NORMAL — Mary Yoder has been a trusting person, but a costly foray into the largely unregulated world of Internet auctions ended that.
She assumed a man from Texas was being honest when he offered to sell her two “nearly flawless” tourmaline gemstones for $1,800 several months ago on eBay, the Internet largest auction site.
The Normal woman thought she was getting a deal because tourmalines of similar size and quality typically fetch anywhere from $3,000 to $4,000. But when the gems arrived at her home, Yoder found imperfections that made the stones worthless, not flawless.
Whether she was too infatuated with adding the sparkling green gems to her collection or too intrigued with the discounted price, Yoder became the victim of fraud, a growing crime on the Internet that law enforcement says affects thousands of people each year.
“I felt sick. I’m a 63-year-old woman and I felt sick because I blew $1,800,” Yoder said. “I should have been more careful. But I was star-truck with these beautiful stones. Like everybody else, I was out looking for a bargain.”
The Illinois attorney general’s office says the Internet is still a relatively new medium and remains largely unregulated by the government. Scott Mulford, a spokesman for the office, said police have found it difficult to track how often people get swindled.
But thousands of complaints are filed with city police departments, sheriff’s departments and state and federal authorities each year, Mulford said. Many of the crimes — which often go unsolved — occur through a variety of consumer scams targeting people who are trusting.
“There’s so much fraud on the Internet,” Normal Police Lt. Mark Kotte said. “You have to practice the ‘buyer beware’ philosophy. If you’re going to buy, make sure the person is legitimate. What happens is if something’s too good to be true, then it probably is. Con artists play to one of the basic vices of human nature: greed.”
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Kotte said thieves send out waves of unsolicited e-mails encouraging people to buy products that don’t exist. Others pose as bogus charities hoping to take advantage of good will. Most of the time the goal is to get credit card information so they can go on spending sprees.
“I warn people this is the time of year that disreputable people will be out there,” Kotte said of the period around the holidays. “Criminals know people open up their wallets at this time of year to give money. You end up getting con artists posing as charities and people give them their money.”
While most of the more than 100 million people who use eBay are honest, the buyer is almost always at the mercy of the seller because they can’t physically inspect the products or make sure the seller will deliver the promised goods. Kotte said he tells people do research before buying something online.
Auction-related fraud and non-delivery of merchandise accounted for 88 percent of the complaints that Illinoisans filed in 2004 with the Internet Fraud Complaint Center, a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center.
The average amount of money people lost was more than $200, according to the center. The most money one person reported being swindled was for $147,677. According to the center, Illinois ranked sixth in the nation for the number of people reporting Internet fraud.
Yoder said she wishes she would have been more thorough before she bought the gemstones from the man in Texas. After the phonies came to her home, she looked into the man’s eBay seller history and found other unsatisfied customers.
When she filed a police report with authorities in Texas, she was told she’d need an attorney to recoup the $1,800 she lost. When she went to the FBI, Yoder said she was essentially told her situation wasn’t serious enough to warrant an investigation.
Although she’s spent thousands on eBay buying gems over the years, Yoder said the situation has soured her opinion on Internet shopping. The next time she wants to buy a stone, she said, she’s going to a bricks-and-mortar jewelry store where she knows the transaction will be honored.
“I’m finished with eBay. I don’t plan to do anymore buying with them. None,” Yoder said. “This has fixed me. I have two stones that are appraised for nowhere near what they were advertised for. I’m done. I learned my lesson from this.”