Archive for the ‘Scams’ Category.

Craigslist Has Become A Total Sewer of Scammers

I know the title of this post will come as a surprise to virtually no one.  I gave up on Craigslist years ago.  However, I had no idea how bad it has become.  My contractor had some left over materials.  My wife and I said to just drop it off at Habitat for Humanity but the contractor said they thought I could sell some of it for real money.  So the contractor listed it on Craigslist.  I so far have gotten 8 responses, and all 8 have turned out to be scams.  They are all variations of this theme:

i really appreciate your quick response to my text. I will be buying
the item from you, kindly withdraw the advert from C.LIST and
considered it sold. My husband will be overnight the payment asap but
he will be payingwith a certified check from his Bank and it will
deliver to you via United Parcel Service (UPS), so I'll need you to
provide me with the following information to facilitate the mailing of
the check... And am offering additional $50 with the original price to
have this asap. Name to be on the payment......Address to mail the check to.....
Cell phone # to contact you ......Final Asking price....

I will make arrangements for the pick up as soon as you have your
check clear, due to my work frame and my Kids, I will not be able to
come with the cash and pick it up myself , so my husband will mail the
check and have someone pick up the item after the check clear.,
Reference to your CL post am completely satisfied with it and the
payment will be deliver within 24hours.

Any reply will yield bot or script responses that make little sense.  For example I said:

Ok, I now believe this to be fake as I have gotten the same response word for word with the 50 dollars offer from multiple people.  This sale is cancelled.

The response was:

Thanks , I got the Details and the payment will be sent out tomorrow
and as soon as it sent out i will get back to you, Please keep the
other buyer off and the payment will get to you asap and the item will
be pick up after you have the payment

Apparently bots and Asian click factories send a trolling response to every sale on Craigslist nowadays.   I left a telephone number only in the ad (a burner cell phone thank goodness) and in turn I got urges to immediately email them back.  And then this script with small variations 8 times, but always with the certified check thing, the offer of $50, and an urge to take down the ad immediately.  Apparently the check is fake but you learn this only after you have shipped the goods.  Sites like this urge face to face meetings in cash, but I have little desire to meet Craigslist readers face to face, which is confirmed by the advice in this article to "meet the buyer in a police station" lol.  Might as well post the advice never to use craigslist.

If it has not already been written, this is the epitaph in my mind for Craigslist.  Possible moral of this story:  You can't build a trust-based system just by trusting people.  The lesson from places like Amazon and ebay are "trust but verify".

Update:  From commenters, part of our mistake seems to be to have let a third party put up the add because then we lose out on some of the internal Craigslist communication avenues that provide some protection.  A number feel like Craigslist is still a useful place to transact.  I will add that in addition to 8 cashiers check scammers I also got one paypal scammer later in the evening making contact.  Zero legitimate contacts to date.

Why Scams Work

The WSJ has an interesting article about why get rich quick schemes that should be so easy to demolish, particularly with Google at our fingertips, seem to attract so many people.

The article reminded me of a piece I published years ago over at my climate site.  It was about a company called "Hydroinfra" in Sweden.  I want to reprint the article as I still find the subject to be immensely entertaining.  In particular, I really really encourage you to look at the comments section of this article linked towards the bottom and see the back and forth with reader "michael".  In the face of overwhelming skepticism from pretty much every other reader, Michael desperately wants to believe -- so much so that he and a few others start heaping derision and sinister motives (interspersed with spurious appeals to authority) on those who are trying to patiently explain the science.  One can see this same desperate behavior from those who have bought into every famous pyramid scheme ever.

I got an email today from some random Gmail account asking me to write about HyrdoInfra.  OK.  The email begins: “HydroInfra Technologies (HIT) is a Stockholm based clean tech company that has developed an innovative approach to neutralizing carbon fuel emissions from power plants and other polluting industries that burn fossil fuels.”

Does it eliminate CO2?  NOx?  Particulates?  SOx?  I actually was at the bottom of my inbox for once so I went to the site.  I went to this applications page.  Apparently, it eliminates the “toxic cocktail” of pollutants that include all the ones I mentioned plus mercury and heavy metals.  Wow!  That is some stuff.

Their key product is a process for making something they call “HyrdroAtomic Nano Gas” or HNG.  It sounds like their PR guys got Michael Crichton and JJ Abrams drunk in a brainstorming session for pseudo-scientific names.

But hold on, this is the best part.  :

Splitting water (H20) is a known science. But the energy costs to perform splitting outweigh the energy created from hydrogen when the Hydrogen is split from the water molecule H2O.

This is where mainstream science usually closes the book on the subject.

We took a different approach by postulating that we could split water in an energy efficient way to extract a high yield of Hydrogen at very low cost.

A specific low energy pulse is put into water. The water molecules line up in a certain structure and are split from the Hydrogen molecules.

The result is HNG.

HNG is packed with ‘Exotic Hydrogen’

Exotic Hydrogen is a recent scientific discovery.

HNG carries an abundance of Exotic Hydrogen and Oxygen.

On a Molecular level, HNG is a specific ratio mix of Hydrogen and Oxygen.

The unique qualities of HNG show that the placement of its’ charged electrons turns HNG into an abundant source of exotic Hydrogen.

HNG displays some very different properties from normal hydrogen.

Some basic facts:

  • HNG instantly neutralizes carbon fuel pollution emissions
  • HNG can be pressurized up to 2 bars.
  • HNG combusts at a rate of 9000 meters per second while normal Hydrogen combusts at a rate 600 meters per second.
  • Oxygen values actually increase when HNG is inserted into a diesel flame.
  • HNG acts like a vortex on fossil fuel emissions causing the flame to be pulled into the center thus concentrating the heat and combustion properties.
  • HNG is stored in canisters, arrayed around the emission outlet channels. HNG is injected into the outlets to safely & effectively clean up the burning of fossil fuels.
  • The pollution emissions are neutralized instantly & safely with no residual toxic cocktail or chemicals to manage after the HNG burning process is initiated.

Exotic Hyrdrogen!  I love it.  This is probably a component of the “red matter” in the Abrams Star Trek reboot.  Honestly, someone please tell me this a joke, a honeypot for mindless environmental activist drones.    What are the chemical reactions going on here?  If CO2 is captured, what form does it take?  How does a mixture of Hydrogen and Oxygen molecules in whatever state they are in do anything with heavy metals?  None of this is on the website.   On their “validation” page, they have big labels like “Horiba” that look like organizations thave somehow put their imprimatur on the study.  In fact, they are just names of analytical equipment makers.  It’s like putting “IBM” in big print on your climate study because you ran your model on an IBM computer.

SCAM!  Honestly, when you see an article written to attract investment that sounds sort of impressive to laymen but makes absolutely no sense to anyone who knows the smallest about of Chemistry or Physics, it is an investment scam.

But they seem to get a lot of positive press.  In my search of Google, everything in the first ten pages or so are just uncritical republication of their press releases in environmental and business blogs.   You actually have to go into the comments sections of these articles to find anyone willing to observe this is all total BS.   If you want to totally understand why the global warming debate gets nowhere, watch commenter Michael at this link desperately try to hold onto his faith in HydroInfra while people who actually know things try to explain why this makes no sense.

Years later, doing a Google search, I still seem to be the only person in the first 10 pages of Google results that wrote a skeptical article.  Seriously, I figured out this was all bullsh*t from about 60 seconds of studying their web site -- is this really what happens in tech journalism?  I got the same press release in my box that they did.  I (and many of the tech site commenters) figured this out quickly, why didn't any actual journalists?


Phone Scam

Perhaps this has been going on for a while but it is the first I have had it happen to me.  Over the last two days I have had robocalls from two numbers - 626-265-4560 and 413-356-4173.  The robot says in a menacing way that this is the final call I am going to get and that the IRS is about to file a lawsuit against me.  I knew better than to believe this and did not call back, but several websites report that if you call these numbers, you get an operator who demands personal information without giving out any explanation.  Beware.  This is obvious phishing and should be avoided.

Update:  Add 213-447-4831 and 802-673-0582 to the list.

My New Worst Business Ever: YP

YP is the modern name for what used to be the Yellow Pages.  Obviously, yellow pages are a dying business.  Ten years ago the Phoenix Yellow Pages had to be broken up into two books, each a couple inches think.  I happened to see one the other day, and it was the size of a short novel.  They tried to move to the web, but who goes to (vs. google or Yelp) to find a business?

Even in the glory days of yellow pages, it was always hard to cancel their service.  If you did not tell them by like August, they would start billing you for the next year and sic a collection agency on you if you disputed it.

However, it appears that now that YP is a dying business, and knows that each lost customer will likely never be replaced, it has turned into the Hotel California.

In 2013, I left a location in Ventura County.   We had advertised in the Yellow Pages for years (back when it made sense) and had never been able to cancel it in time -- by the time we remembered it each year it had already auto renewed.   Soon after we left, I notified them that we needed to cancel.  At the time, I tried to negotiate a reduction in the 2014 charges but figured I probably would have to pay them, which I did.

Then, in 2015 I started getting bills.  I called each month patiently explaining and sending letters that we had already cancelled.  They would say that they had no record of my ever calling, but they swore they would mark the account as closed and that it would be fixed.  Then the next month it would all repeat -- a bad customer service Groundhog Day.

Finally this week I started getting legal threats and collection agency notices that I owe $499 for 2015 and that my life would be left in ruins with the ground salted if I did not pay immediately.  So I called today and AGAIN they had no record of my cancelling -- in fact, it was on a path to renew again for 2016.

Look, I am the first to tell folks to never chalk up to conspiracy what can as easily be explained by mass incompetence.  But at some point one has to suspect there is fraud going on here to retain customers as long as possible for a dying service.

So here is what I am left with -- I found someone in their organization who may be willing to settle my non-debt for non-services for a couple of hundred.  I told them this was absurd, since I did not owe it, but that I would pay a couple hundred dollars if they would give me a letter that said the account is closed and fully settled.  From the outside, this may seem a bad trade.  But I have enough lawyers in my life and hiring lawyers would be the only way to solve this any other way.  And besides, $200 is cheap compared to the thousands of dollars of my personal time I have spent farting with this.

Update 9/27/15:  God, this is Groundhog Day!  YP said that I should send a certified letter to such and such address to make absolutely sure that my account was cancelled.  I sent it to that exact address, braving a 30-minute line at the post office to do so.   So of course, the letter just came back undeliverable.  I have held off saying this, but these guys are total scam artists.  They seem to have no intention of ever letting me leave.

Beware Applied Underwriters Workers Compensation Insurance

Update 2/1/2016:  I will not comment further at the moment on Applied Underwriters as they are currently suing me to have this article below removed.  So you will need to look elsewhere for news on AU, of which there appears to be plenty.  For example, here and here.  The State of California Insurance Commission, via an Administrative Law Judge's decision, has ruled on the legality of the AU product discussed below.  That ruling (pdf) can be downloaded here.  I would love to comment on it but I will have to leave the evaluation to you.  If you can't read the whole thing pages 33 and 34 are worth your time, as well as the conclusions that begin on page 59.

After you read this, there are more updates on 4/18

Well, I have managed to get myself into a scam.  It is not your normal scam, like the ones that are run by some mafia boiler room with guys working under aliases.  This scam comes via a major insurance company called Applied Underwriters (working under the names California Insurance Company and Continental Indemnity Company) which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway and none other than Warren Buffett.  If you feel sorry for Warren Buffett and want to give him a large interest-free loan for an indeterminate number of years, this is your program.

Update 4/16:  Let me insert here that Applied Underwriters has sent me a letter threatening a libel suit if I do not take down this post and a parallel review at Yelp.  AU Takedown demand here (pdf).   The gist of the matter seems to be the word "scam".  By the text of their letter, they seem to believe that "scam" is libelous because their company is well-rated financially and that they provide reasonable claims service.  I concede both these facts.  However, I called it a "scam" because there is a big undisclosed cost to their product that was never mentioned in the sales process, and that could only be recognized by its omission in the contract I signed -- that there is nothing in the contract committing them to any time-frame under which to return deposits and excess premiums I have paid, which may well amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars.  This fact about the contract is confirmed by their customer service staff, who have said further that the typical time-frame to return such over-collections and deposits is 3-7 years after the contract ends, or at least 6-10 years after the first of the deposits was made.

So is this a "scam"?  I believe that this issue is costly enough, and hard enough to detect, and far enough outside of expected business practices to be called such.  You may have your own opinion, but ask yourself -- When you enter into, say, a lease and have to put down a security deposit, is it your reasonable expectation that the landlord has the right in your lease to keep your deposit for 3-7 years (or more) after you move out?  /Update

Anyway, let's take a step back and look at this in detail.

First, I need to give a bit of background on how workers comp works.  When you are a new company, they assign you an experience rating -- that is a multiplier of your premium based on past loss experience.  There is some default starting number that if I remember right, in most states, is a bit over 1.0x.  Each year, the workers comp world looks back at your past history and computes a new loss rating -- higher if you have had more payouts, lower if not.  Generally it is based on three years experience not counting the last year (so 2-4 years in the past).  Your future premiums get multiplied by this loss rating.

Several years ago we had a couple bad injuries that drove our loss number into the 1.7-1.9x area.   Neither were really due to a bad safety issue, but both involved workers in their seventies where a minor initial injury led to all sorts of complications.  Anyway, my agent at the time calls me one day a couple of weeks before renewal and says that none of the major companies will renew me.  This seemed odd to me -- I understood that my recent claims history was not good, but isn't that what the premium multiplier was for?  In fact, if my loss history returned to normal, they would make a fortune as I paid high rates based on old losses but had fewer new ones.

Apparently, though, insurance companies have fixed rules that keep them from underwriting higher loss ratings.  Probably for the same reason Vegas won't take action on Ivy League football games any more -- just too much variability.  I found out later with my new broker we could probably have overcome this, but I learned that too late.

My broker at the time put me into a 3-year program from Applied Underwriters, in part because they were taking everybody.  This program was set up differently from most workers comp programs.  You had a basic policy, but there was a second (almost indecipherable to laymen) reinsurance agreement that adjusted the rates of the basic policy based on you actual claims.   Here is the agreement (pdf)  In other words, based on your claims, they would figure up at the end how much you owed and what your premium multiplier would be.

I saw two red flags that I ignored in signing up.  1)  The reinsurance agreement was impossible to understand, violating one of my foundational rules that I shouldn't sign things I don't understand.  And 2) The rate structure was very suspicious.  They touted a rate structure that could go as low as, say, $100,000 a year and was capped around $400,000 a year.  But when you pulled out a calculator, the $100,000 was virtually unobtainable.  It would require about zero claims.  If there were any claims at all, even for a few bandaids, the price would march up to $400,000 really fast.  It was the equivalent of a credit card teaser rate, and it should have made me suspicious.

Anyway, I was desperate.  For a business like mine, being told I had no workers comp insurance just a few weeks before the old policy ran out was a death sentence.  No one would write me or even quote me a policy that fast.  So I took the Applied Underwriters offer.  Shame on me, I should have worked on this much harder.

I won't bore you further with my voyage of discovery in trying to figure out how this thing works.  I will just tell you the results that I have found.  There are apparently other companies with similar issues, one of which is documented here: Applied Underwriter Suit (pdf)Newsletter publisher objected to scan of article, so I have taken it down at their request.  Here is a link to roughly the same article.

I spent hours and hours trying to figure out AU's statements.  There is a whole set of terminology to learn that is actually not used in most of the rest of the workers comp world.  The key page of the statement is page 7, which I will show below because it highlights several of the issues with Applied.  Page 7 is the page where the monthly premium is "calculated".  I have added the red numbers and arrows for the discussion below.


Here are some of the Applied Underwriter problems:

  1. Large deposits that must be made each year and may never be returned.    You can see that I am making deposits over $40,000 a year.  And that is each year.  The first year deposit is not returned.  The second year and third year are just added to it.  And I have found out since I joined this program that they are not contractually obligated to return them in any time frame.  Maybe some guy who was hurt in his thirties has a relapse and claims more money when he is 75.  Gotta keep your deposit just in case, don't we?  The timing of the return of your deposits (and overpaid premiums below) is entirely at their discretion, and that has been confirmed by their customer service staff.  In fact, their standard answer is that on average, such monies are not returned to customers for 3-7 years after the contract ends, or at least 6-10 years after the first deposits were made.
  2. Premiums based on the worst of your experience and their estimate of your losses, and they keep the difference for years and years.   For those in the same trap as me, I will try to explain the numbers above.  The estimated loss pick containment at the top is basically their estimate of your losses.  Note that it drives every number on the page and is basically their arbitrary number -- they could have set it anywhere.  The loss pick containment to date is just pro rated for the amount of the year that has gone by.  The 65% is an arbitrary number.    The $25,278 is my actual losses to date.  You can see where I point with #2 above, though, that my losses are irrelevant to my premiums.  They take the higher of my losses and what is essentially their estimate of my losses and I pay based on that.   Note that their higher number is not based on the reserved amounts on actual claims -- the $25,278 includes their reserves.  It is just the number they established at the beginning of my policy they think my claims are going to be and gosh darnit they are going to stick to that (and my claims even in my worst year in history were never even half of their estimate).  Yes, at the end of the policy if my losses stay low, they owe me money back for all the premium they overcharged me based on their arbitrarily high estimates.  But see #1 above -- there is no time horizon under which they have to return the money.  They can keep it for years and years.
  3. The final premium is, after all these calculations, entirely arbitrary.  So after this loss calculation (which essentially just defaults to their arbitrarily high estimate and not my actual loss history) they do some premium calculations.  These actually sort of make sense if you stare at the agreements for a really long time.  But then we get to the line I point to in red labelled 3.  It is the actual amount I owe.  But it does not foot to any other number on the page.  How do they come up with this?  They won't say.  To anyone.  It might as well be arbitrary.  I actually had some dead time and took all my reports and tried to regress to a formula they use for this, but I couldn't figure it out.   So all the calculation on this page is just a sham, it's the mechanical wizard in the Wizard of Oz.  It looks good, but does not actually directly lead to what you are billed.

So I thought I understood my problems.  I put in large deposits and overpaid premiums based on arbitrarily high loss estimates they make -- all of which will take me years and years of effort to maybe get back.  It turns out that I likely will have a third problem.  In the lawsuit linked above, the plaintiff complains that when they left the program after three years, Applied arbitrarily wrote up all their estimated losses on open claims to stratospheric levels and then demanded a large final premium payment at the end.  Folks on Yelp complain of the same thing.  You should know how this works by now -- the plaintiff will theoretically get all this back someday, maybe, when the claims prove to be less costly, but in the mean time Warren Buffet gets to invest the money for years and years (cost of capital = 0) until it is returned.

This is why I think Applied Underwriters actually likes companies with high lost histories.  Rather than costs, losses for them are excuses to over-collect on deposits and premiums -- money that can then be invested and held for years free of charge.

As an aside, I want to thank my new agents at Interwest Insurance for helping decipher all of this.  They actually flew a guy in to help me understand this policy.  They didn't get me into it, but they are helping me pick up the pieces as best we can.

Scam Alert

Most folks, by now, know to be suspicious of this kind of thing.  My wife is looking at buying a high-end sewing machine (e.g. a Bernina).  Apparently, these machines along with high-end bikes are a hotbed for scam artists.  The story is almost always the same - I had to leave the country suddenly, and am selling my machine which I left with an escrow company in the US.

Example 1, person supposedly in Italy

Example 2, person supposedly in Spain

Both suggested escrow companies, but in both cases the escrow companies smelled bad.  Here was one example link the "seller" sent us.  This is unbelievably sketchy, merely a forum web post rather than an actual web site.  Google searches quickly demolished the credibility of the escrow suggestions, and when we suggested an escrow company we knew to be legit, emails from the sellers ended.