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A wedding dress and veil of secrecy


Published: Sat, March 4, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.


The bride-to be lost more than $2,400.
By JEFF GELLES
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
Blakely Smith dreamed of getting married in a Monique Lhuillier wedding gown -- the kind she'd always loved when she saw them on pop stars like Pink in People magazine.
Now she's out $2,400 to an eBay scammer, and thinking maybe she should get married in a courthouse.
She called to tell her tale of wedding-dress-lust, clouded judgment and wedding-dream-lost. Yes, it's a bit embarrassing. But she hopes to help others avoid the pain she feels.
EBay says Smith made at least two textbook mistakes en route to being scammed. What may make her case most remarkable, though, is how it ended -- in a bizarre e-mail exchange with her anonymous scammer.
It came after Smith had paid her money and received nothing back. She e-mailed "Kate," the supposed seller, told of a coworker's eBay horror story, and outlined why she was growing suspicious. "I am sorry to be this way, but in today's world, it is not totally off base to be wary," she said.
To which "Kate" replied:
"That's true, indeed. I just scammed you, sorry for that, it's nothing personal. ... It's what I do, and it pays well."
How did Smith get into this mess? The way any confidence-game victim does -- by letting an overabundance of trust overwhelm ordinary caution.
Smith, 29, works in advertising at Philadelphia Style magazine. Her fiance, Michael Minton, teaches high school science. She turned to eBay because, dreams or not, a new Monique Lhuillier gown was out of reach.
Top bidder
She was the top bidder for the gown, which sold new for $5,500 and features Alencon lace, "decadent silk chartreuse lining" and an "exquisite golden silk sash." But she fell short of the reserve, the seller's hidden minimum price.
She couldn't tell how short. Neither, presumably, could the scammer. But the fake "Kate" knew when to pounce.
Soon after the auction closed, Smith got a message via her eBay account. The seller had decided to accept her final bid, it said, and directed her to reply to an outside e-mail address.
Looking back, Smith realizes that was a red flag -- one that was even warned against in a "Marketplace Safety Tip" on the same screen: "If you receive a response inviting you to transact outside of eBay, you should decline -- such transactions may be unsafe and are against eBay policy."
Another red flag was the wire-transfer "Kate" requested, saying her account on PayPal, eBay's own payment system, had been frozen because of -- what else? -- a scammer's intrusion.
But Smith, new to eBay, didn't notice either warning until the deed was done. Last Monday, after a brief e-mail exchange with "Kate," she sent her money -- more than $2,400, including fees -- to a Western Union office in Mount Clemens, Mich.
Under investigation
Police there are investigating, and may catch the scammer or a confederate. But there are broader lessons in Smith's story for anyone new to eBay.
One is that eBay says it can only warn against scams, not prevent them. "Ultimately, this is between the buyer and seller. This is just a venue," spokesman Hani Durzy told me.
Don't expect much sympathy, either. Durzy even suggested that Smith "let her greed get the best of her" in falling for the scam. "What she did is the online equivalent of walking out of a store and buying something in a back alley," he says.
For that matter, eBay doesn't even count such "back alley" crimes as frauds when it boasts that only a small fraction of total listings -- just one-hundredth of 1 percent -- "lead to a confirmed case of fraud."
Sure, it's small fraction. But eBay reported 1.9 billion listings in 2005, so it translates into 190,000 confirmed frauds in one year. (To report an online scam, go to www.ic3.gov/complaint.)
Smith is understandably angered by the suggestion she fell victim to her own greed. She turned to eBay for a used wedding dress, and lost eight months of savings. The truth is, eBay can be a risky place for newbies.
Don't take my word. Consider how "Kate" put it when I e-mailed her at the address the scammer gave Smith: "It's like the food chain, you know -- I was the predator, she was the prey."
A chilling reminder of an online truism: On the Internet, anybody might be a shark.
Contact columnist Jeff Gelles at consumerwatchphillynews.com or (215) 854-4558. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/jeffgelles. View his blog at http://consumerwatch.blogspot.com.


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