Boat Buying And Selling Scams

If It Seems Too Good to Be True, It Probably Is

By Charles Fort

Learning to recognize the signs will help you protect yourself from boat buying and selling scams.

A member selling a boat online contacted us recently after receiving this email: "Thanks for your swift response. Your asking price is okay by me. I would have love to come see this in person but am presently on job transfer to another state and when we make payment and you receive the funds, the mover and my representative will see them in person on my behalf and the only method of payment for now is by making by sending Bank Draft to you." The recipient wisely suspected the email was a scam, but wondered how it would work, as the "buyer" was going to send a bank draft. Keep reading to find out why the member's intuition was right, how these kinds of scams work, and what to look for so you won't be a victim.

Many of the scams we see today are variations on old tricks that have been around for decades. The three that follow are currently in wide use:

Counterfeit Cashier's Check/Money Order

A bogus buyer will contact you with an email like the one that our member received, offering to send a cashier's check or bank draft for the full asking price if you provide your contact information. At some point, the buyer will tell you that he/she must send you the check for significantly more than the purchase price and give you one of a number of bogus reasons why this is necessary. Most commonly, the buyer will claim to be out of the country and want to have the boat shipped to him/her. The buyer will ask you to deposit the funds and send some portion of the money to someone else, often a phony shipping company. Most people assume a cashier's check or money order is the same as cash, but in the days of Photoshop and color laser printers, that's no longer the case, and crooks can produce very convincing copies of the real thing, from seemingly legitimate U.S. banks. Once the bogus checks are deposited, they must be cleared like any other check. Checks may appear to clear your bank within a couple of days, and those funds may appear "available" in your account, but in reality it may take another month or more for the bank to establish that a check is bogus, return it to you, and debit your account for that amount. By then, the money you transferred out of your account for "shipping" is long gone.

PayPal Variation

Recently, PayPal has become a target for scammers. The phony buyer will ask for your PayPal ID in order to send you a payment, again for substantially more than the purchase price. Shortly after that, you will receive a fake confirmation from PayPal with your user ID for more than the agreed purchase price, and the buyer will contact you asking you to send the extra money to a shipper. To make the scam look more legit, if you refuse, you'll receive additional fake notices from PayPal threatening to close your account if you don't transfer the extra money as per your "agreement."

Escrow Scam

In this variation, a bogus seller advertises a boat on a website often at a low but not quite scam-worthy price. When you try to buy the boat, the seller will suggest using an escrow service and recommend something that sounds legitimate like or But the realistic-looking website is the center of the scam, and once you transfer your money you won't hear anything more about the boat, or the seller, ever again. Using an escrow service for a long-distance purchase makes good sense, but make sure to pick one like, eBay's recommended escrow provider. Be very cautious using escrow services you're not familiar with. Check the Better Business Bureau's (BBB) website to verify an internet escrow site's validity. Remember that hiring a qualified marine surveyor to inspect the boat should be done before negotiations and payment, and will protect you against most selling scams.

Photo of computer keyboardIt's easy to whip up a legitimate-looking website, complete with logos, and links to real companies' websites.

Email Fraud

Nearly all scams involve emails, and they often contain clues to alert you. Any one of the following is a warning, and two or three together should put you on high alert and make you proceed with extreme caution.

No reference to what is being sold.

Scammers create a generic email to send to thousands of people, so they tend to use general language that could apply to anything. "Item," "merchandise," "what you are selling," and other indefinite terms are common. The more adept scammers can make this seem almost natural, or may even insert a single reference to your boat model and year. But other than that, you'll notice that the email could apply to a car or jewelry.

Poor grammar and language use.

Internet scams usually originate from outside the country, and the language often appears like it wasn't written by a native English speaker. If the email passes the sniff test with respect to language and grammar, consider whether it really sounds like a boater talking about a boat that he/she might actually buy. No nautical terminology or intelligent questions? Highly suspect.

No phone contact.

Scammers will go to great lengths not to talk to you, sometimes after pressing you for a phone number. They'll give reasons ranging from being out of the country to being in the military. Skype makes it easy to talk to someone in either of those situations, so if you think the person is legitimate, suggest that as an alternative. If they refuse, move on. Lately though, some scammers will include a phone number, often even a U.S. number. This may make them seem more legitimate, but in most cases, the phone will only be used for texting or sending pictures and documents. No-contract phones can be bought almost anywhere and are easily discarded.

Cobbled together email addresses.

Scammers constantly change their email addresses to avoid detection, and may have to get ones with fairly normal-looking names but lots of numbers. Keep in mind that scammers know how to route emails through multiple countries to try to avoid detection. View an email's header and you may find pathways that pass through several countries, a red flag. Be wary of a legitimate email service that has a different ending, such as rather than as those originate outside the U.S.

No interest in seeing the boat or haggling over the price.

Whether buying or selling, scammers are amazingly unconcerned about the price of the boat. Who wouldn't negotiate? And if buying, will often say they accept the boat "as is," won't mention a survey or inspection, and won't hold you responsible for its condition. Anyone willing to buy a boat sight unseen after a few emails should be regarded with suspicion — and if they're also not concerned about price, it's a good bet you're being scammed. If you're considering buying a boat, scammers will price the boat cheaply, but despite a plethora of pictures and a good description (likely swiped from a real ad), the boat doesn't even exist. If a boat you're seriously interested in is out of state, send a local accredited marine surveyor or someone to verify there really is a boat and that the seller has the actual title and registration. Once you're satisfied that the boat is real and paperwork legit, you can arrange for a survey and proceed from there.

Demands to use a specific business (escrow or shipper) and won't accept alternate.

Once you know about the shipping scam, it's pretty easy to avoid. But if you chose to use an escrow service to settle the transaction, suggest your own after visiting the BBB site and verifying it's a legitimate one. If the other person objects, that should raise a big red flag.

Wants to pay a different amount from the selling price.

If any mention is made of paying you anything more than the agreed price, walk away.

Changing names and locations in emails.

It can be difficult to keep the details straight when scammers are working multiple scams. If the person doesn't remember who or where he/she is supposed to be, or exactly what they're buying, you're being scammed.

No concern over title/documents.

If there's no interest in discussing titling the vessel or in verifying the registration information or HIN, they have no real interest in the transaction.

Spelling and punctuation errors.

Many scam emails have spelling and punctuation errors. A couple in an email shouldn't worry you, but a dozen should raise a question in your mind. 

— Published: June/July 2014

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