Caveat Vendor

This article originally appeared in Good Old Boat magazine, issue 99, November/December 2014.

During the winter, when temperatures were well below zero, we decided to sell our modest 27-foot sailboat in hopes of upgrading to something with a bit more room. I have little respect for boat brokers, whose slick hard-sell attitudes are akin to nautical used-car salesmen. Although there may be exceptions out there, I have yet to meet any of the good ones. So off we went on our own . . . and boy did we receive a lot of interest.

Selling a boat — especially one that has taken such good care of us over the years, one on which I have spilled blood, bruised knuckles and, during the course of maintenance, contorted my body into extreme-yoga positions — is a highly emotional experience. The problem of setting a price was easily overcome by consulting dear friends and crewmates. Their interest extended only as far as the next racing season; for them, the thought of crewing a bigger boat served as encouragement.

So with crew-provided pricing suggestions in hand, a bunch of photos, and a finely formatted listing, we posted
 to our four favorite free sites: Craigslist, SailingTexas, a Yahoo forum for the boat model, and Good Old Boat. (Good Old Boat classified ads are free if you’re a current subscriber. Really, are there any sailors who work on their own boats who aren’t reading Good Old Boat?)

Rapid response

As a cyber-security professional, Internet scams are to me what Legos are to my grandchildren: a chance at hours of fun and creativity. So when we received our first email from John H. within 24 hours of posting, I knew the next few months were going to be filled with boatloads of entertainment, pun intended.

Our first response was short. Sent as a Craigslist reply to our posting, John H. wrote, “Mail JohnHxxxx(at)gmail.com with your price.”

John H. gets an A-plus for brevity. Our first interested party . . . within a day, no less! Although the price was clearly listed in the posting, one cannot overlook potential buyers simply because they miss a few key points in the advertisement. After all, we fully expected the boat to be on the market well into the spring, so this was unexpectedly incredible! Excited at the prospect of kicking off this post-sailing “sale-ing” season so quickly, I replied to John H. at 6:07 a.m.

The pop-up window on my laptop read, “New Message, 6:14 a.m. from sale.craigslist.org.”

Although he is prompt, it appears that John H. is unable to read my replies through the Craigslist system and would like me to email him at JohnHxxxx “at gmail dot com.” No problemo, John H! I applaud your cyber-security prowess, the way you typed out your email address in the body with “dot com” so it can’t be harvested by search engines, even though you are sending it directly to me and not posting it anywhere.

I copied and pasted my previous message into a new email to John H. at his gmail account and hit send at 7:41 a.m. This boat sale thing was way easier and more fun than I had anticipated!

“New Message, 7:47 a.m. from JohnHxxxx@gmail.com!” John must be really interested in our little boat. His average response time for the two email messages is 6.5 minutes and it sounds like he is ready to purchase sight unseen!

“Hello,” John H. politely replied. “Thanks for the message,Can you assure me the item is in good condition
that i will not be disappointed? I’m willing to pay your asking price, I want to buy it for my Brother..I am currently Offshore, I am not able to make phone calls…But I squeezed out time to check this advert and send you an email regarding it but my quickest payment option is PayPal as i can send money via PayPal anytime.. Since I’m requesting this transaction to be done via PayPal, i will be responsible for all the pay pal fee/ charges on this transaction and if you don’t have an account with paypal, it is pretty easy, safe and secured to open one… Just log on to www.paypal.com. I hope we can complete the transaction as soon as possible? I have a pick up Agent that will be coming for the pick up once payment clears…. I will like to see more pictures as I look forward to read from you soonest…

“Below are the details needed for PayPal Transfer Your PayPal e-Mail Address:
Full name:
Firm Price:

Cell number: “Thanks.”

Too many clues

A quick Internet search for “PayPal scams” or “Craigslist PayPal scams” yields more than 809,000 results, some with links to Craigslist and PayPal describing various nefarious fraud schemes and others offering helpful advice for identifying and avoiding the pitfalls of Internet sales. Some common tactics
involve PayPal overpayments that require sending the additional amount through Western Union to a “shipping company,” fraudulent or spoofed email payment confirmations that appear to come from PayPal, and emails that contain links to sites that look like PayPal but are designed to steal your login credentials. In any case, there is a sufficient amount of information on the Internet about these techniques and how to avoid them. But I was in this for the fun as much as the sale.

John H.’s offer was enticing, as were the email messages we received from Susan A., Collins M., Alonge C., and Ivan, all willing to pay my asking price! Susan A. said she saw the advertisement on one of the other sites and has an interested colleague who will send me a “certified cashier’s check/money order” as soon as I provide my full name, address, telephone number, price, email, and item name.”

Collins M. emailed me on the eve of leaving town for the holiday season, apparently in such a rush he misspelled his own name; however, he did have an assistant who happened to be “an avid fisherman and knows a thing or two about boats” and could facilitate the exchange and arrange for shipment.

Alonge C. asked not only if he could pay full price, but wanted to know if his “pick-up agent” could come to my house for the “pick up” because, as he put it, “I don’t want you to worry yourself about the shipment.” Ivan was also a marine engineer on a ship and wanted to buy our boat as a surprise birthday gift for his father but had limited access to communications, noting, “phone calls making and visiting of website are limited,” and was currently in the midst of a terrible storm that knocked their “satellite server” down.

We received many more email messages from people interested in the boat. Most of the scam emails we received were willing to pay our asking price, so long as we could use PayPal or send our bank account information and confirm that they wouldn’t be disappointed with the boat. Yes, their grammar was a little choppy and their emails were riddled with formatting errors, but anyone who has ever typed anything on a boat bobbing around “offshore” knows that a few extra periods and the occasionally mis-capitalized word are par for the course.

A flesh-and-blood buyer

In the end, we decided not to sell to John H., Susan A., Collins M., Alonge C., Ivan, or any of the other offshore, on-holiday, interested parties. I appreciated their interest and willingness to pay the asking price as well as their tenacity. After all, how many people would take the time to surf the ’net at sea — violent storms raging all about them, broken satellite servers, pending holidays with screaming kids and demanding spouses — all so they could give the gift of sailing to a father or brother? Plus, they all had PayPal accounts that would have made for a quick and easy sale. But I have no experience working with a “pick-up agent,” which sounds a lot like dealing with a used-car salesman to me.

The boat eventually sold. The guy who bought her emailed, called, and came to look at her. She was delivered to her new home and will become a liveaboard home for someone who will care for her as much as she will care for him.

With the prospect of being boatless, we started our search. I crafted my pre-visit questions. I decided to omit from my email messages the part about being offshore in the middle of a storm with limited Internet access and a PayPal account full of money.

I have disguised the names and email addresses to protect people with the same or similar identities or those potentially unwitting and unaware victims of identity theft. Although some of the names of interested parties seemed quite unique, why take the chance that there is actually a person with a Franco-Russian name living on the high seas whose sole purpose in life is finding just the right small sailboat for his elderly, yet apparently quite capable, father to sail around the world?


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Also posted on Medium.

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