywhere. So try and nail them down.


Meanwhile, focus on the email address. Copy it and paste it into a search bar. See if it comes up elsewhere. You might get "lucky". Also, we note that gmail addresses are common for scammers. They're not conclusive, but they can be indicative.


Note: we've never found an obvious female scammer, but they're probably out there. Be on the alert. It's a natural progression.


If you do get a landline number, check it out. Does it match the geographical location? Put it in a search bar. See what you get.


4. LOOK AT THE PRICE. Many scammers, remember, are trying to flog a bike sight-unseen. And it will typically (but not always) be a long way from where they placed the advert. So an American fraudster will advertise in the UK. To bait his hook, he has to have a lower than usual asking price. If, conversely, the price is at "normal" levels, there's less chance of hooking the distant fish. Greediness, for want of a better word, is the fuel that scamsters run on. And if the bike really is super cheap, why can't he/she sell it locally?


There's a guy, for instance, who advertises bikes out of Scotland, UK. Not Edinburgh or Glasgow, note. There are lots of people in both cities. Half a million or more in each. No, this scammer operates (on paper) out of Elgin, right at the top of the country. He needs that remoteness. That's part of the scam. He almost certainly doesn't advertise in the local newspaper. He advertises down south. Or overseas. He wants fish who can't nip around and view the bike before they buy and/or pay cash and ride it away.


However, some scammers have wised-up a little. They post prices that are pretty realistic, but also throw in other treats. Spares. Accessories. Etc. They might tell you that they need a quick sale due to a divorce, or are leaving the country to start a new job in Saudi Arabia, or are about to go and work on an oil rig for six months. Don't be rushed. Instead, do the opposite. Slow down. Generally speaking, remoteness is an alarm bell.


5. HAVE A FRIEND STUDY the advert before you make a call, and certainly before you hand over money. Make sure it's a friend who isn't emotionally involved—except when it comes to protecting your interests. Get that friend to "sniff" the ad. See if it smells funny to him/her. There are times when you can't trust your own instincts. You need a more objective opinion.


6. LOOK AT THE SELLER'S eBay history (where applicable). Often, scammers will have eBay accounts that they established maybe a year ago—and they may have actually used that account a number of times. But generally only for small purchases: i.e. a few quid here, a few quid there, and so on. What they want to do is establish an eBay history. More to the point, they want feedback from the people with whom they've done business. And note that these people might well actually be the same scammer who's also operating other eBay accounts. But generally, the feedback on bogus accounts will be from more legitimate traders.


So one way or another the scammer directs positive feedback between his various accounts. And when you check that feedback, his score is high. He or she has, after all, behaved. But as we've suggested, look at what he actually bought. Does it look convincing? Or phoney? Serious purchases, or trivial items? Follow the trail for a bit. See where it ends up.


Then look at the account name. People are creatures of habit. It's not unusual for scammers to use a familiar pattern. For instance, the eBay account name might be bigdog0101010101. And that might lead you to another account called bigcat0101010101. Or fatdog0101010101. You get the idea. It's often difficult for people to hide such patterns, often because there are underlying patterns or habits. For instance, the names might be different, but the number of syllables might stay constant. Or the type of name might strike a chord with you, but not necessarily with the scammer; harry harlington, or larry carrington, or denny donington. We're simplifying here. But just as musicians fall back on familiar motifs, so do safe crackers, novelists or scammers.


7. LISTEN FOR EXCUSES. For instance, he can't actually meet you because he's in the military, therefore his mother will handle the despatch of the bike after payment is received. Fine. Ask to speak to his mother. What's that? She's deaf? Okay. Well can he take the bike to a nearby motorcycle shop? Maybe the dealer in that shop can act as a go between, for a fee of course? And maybe the dealer can collect the bike too? What's that? No motorcycle shop nearby? Where does he live? In the arctic? Okay, well maybe the seller can talk to you via Skype. Then you can see each other's face? What? The seller isn't allowed to use Skype on their military base/oil rig/spaceship or whatever?


In short, scammers have a hundred reasons why they can't deal with you face to face, or let you get a look at them.


8. TAKE A TIP AND ALWAYS buy a motorcycle that you can see, from a seller standing right in front of you, and deal in cash. Ideally, you still want to talk with that seller via Skype first of all. Show your faces to each other. So talk openly. And deal openly. Bring a friend if you can.


And if you can't talk on Skype, maybe when you meet you can get a reliable photograph of him/her. They could be flogging you a stolen bike after all. So if you can engineer a situation whereby you take a  discreet snapshot, with a helmet cam or dashcam or something, do it. Might come in useful later if things go wrong post-sale. And if they know that they're on camera, they might suddenly not be so keen to do business, so walk/drive/ride away.


9. ALWAYS READ A BIKE AD assuming it's some kind of scam and then look for proof that it isn't. Don't start naively believing whatever you're told. Scammers are experienced in deception. You're not. Just remember that "psychic" guys such as Uri Geller will demonstrate their "powers" in front of any number of studio scientists, but they refuse to strut their stuff in front of a magician.


10.NEVER SEND MONEY to a Western Union office anywhere in the world, or any similar money transfer service. And avoid any PayPal deals. Yes, it makes it harder for you to grab those "bargains", but it also makes it harder for those "bargains" to grab you. Be smart.


Most bike sellers are reasonably honest. But that's not your problem. Just concern yourself with the crooks, because if you don't find them, there's a fair chance they'll find you sooner or later. And remember this too, this article is also effectively an instruction manual for anyone else who fancies a little bike scamming as a hobby or profession. The crooks will adapt and try to stay ahead of the game. So must we.


Happy hunting.



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