Edmunds.com will calculate a car's cost over a five-year span. (Associated Press )
Pamela Jacques wanted to buy a used car for her 16-year-old daughter. Nothing fancy — just a knockabout set of wheels she could safely use to get around.
Jacques, 46, of Arcadia, visited various car sites online. She finally came across what looked like a sweet deal: a 2002 Toyota RAV4 with a little more than 76,000 miles on it. The seller wanted just $5,300.
"It seemed very reasonable," Jacques told me. "It looked perfect."
Too perfect. The car exists, somewhere. But the seller … not so much.
Jacques was lucky. She backed out of the purchase just in time. Had she not, she would have fallen for an unusually sophisticated version of a classic scam that all cyber-shoppers should be alert to.
Making this particular con all the more insidious is that it preys on the victim's desire to help out a member of the U.S. military serving overseas.
The car in this case was pretty cherry. It was an automatic, no dings, no dents. Air conditioning, tinted windows, power-this and power-that, CD player, premium sound system.
A vehicle identification number was provided. Jacques did a search on Carfax and saw that the RAV4 was as advertised — fully loaded and very clean.
After letting the seller know of her interest, Jacques received an email from a Lt. Katie Gillen. She said she was selling the vehicle because she's in the U.S. Navy.
"I am deployed on an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean offering support to our troops in Afghanistan," Gillen wrote. "I have a long-term commitment and I will be mostly at sea this year and don't need the car anymore."
When Jacques said she was interested in buying the vehicle, Gillen wrote back with detailed instructions for how the deal would go down using a risk-free purchase protection program offered by the Santa Monica-based car site Edmunds.com.
The RAV4, Gillen said, was at an Edmunds storage facility. Once Jacques had made a partial payment on the $5,300 purchase price — the exact amount would be disclosed in a subsequent email — Edmunds would ship the car to her at no cost.
She'd then have five days in which to test drive the Toyota and have it checked out by a mechanic. If she wanted it, fine. She'd pay the rest of the money and Edmunds would assist in the title transfer. If not, Jacques could ship the car back to Edmunds, again at no cost, and her deposit would be refunded.
Gillen helpfully included a link in her email to what looked liked a page at the Edmunds website detailing how the escrow service works. Jacques found it very thorough, and she was reassured to be dealing with a well-established company like Edmunds.
"I was surprised that I'd never heard of this service before," she said. "But it didn't seem unreasonable that Edmunds did this. I thought maybe it was a service they provided to members of the military."
It's not. It's not a service Edmunds provides at all.
What finally tipped off Jacques to the scam was when she did her own search for the Edmunds buyer protection plan and found an announcement from the company alerting consumers that fraudsters were trying to pull a fast one.
"Edmunds doesn't offer any service like this," Ken Levin, the company's general counsel, told me. "All we offer is an information service."
The scam, he said, is that people are duped into thinking the Edmunds escrow service is legit. They then wire deposit money for the vehicle to what they believe is a safe third party. The scammer snatches the cash and is never heard from again.
Levin said calls have been received from victims nationwide, including a sheriff in Maine who got snookered by the real-seeming car deal.
It's believed the scammers are operating primarily out of Eastern Europe, he said. But because they've been difficult to pinpoint, he said, law-enforcement agencies have been unable to do anything.
"Our message to people who are told that Edmunds has a car escrow service is to immediately break off contact with the seller," Levin said. "You're dealing with a fraudster."
Jacques didn't have to be told twice. She stopped communicating with "Lt. Gillen" and contacted me instead. Intrigued, I fired off an email to the good lieutenant saying I'd seen her ad for the Toyota RAV4 online and may be interested in buying it.
A day later, I received the same email Jacques had gotten, word for word, explaining how Gillen was serving abroad and was looking to quickly unload her vehicle. I wrote back and said I'd like to take it out for a spin.
Gillen, or whoever, then responded with the same song and dance about Edmunds' purchase protection plan and the same link to the bogus Web page detailing how it works. I wrote back saying that I'd checked with Edmunds, and the company doesn't have such a plan. I asked if this was a scam.
I received no further emails.
As best as I can tell, the scammer plucked information and photos of a real RAV4 from the Internet. Although there are various Katie Gillens to be found online, none seem to be both serving abroad with the Navy and selling the car in question.
Jacques is still kicking herself that she almost got taken. She has a background in marketing and prides herself on being able to spot an online scam.
"This one was just so detailed," she said. "I feel like such an idiot."
She shouldn't. Like the rest of us, she just has to keep her guard up that much higher.
David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Wednesdays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.