In my bid to buy a Burro, I almost made an ass of myself.
I am not usually a gullible person. Many of my formative years, after all, were spent in the cynic's paradise of New Jersey. Many more years have been spent working for skeptical editors while covering all manner of crimes, a career that nurtured a healthy suspicion of, well, pretty much everything and everyone.
And yet I found myself slowly reeled into an online money scam last week. It was a lesson in vulnerability, and I am certain the current state of affairs tricked me into letting my guard down.
Crooks have always preyed upon the vulnerable. From their standpoint, the tumult of 2020 is a dream come true. All manner of scams have been reported since the COVID-19 pandemic began turning our lives upside-down.
Earlier this year, USA TODAY reported on a host of scams hatched during the pandemic.
But not all the scams are new ones tied directly to fears over the virus. The FBI has urged vigilance during the pandemic when it comes to all manner of run-of-the-mill scams, which are proliferating as people find themselves stressed out and off-balance.
I probably fall into that category, and the would-be thief involved was using one of the older scams on the books.
Here's the context.
I need my getaways. Who doesn't? The pandemic, of course, has killed them off one by one.
A spring vacation in Florida was the first to fizzle. Then came a string of hastily planned and ultimately aborted replacement trips. All I wanted was to get us out of the house, and every attempt was quashed.
Last week, I was still dreaming of simple getaways. The kids are getting older, and my wife and I, longtime tent campers, have talked more frequently about buying a small popup camper or something similar. Nothing fancy, and the tinier the better.
That is how I blundered into the Craigslist ad for the Burro.
I'd never heard of a Burro, a teensy, retro travel trailer that has a cult following of minimalists.
The local Burro, supposedly for sale on the West Side, looked great and was crazy cheap.
That, of course, should have been Warning No. 1. Say it with me, everyone. "If the price is too good to be true ... "
But I envisioned years of future getaways in the cozy Burro, free of kids and coronavirus. I pushed my instincts aside and texted the owner. The number was in the 614 area code.
Yes, the trailer was still available, he replied a few hours later. Could he have my email? He would send me all the information.
That was Warning No. 2. I already had enough information from the ad. I just wanted to look at it. I'm no Craigslist expert, but that is how it always worked for me. See ad, contact seller, meet up and look at item. But I texted him my email address, making up excuses for him. Maybe, like me, he just loathed typing on his phone.
Two days passed with no reply. Warning No. 3. My gut was telling me something was up. But I provided him with more excuses. Maybe I'm next in line, and he's keeping me on the hook in case a pending sale fell through.
So the dreams persisted. In my head, I already was remodeling the Burro.
On Tuesday, a long-winded email arrived. A synopsis: He just had throat surgery and moved out of state to his daughter's place. The camper was with eBay, which he said was to act as third-party agent handling my money — except eBay doesn't do that. Could he have my eBay user name, blah-blah-blah.
Ted, my boy, you got duped.
The email was more than enough to shake me out of my RV reverie. A camper advertised on Craigslist but being sold through eBay? Not a chance.
I went into reporter mode, and in minutes I found others talking about "my" Burro and the scam tied to it. A little more digging and I found the real ad, in California. The local guy, if he even was local, had just co-opted a few of the pictures and the description.
More digging, and I was embarrassed to discover this was a variation of a tried-and-true scam involving the phony sale of vehicles that went back years. Fortunately, I had figured it out early, before I handed over more than my phone number and email address.
"Nice try," I responded to his email. I advised him that he'd been reported, which was true. I filed complaints with Craigslist and the Ohio Attorney General's Office.
He deserved to have law enforcement sicced on his sorry ... Burro.
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