Scam artists are preying on boat sellers nationwide during uncertain times, and getting away with it.
Selling my boat was, in short, a nightmare. The boat in question was a relatively low-cost fixer-upper that I bought when I was 23. This was not going to be a six-figure transaction, and well, I work in the business. Surely I could save a few bucks by listing the boat on Facebook and Craigslist and selling it myself, I thought. I thought wrong.
As the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. I received interest from tire kickers, snobs and slobs. More than a few people reached out to me with no intention of ever buying a boat; they just wanted to talk. I had more pen pals than a prison inmate, but I did have some serious buyers. Some were exceptionally young and others exceptionally seasoned. One “interested buyer,” 75, challenged me to arm wrestle for the boat—I kid you not. He lost.
Just about the time the pandemic was hitting its zenith, and with the birth of my first child closing in with each passing day, I was eager to find a new owner. That’s when I got the email:
“Is this item still for sale? Can you text me?”
We started texting, going back and forth over my asking price, which was firm.
“OK. I’d like to buy it. Send me your name and address and I’ll mail you a check.”
For a couple minutes my pulse quickened, and I thought, Oh man, I have a live one here. I wanted to believe my new friend was legit and the money was as good as gold.
Then my skeptical inner New Yorker slapped me across the face. “Too good to be true, dummy,” it shouted, with a cup of 7/11 coffee in one hand and a bagel in the other.
“But he’s offering to send me money, not the other way around. If the check clears what’s the harm?”
I sent a text to the potential buyer: “Don’t you want to see her?”
“No, I live in Texas so I’m going to ship her down here.”
I smelled a liar all the way from the Longhorn state, yet I didn’t quite understand how the scam was going to work if he was offering to send me the check first.
I called a friend in law enforcement and asked if he had any insight into this obvious scammer. He wasn’t sure either but suggested, smartly, that I ask the buyer to text me a photo of his license. I did. He didn’t.
A bit of online sleuthing revealed that some scammers send fake checks that will appear to land in your bank account but are really still being processed by the bank. While the money is in limbo is when the ask comes. Something like, “Hey, I’m not going to be able to pay the shipping company. If I send you x-thousand extra dollars can you send it to the shipping company?” And just like that, they get your money.
As I opened up to friends and colleagues about this strange encounter, I heard more and more stories about how they or someone they knew almost got scammed in a similar way. I reached out to the experts at BoatUS for more background on how these scams work and was put in touch with Rich Carroll, a native of New Jersey and a law enforcement veteran with experience as a fire investigator, polygraph examiner and currently the director of the Special Investigations Unit at BoatUS—essentially a human B.S.-detector.
As I began recounting my story to Carroll, it quickly became clear that he’d heard versions of my tale a thousand times.
“Cracking the door is your need and willingness to sell the boat. That’s the first point of weakness. The first chink in the armor is that you have a product you want to sell,” Carroll said.
“The second invitation is how you choose to advertise this. At the end of the day, there is no vetting on Craigslist or Facebook marketplace. Zero. Vetting. The minute you respond to a text [from someone who received your information through those sites] you kicked any protection to the curb.”
Carroll continued in a direct, no-time-to-mince-words barrage: “If they get in the door, now they have your phone number and email, and in five minutes they know who you really are. Once that is breached you really better be on your A-game or you can become a victim.”
The best way to protect yourself, explained Carroll, is to think like a boat buyer, not a seller. “Who buys a boat using a third party? If I’m buying a boat, I want to see every inch of a boat. I’m not sending a representative.”
I asked Carroll if times of financial strain like the pandemic cause an uptick in
“The number of scams are consistent. If the sun is shining, there are scammers; the number of victims is what goes up. Desperate people are more likely to fall into a trap.”
Okay, let’s say you do fall for a scam and they get possession of your money or boat. Is there recourse?
“You have plenty of recourse. Your recourse would be to go to law enforcement and say you got ripped off. They’ll say ‘that’s a civil matter: You need to sue him. That’s not theft or larceny; we’re not going to investigate them.’ Translation: You were too stupid for us to get involved. You can get a lawyer who’ll take all your money and charge by the hour. You go to your insurance company and say your boat was stolen—‘no it wasn’t, you signed your boat over. Your insurance policy ended. You have no recourse.’ This happens with boats, cars, trucks, trailers...”
What’s the safest way to accept payment?
“Cash is king. Electronic transfers are a little safer. I wouldn’t give anyone anything. I’ll take a bank check if I’m there when the teller creates it. It comes down to how much risk are you willing to accept. Don’t get involved with Western Union.”
Much of the advice Carroll extols sounds like common sense, and I guess in many ways it is. But I can now attest that sometimes it’s easy to see what you want to see and believe what you want to believe. You don’t need to be a detective to sniff out a scam, you just need to, like Carroll said, think like a buyer. Be careful of where you post a listing and, of course, when possible, hire a professional broker who is best suited to protect your investment and take the stress out of selling.
With the stigma of talking about scams like this one firmly in place, please consider sharing this story and Carroll’s advice with anyone selling a vessel themselves, especially if they’re using sites like Craigslist or Facebook. You may just prevent a scam.