City teen charged in online fraud

100 bidders cheated, Arundel police say

January 30, 2002|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Promised bargains on everything from Walt Disney World passes to video game systems, more than 100 online holiday shoppers sent checks to a Glen Burnie post office box. But they never saw Mickey Mouse or their PlayStations.

And they never saw their money again, authorities said yesterday while announcing the arrest of an East Baltimore teen-ager accused of running a scheme on the eBay auction site.

Christopher Lemar Scott, 19, has been charged with 15 counts of theft, accused of failing to deliver goods he had advertised on eBay, said Anne Arundel County police.

Authorities said they are continuing an investigation into what they suspect might be tens of thousands of dollars' in fraud. It is a case that seems to illustrate what consumer groups' statistics show is the growing problem of online auction schemes.

Checks or money orders totaling $5,366.56 were received for video game equipment never delivered, charging documents said. Thirteen people from as far away as Oklahoma and Washington state paid as much as $400 each for Sony PlayStations. A Michigan man paid $533 for a Microsoft X-box video game system, police said.

As many as 140 online auction bidders from across the United States - none of them local - may have sent money to Scott's Glen Burnie post office box without ever receiving the items they had ordered, according to county police.

Scott, a resident of the 4900 block of Greencrest Road, was arrested Monday after he picked up mail from a post office box in the Harundale post office - the mailing address police, postal authorities and eBay investigators allege he used in the fraud.

James and Debbie Fowler of Hartselle, Ala., were among the victims. They sent $522 in money orders to the post office box for a Microsoft X-Box video system for their 10-year-old son.

"It's sickening," said Debbie Fowler. "It was supposed to be a Christmas present."

Because the discussion over the sale was so detailed, Fowler said, "It all sounded like it was on the up-and-up."

Consumer protection groups say online auction schemes are the most common type of Internet fraud. The National Consumer League's Internet Fraud Watch recorded more than $2.7 million in online auction fraud between January and October of last year, up from $2.6 million for all of 2000.

In nearly nine of 10 cases, bidders paid with a check or money order. Credit and debit cards are harder to process, authorities said.

Under the eBay Fraud Protection Program, the site will - in most cases - refund any victims of fraud up to $200 an item, according to a posting on the site. The site also investigates complaints about undelivered items, working with local and federal law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI and the Postal Service, said Kevin Purs- glove, an eBay spokesman.

Pursglove said fewer than 1/100 of 1 percent of the site's listings, which average 7 million at any time, result in a confirmed case of fraud. "Relatively speaking, fraud on eBay is rare," he said.

Although her family has successfully bought antique dishes and parts for model cars through eBay, those were purchases of less than $100, Debbie Fowler said. She described the purchase of the video game system as "a very expensive lesson."

In general, consumer advocates recommend online buyers make purchases through an auction site that offers protection to users in refunds. They also recommend researching online sellers.

"Buyers should get as much information as possible about sellers before they do business with them," said Delores Thompson, a lawyer specializing in Internet auction fraud with the Federal Trade Commission.

Detectives in the county's Northern District started their investigation last month after they received a complaint from a woman in Jacksonville, Fla., who said she paid $285 for merchandise she never received, said Officer Charles Ravenell, a police spokesman. Officials from eBay also contacted county police, who began working with postal authorities and eBay investigators, he said.

As victims filed complaints with eBay, Scott was evicted from the site as a seller, police said. However, investigators suspect that he registered again as a seller using a different identity - that of a female - and continued the scheme, police said. Police said they also are investigating the possibility that money was received for car parts never delivered.

During a search of Scott's house Monday, police found stolen credit card numbers in a safe, Ravenell said. Police said they believe the numbers were used to set up the online accounts so merchandise could be advertised.

Scott was being held yesterday at the Anne Arundel County Detention Center on $50,000 bail.

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