Fleeced by a scammy web site, Paypal acts quickly to fix it

By | February 24, 2020

Recently our toaster broke, and although we have a “spare” toaster (long story), my wife and the kids all hate it and insisted that we replace the broken toaster, which they apparently absolutely adored, with a new one of exactly the same model.

The old toaster had an unfortunate habit of its feet falling off on a regular basis — I had to either reattach or replace all four feet at one point or another during its lifetime — but other than that it was fine, so I gritted my teeth, hoped that Panasonic had fixed the manufacturing issues causing the feet to fall off, and went searching on the internet for an identical replacement.

Through Google shopping, I found a site, “nonsad.com”, selling it for about $90. That was around $15 cheaper than anyone else’s price, so I went ahead and ordered it. I thought it was a little odd that the only payment option offered by the site was Paypal, but I figured if the site was scammy then I’d just dispute the charge with Paypal and get my money back, and even if Paypal screwed me over I could always dispute the charge with my credit card company.

After placing the order, I got a confirmation email from Paypal about my payment, and the seller email address in the confirmation email was a long, bizarre Gmail address, which also struck me as odd. Also odd was the fact that I received just the email from Paypal, i.e., no confirmation email from the web site. I was starting to feel a bit nervous at this point, but things were still (barely) within the cone of explainability, so I shrugged my shoulders and carried on.

A few days later, I had not received a shipping notification, so I emailed the address in the Paypal confirmation email and asked what was up.

No one responded, but a few days after that, I got email from Paypal with a UPS tracking number added to my order by the shipper.

A few days after that, when the package still hadn’t arrived, I went to the UPS web site to find out what its status was. The UPS web site claimed that it had been delivered several days ago to the “mail room” and signed for by “Dias.” Note: we live in a detached, single-family house. We don’t have a “mail room” and there’s no one named “Dias” living with us.

I called UPS and asked what was up. I gave them my name and address, and they told me that the name and address on the package were not mine. In other words, the tracking number added to my order by the seller was actually for someone else’s package. Note that it was for someone else in my city, so it seems that the con extends as far as using a decoy shipment in the same city so the purchaser can’t tell that it’s not actually coming to their address until after UPS says it’s “delivered” and they still haven’t received it. Clever!

At this point I started investigating a bit more carefully and discovered all sorts of other red flags on the site. I didn’t see any of these when I bought the toaster because my Google search brought me straight to the product page for it and I didn’t look around elsewhere on the site.

I wrote up my suspicions and collected some screenshots evidencing the questionable nature of the web site as well as a screenshot from the UPS site showing “Mail Room” and “Dias” and a screenshot of Google Maps showing that I do not live in an apartment building. My intention was to send these to Paypal and notify them that there was a likely scammer using their site to fleece people and ask them to investigate.

I then attempted to report the Paypal charge to them as fraudulent. Unfortunately, all I was able to do through the web site was to “file a dispute,” after which Paypal said they would contact the seller and let me know the results of their investigation when the seller responded.

That wasn’t going to fly, so I called Paypal on the phone and tried to use their automated system to escalate the complaint to get them to investigate. It said I couldn’t escalate using their automated system but asked if I wanted to speak with an agent; I said yes.

Apparently enough money goes through my Paypal account that it has a special status on it, “Funds Now,” which means I get put into a priority queue when I call, and I get to speak to an American (not a low-paid foreign call center worker with no autonomy and a thick accent, which would be particularly difficult for me because I have a lot of trouble understanding accents) who has the authority to resolve issues. Amazing!

I was connected quickly to a Paypal rep, to whom I explained the situation and asked how I could submit my evidence to Paypal that the account was a scammer. The rep did something very clever: he looked at the Paypal transaction to determine the product I had attempted to purchase, looked up the product’s specifications to find out how much it weighed, and then looked at the tracking information on the UPS web site to find out the weight of the package associated with the tracking number I was given. After confirming that the package was much too late to contain the toaster I paid for, he immediately resolved my dispute in my favor and refunded the full purchase price to me.

Then he explained that although being involved in a transaction like this would automatically flag the sender’s account and Paypal would investigate further, they nevertheless would be happy to have me submit the evidence I had collected and review it as well, and then he sent me instructions for how to do that.

I know a lot of people have complaints about Paypal, and indeed I have my share of them myself, but as far as I’m concerned they handled this perfectly.

I’m not quite sure what the operator of the web site gets out of this scam. I have three guesses, but I have no idea if any of them is correct:

  1. They set up a scammy web site, get people to place orders through it, string people along for long enough for Paypal to clear the money in their account, pull the money out of the Paypal account before it gets shut down, then finally switch to a new Paypal account and start over.
  2. They count on some people forgetting that they placed an order or being too lazy to dispute the charge when the order isn’t delivered, so that even if they end up refunding a lot of purchases they still make some money.
  3. The goal isn’t actually to make money with fake sales through the web site, but rather to mine for personally identifying information (names, addresses, email addresses), which are then either sold on the dark web or targeted for future scams. perhaps people who buy things from these fly-by-night web sites are more likely to fall prey to other scams so their contact info gets a good price on the dark web?

If you search online for “why do scam storefront websites exist?” a lot of the articles you’ll find say that they make their money by requiring payment in a way you can’t easily dispute or get refunded, e.g., wire transfer or money order. But that wasn’t the case here, so I can’t figure out what the motive is.

One other thing I noticed is that when I went back afterward, searched again for this particular toaster model in Google, and looked more carefully at the sites offering it, it looked like around the five lowest-priced offers were all scam web sites. I’ve never noticed this before, but I don’t know whether that’s because there’s something about this particular product which makes scammers like to offer it (it is a particularly popular toaster, so that might be it), or because I haven’t done enough shopping via Google before, or because scams like this have become more common recently.

UPDATE: Unfortunately, Paypal’s handling of this has deteriorated since what I wrote above. I followed the instructions provided to me by Paypal to send them evidence that the account in question was scamming people so they could shut it down. A day later, they responded with a form letter:

Thank you for contacting PayPal.

We reviewed the information regarding your case(s) and have decided in your favor.

We credited the full disputed transaction amount of $90.18 USD to your PayPal balance or payment method you used to complete this transaction…

This case is now closed. We are truly sorry that you experienced a problem with this transaction, but hope you are happy with the outcome of this case.

I wrote back:

Yes, I am aware that the charge has already been refunded. I submitted the evidence I sent to you because I think you need to review the account of the person who scammed me in general and prevent them from scamming other people. Thanks.

A day later, they responded:

Thank you for contacting PayPal.

After your dispute was escalated to a claim, we reviewed the information that you and the buyer provided.

Based on this information, we found that the item the buyer received didn’t match the description in your listing.

You can appeal our decision if: …

I sent back a moderately sweary message with lots of capitalized words. Alas, I cannot quote it here, because the “Messages” interface on the Paypal web site does not allow you to see messages you have sent to Paypal; it only allows you to see messages you’ve received from them. This is stupid. The only reason I was able to quote my earlier messages above is because I received replies from Paypal and my messages were quoted at the bottom of the reply.

In any case, I asked them them to escalate my case to someone who knows how to read and has the authority to investigate a Paypal user who is scamming people. I haven’t heard back yet.

UPDATE 2: For the record, this is the message that I sent to Paypal yesterday:

Jesus Christ CAN YOU READ WHAT I WROTE PLEASE. I actually spoke to one of your representatives about this on the phone. That’s how I got the charge refunded in the first place. I am no longer trying to get the charge refunded. I do not want to appeal your decision. I AM TRYING TO PROVIDE YOU WITH THE EVIDENCE YOU NEED TO INVESTIGATE THIS SELLER FURTHER, BAN THEM FROM YOUR PLATFORM, AND PREVENT *OTHER* PEOPLE FROM BEING RIPPED OFF BY THEM. You handled this so well at first, but now you’re REALLY SCREWING IT UP AND STARTING TO PISS ME OFF. Please escalate this to someone who understands English and has the authority to investigate scammers using your platform.

Thank you, Jonathan Kamens

And this is how they replied today:

Thank you for contacting PayPal.

I realise that this isn’t the outcome you’d have wished for, but I hope you understand why we made this decision. While I cannot change this, I will make sure your objection is duly recorded.


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