We don’t talk about scams a lot in Experimental aviation. Yes, there were probably a few companies in our realm we might have accused of running scams—promising product and taking money without ever intending to deliver. But my perception is that this doesn’t happen very often these days. So it’s not really top of mind for current aircraft builders.
That’s not the kind of “scam” I’m talking about. Instead, with the preponderance of builder-to-builder communication taking place electronically and our desire to make our project dollars stretch, there are myriad opportunities for the unethical to fleece us.
I know. I was a fleece-e.
The Signs Were There
As they say, go to school on me. Here’s my story. Sometime before I’d upgraded my GlaStar’s primary com radio to a new Garmin GTR 200, I was using a good but somewhat elderly Apollo SL 40. Great radio in its day and still eminently serviceable, the SL 40, like its SL 30 brethren, can eventually develop display issues. Repair costs can exceed the value of the radio. So when I saw a nice-condition SL 40 appear for sale on one of the larger type-specific message boards, I contacted the seller with interest.
I didn’t know this person but their public profile was that of a professional pilot with a reasonable interest in the specific airplane type, and they had just enough activity to suggest they were really part of the community. That is one of the first things I check. It’s become more common for scammers to start a new account in the ecosystem, post items for sale and try to rip people off. Posters with just a few (or no previous) posts get a pass from me.
In email exchanges, the first red flag, which I ignored, was the seller referring to the com radio as a GPS. I corrected him and he said, essentially, that he had a few other things for sale and confused my request with another one. It seemed plausible at the time.
The next red flag came when it was time to pay. The seller insisted on using Zelle, a service that connects individuals right at the bank-account level for peer-to-peer transfers. I had used Zelle before with an established company and it worked fine, so I didn’t give this much thought. I really should have stopped everything when the email associated with the requested Zelle profile did not match the seller’s. He explained that he didn’t have Zelle himself but it was his daughter’s account. Please feel free to mutter, “Marc, you are a complete idiot.” Say it again if you wish; you won’t say it more times than I have.
Yes, You’re Hosed
In my defense, all this took place while I was on the road and distracted with many other things. You know, then, where this is going. The seller disappeared and I never received an SL 40. School is never cheap but this ended up being an $800 refresher course in how to get screwed—er, educated.
After I realized my money was gone, I exhausted several avenues. I contacted the site administrator for some help. He told me that the actual member’s ID had been updated with a new email and password. I was about to start a search for the guy’s work and call his boss. But it was pretty plain that his password has been guessed or compromised and someone else was posing as him. (Another reminder to never reuse passwords and to always make them non-guessable “strong” passwords even if keeping track of them is a pain. There are apps to help you manage passwords across multiple devices and they’re definitely worth the effort to install.)
It seems like I made every mistake possible. For one, I didn’t request or demand photos of the unit showing the serial number. That’s a big consideration, since there’s ample evidence that scammers will grab photos of other people’s products for sale. Take your time searching Google (with “images” clicked) for the product you want to buy. Be patient and try to find the same images used elsewhere.
Do the same for the serial number. If the seller won’t show you photos of the unit’s serial number, walk away. (For that matter, if the seller resists any reasonable request for documentation, photographic or otherwise, keep looking.)
I also didn’t attempt to talk to the seller on the phone or, better, through videoconferencing. It would not take long to ask where the device came from, why it was being sold and other aviation/social questions before a scammer will run out of plausible answers. For the most part, scammers don’t want to engage in any live correspondence; if the seller acts the same, move on.
Protect the financial transaction by using a credit card or, at the very least, employ any electronic funds transfer designed for merchant use. These typically have some consumer protections built in. Beware that the fee-free PayPal transaction might or might not protect you. Absolutely, positively don’t use a direct-transfer service like Zelle. I say this with every erg of righteous indignation I can muster. Zelle was less than useless for me and shockingly unapologetic about flatly denying my claim of fraud. It showed zero interest in locating the perpetrator and keeping him out of their system. It’s a good reminder that financial institutions may talk about client security, but there’s a better-than-even chance they really don’t care about you. My personal opinion, of course.
So is there a safe way to buy airplane parts and products online? Sure. I have done so both ways, buying and selling, in my very small GlaStar ecosystem. Most of the group knows me and I know many of them. If it’s someone I don’t know, I’ll spend some time to verify the identity and won’t conclude any transaction without a phone call. Then there are escrow services. I know that SteinAir will, for a small fee, act as a clearinghouse for avionics, accepting both product and payment but only releasing them when everything is clear and legit. If a seller outright refuses to use such a service when available, that’s another red flag. Heed it.
Your best defense is curiosity. Had I worked just a bit harder, it would have become clear (before it was too late) that I was being scammed. Let my hard-won lesson be an easy one for you.