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'Buyers beware' when online scammers say they are at Malmstrom

Internet scammers pretend to be military personnel desperate to sell personal vehicles located at installations including Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. In reality, the ‘sellers’ are often in a foreign country and have no intention of delivering the vehicles they advertise. Beware of sellers who rely on complex financial transactions and false escrow accounts. (U.S. Air Force graphic/John Turner)

Internet scammers pretend to be military personnel desperate to sell personal vehicles located at installations including Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. In reality, the ‘sellers’ are often in a foreign country and have no intention of delivering the vehicles they advertise. Beware of sellers who rely on complex financial transactions and false escrow accounts. (U.S. Air Force graphic/John Turner)

MALMSTROM AFB, Mont. -- As Dwain browsed vehicles on Cars.com, he happened upon what looked like the deal of a lifetime. The seller was offering an "in perfect condition" 1968 Dodge Charger for only $18,000. The car was rust-free and had no mechanical problems, the seller promised. Furthermore, the car seemed to be located near Dwain's home in Mississippi. Excited, Dwain--his last name withheld to protect his privacy--replied to the posting.

Soon, an email came back from 'Pawel Boros' explaining that the Charger was not nearby for Dwain to look at. Instead, the vintage muscle car was in Montana--more than 1,800 miles and several states away--where Boros claimed he was preparing to deploy overseas.

"Currently I'm in a military base, Malmstrom Air Force Base, and the car is here with me," Boros wrote. "I have to sell this car as fast as I can because in three weeks I will be in Afghanistan and I think I'll stay there for a while, that's why I'm selling it so cheap."

Boros added that he could ship the car for free to anywhere in the United States. He also offered to send additional photographs and details if Dwain was still interested. However, Boros urged, he had to know Dwain's decision as soon as possible.

Dwain requested photos of the engine compartment, and also the vehicle identification number. Boros responded with additional images of the car and provided a VIN in the email. The sale seemed to be legitimate. Still, Dwain was wary because the license plate was grayed out in every picture, and Boros wouldn't clarify which state the car was registered to or provide a photo of the title.

Boros leaned harder into his pitch, desperate to close the deal.

"At this moment I am in a military base, getting ready for Afghanistan," Boros pleaded. "This mean [sic] that I do a special training program. I am not allowed to get out of the unit or have visitors."

But, he promised, he could have the Charger and all of its supporting documents at Dwain's address within 5-7 days at no additional cost to Dwain. Boros stated that he worked for the Army and delivery would not be a problem. All Boros needed to begin the transaction was for Dwain to buy the car through 'Amazon payment service.' He wanted Dwain's address and phone number, too.

"This is not a blind transaction," Boros reassured, explaining that the deposit was refundable and was only a security measure. "You can see (the car) before committing to buy, and to eliminate any concerns you will have seven days to inspect it. I think this is fair to both of us."

Dwain teetered on sending the money but his intuition nagged him to reconsider. Wanting to put all doubts to rest, he contacted 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs to ask if Boros is stationed here.

No, there is not a Pawel Boros assigned to Malmstrom, the base public affairs staff confirmed. Furthermore, that name doesn't match anybody in the entire Air Force.

Over the next two weeks, Public Affairs received four more queries about 'Pawel Boros' at Malmstrom.  Boros was now allegedly selling a Cadillac Allante in Colorado, a Porsche 928 in South Carolina, and a red Corvette in Indiana.

"If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is," Dwain admitted later. "If this had been a legitimate sale then the price was extremely low."

Unfortunately, this is a common scam. Someone pretends to be a military member desperate to sell a vehicle at a bargain price. The seller can't be contacted directly, supposedly because of training or duties. The seller assures that they've arranged to ship the vehicle for free--often using military resources--and wants payment wired to them or deposited into a fake escrow account. Sadly, the fraudulent 'seller' evaporates after receiving payment, leaving the buyer empty-handed and confused.

A week before the Pawel Boros queries started here, the victim in a similar case emailed the base hoping to reach "an officer by the name of Senior Airman Angela Watson."

"We were going through a deal when she had to leave to start training before she shipped out to Afghanistan," the victim wrote. "To my knowledge she has been there for over a month now and she has yet to contact me through email or by phone. I just wanted to confirm she was still at the base..."

Watson does not exist at Malmstrom. Furthermore, a copy of an email from 'SrA Angela Watson, USAF' (no one of that name and rank can be found in the Air Force) was posted on a fraud-busting forum two weeks prior.

"Right now I'm in a military base," Watson's familiar reply began. "We are training, getting ready for Afghanistan. I am only allowed to check my email several time [sic] a day. We have to stick to email for now... The truck is already at our Military Logistic Department form Great Falls, MT Air Force Base crated and ready to go. Like I said, the delivery process will be managed by me."

Watson then promised a quick delivery to the buyer's home address and urged that the transaction should be handled through 'eBay buyer protection program.' The vehicle would arrive with a clear title and registration, and the buyer would have five days to test it.
 
The FBI warns about this type of scam at http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2011/august/car_081511 and provides red flags for consumers. The FBI's website also explains other types of fraud and how to report them.

Additionally, many third-party sales sites now offer advice for avoiding and reporting scams. Craigslist has examples of actual scams at http://www.craigslist.org/about/scams and emphasizes this important rule: "Deal locally, face-to-face."

Most scams follow prewritten templates that allow scammers to quickly fabricate new identities, locations, and vehicles as they circulate like nomads through digital hunting grounds. Speed and flexibility is more important to the scammer than accuracy. A fraud will often unravel when the details are scrutinized.

1. Branch of service. Active-duty personnel at Malmstrom are members of the Air Force. Soldiers are rarely assigned here, and Army units do not train here for deployment.

2. Restricted communication. While Airmen here may be temporarily unavailable because of their duties or training, it would be unusual for them to be unable to communicate with people off-base for days or weeks at a time.

"We do not locally sequester people for deployment training," said Jerry Chandler, 341st Logistics Readiness Squadron installation deployment officer. "All of the combat skills training before a deployment is done elsewhere, at an Army base."

Airmen assigned here are not allowed to take their personally owned vehicles to combat skills training, he said.

3. Storage. Malmstrom does not have a central facility to garage personal vehicles for Airmen who are deployed or away at training, Chandler said, and Airmen must make private arrangements for storage. Additionally, the base does not have a Military Logistic Department.

4. Free shipping. Air Force members are generally not entitled to ship personal vehicles overland within the continental United States at the government's expense, said Steven Gilman, 341st LRS traffic management office deployment and distribution flight chief, though there are some exceptions to this rule for extraordinary circumstances.

More commonly, members are entitled to bring their personal vehicles with them when they are permanently reassigned to an overseas base, though this can depend on where they are relocating to. To do this, the member must have valid orders when they bring their vehicle to a Vehicle Processing Center. The nearest VPC servicing Malmstrom is in Seattle, Washington.

Ultimately, the Air Force does not act as the middleman in the sale of personal vehicles.

Variations of the scam promise that the vehicle will be transported by commercial transporters instead, again at no cost to the buyer. Dependable Auto Shippers, a national service that is often named as the means of delivery, identifies ways to discern shipping frauds at http://www.dasautoshippers.com/newsroom/fraud-information-center and warns that vehicles in fraudulent sales are often priced at just under $5,000 to avoid prosecution by the FBI. And while there isn't a DAS hub in Great Falls, Montana, as one version of the scam alleges, the DAS website has a service scheduler for door-to-door delivery. Use this to estimate the true cost of delivering a vehicle cross-country from Great Falls to another state and then decide if the seller's offer to absorb the fee is even practical.

5. Positive verification. If the buyer can't view the vehicle in person, they should request scans of maintenance records for the past 12 months, a CARFAX report, and/or a full inspection by a dealership that specializes in that vehicle's make and model. Additionally, buyers should request specific photos of the vehicle that positively identify the vehicle's location, model and color. If the seller can't or won't provide any of these before delivery, the sale is probably fraudulent.

In conclusion, always use caution when purchasing a vehicle through the internet. Be wary of 'hard luck' stories and excuses, vehicles that can't be viewed locally, and sellers who restrict their communication. Ask for proof that the vehicle is legitimate and not just recycled images copied from another sales posting. Don't wire funds into suspicious accounts or enter into confusing transaction schemes. And finally, always remember the old adage that if an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is.
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