Wednesday, December 19, 2012

International shipping scams

This has nothing to do with soap making, but it has everything to do with scammers targeting small businesses like mine.

I regularly receive e-mails from people who want to buy nice quantities of my products, often so that they can sell them in their retail stores.  Sounds great, right?  The most recent one, received 2 days ago, is typical:

Customer #1
From:  synthia shan
How're you today? I want to purchase an order from your company to our store in The Netherlands.I want to know if you can ship internationally and also accept credit card as form of payment Await your reply as soon as possible.
Thank you
A similar e-mail received about two weeks earlier:

Customer #2
From:  jordan murray
Subject line:  KOREA ORDER
I will like to order some of your products to be shipped to SOUTH KOREA. I have a shipper that will handle the delivery aspect of the transaction. Kindly get back to me regarding my inquiry and if there is any special pricing i need to know about. i will be sending you my card details for payment. I hope to hear from you as soon as possible.
Shipping Address:
#37340 ,
Postal Code:120180
I must say that including the shipping address was a nice touch.  Gives it an air of legitimacy.

Yet another e-mail received about three weeks before that:

Customer # 3
From:  Mel Mclauren
Hello Sales Dept,
I want to place an order in your store,and I will like to know if you ship to Kowloon,Japan and my payment will be remitted via Visa/Master Card issued in US bank. So please let me know if you can assist me with the order,and please do not forget to include your website in your reply.Your quick response will be highly appreciated,I will be very glad if you treat this email with good concern.
Note that all involve international shipping.  Note also that all involve payment by credit card. 

Most importantly, however, note that the second customer mentions he has a shipping company that will handle pick-up and delivery.  The other customers did not mention this in their initial e-mails, but after I replied, thanking them for their interest in my products and telling them that unfortunately, I do not ship internationally and only accept credit card payments through my website, here is what they wrote back:

Customer #1
From:  synthia shan
I have a freight forwarder that will come for the pick-up from your exact location after i have placed the order and make the payment. So will take care of the shipping myself.
Thank you
Customer #3
From:  Mel Mclauren
Subject:  Re: Inquiry
Thanks for your prompt email,can you make the small quantities of 100 Pieces.I can arrange for shipment in your location who will handle the shipping process to my store in Hong-Kong.
(That's odd.  Mel originally wanted to know if I could ship to Kowloon, Japan, and now suddenly it's Hong Kong, China.  But whatever.  Japan, China, South Korea, the Netherlands, Argentina ... all that matters is that it's really far away.)

In a nutshell, here's what happens: the customer cons the business owner into paying the shipping company upfront, often via a Western Union wire transfer, promising that the shipping cost will be included in their payment.  And it is.  But the customer's credit card (or bank check or whatever other form of payment they propose) turns out to be fake or stolen, the shipping company doesn't really exist, and the scammer pockets whatever the business owner paid for overseas shipping.

On the surface, it might seem a no-brainer that there's something fishy* about this. Why would anyone halfway around the world want to order my soaps and pay as much or more for shipping than they're paying for the product itself?  Kind of defies common sense, don't you think?  But if my products were pricier -- let's say I made handcrafted jewelry or clothing with an average price of around $40 or $50 per item -- it might seem more plausible.

So with protecting my fellow crafters and small business owners in mind, here are my rules and observations about international shipping inquiry e-mails:
  • Number one, be immediately skeptical and suspicious about any unsolicited inquiry that involves international shipping.
  • Number two, do not under any circumstances allow the customer to choose or dictate the method of shipping.  
  • Number three, do not ever engage in a business transaction where the buyer proposes to send you credit card information via e-mail.  At best, a buyer who proposes to do this is either naive about the risks or careless about taking them.  As a reputable businessperson, it is your responsibility to counsel the buyer out of such an unwise action, or to simply refuse such a transaction.  At worst, a buyer who proposes to do this is a scammer who doesn't care whether the credit card information is sent securely because the credit card info is stolen. 
  • International shipping scam e-mails are sent from free personal e-mail accounts, not from business or corporate e-mail addresses.  Two of the above came from gmail accounts, the other from a hotmail account.  
  • International shipping scam e-mails almost never mention the name of the store in which they propose to sell your products in the initial contact. And even if they do, they never include a link to it online.  
  • Similarly, they almost never say exactly what they want to buy in the initial e-mail -- just "products," or even more vaguely they'll say they want to make "make a purchase" or "place an order."  The simple reason is that scammers send these e-mails to many different kinds of small businesses, and they can't be bothered with personalizing them all.  Their game is based on quantity, not quality. They will only say what they want to purchase if you respond to their inquiries.
  • Like many other types of scam e-mails, international shipping scam e-mails are typically sprinkled with grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors.
In short, rather than being a case of caveat emptor ("let the buyer beware"), international shipping e-mails are a case of caveat venditor: let the seller beware.

You can find a follow up to this entry with more examples of scam e-mails in my blog post International Shipping Scams Part 2.

You can find a real-life example of exactly how one of these shipping scams played out in my blog post International Shipping Scams Part 3.

* One intriguing study (with enough statistical mumbo-jumbo to make your head spin) suggests that online scammers may actually make their e-mails sound fishy on purpose. They're looking for folks who are naive or trusting or gullible, and they don't want to spend days e-mailing back and forth with people who are just going to become suspicious and drop out. So, by making their e-mails just fishy enough that savvier folks recognize them for what they are and simply hit the delete button, scammers effectively get their victims to self-select because the only people likely to respond are the kind of naive or trusting or gullible folks they're after in the first place.