Neil Burns thought he’d struck gold when he was offered a job selling farm vehicles on eBay.
The 51-year-old Navy veteran’s income had fallen significantly since his engineering contract ended four years previously. The commission he would get for listing the vehicles and collecting payments from buyers – as much as £250 for a £5,000 tractor – would be a welcome boost to his finances.
But just weeks after accepting the job, Neil discovered that he had unwittingly been caught up in an internet scam.
Defrauded: Neil Burns was offered a job selling farm vehicles on eBay. However, it turned out the tractors and other farm equipment he’d listed did not exist
The person who had hired him to sell vehicles on his behalf was actually a fraudster. And the tractors and other farm equipment he’d listed did not exist. Worse still, Neil has ended up on the hook for more than £5,000 after an innocent shopper clawed back payment for undelivered goods.
Neil, a qualified engineer from Hampshire, heard about the job through a legitimate website called People Per Hour, which connects freelance workers with businesses.
In September last year he received an email from a People Per Hour user who called himself ‘Thomas Sandberg’.
Sandberg said he was trying to sell tractors and other industrial farm vehicles and wanted Neil to list them on eBay for him because he was out of the country and did not have time.
In return, Neil, a regular eBay user, would receive a 5 pc commission on every sale.
Neil would be responsible for uploading descriptions and photos of the items, as well as communicating with interested buyers, and Sandberg promised to cover any eBay fees Neil incurred.
Shortly after Neil listed the first item – a 2014 Kubota compact tractor for £5,600, plus £160 for delivery from Aberdeen – he started receiving emails from potential buyers.
Shortly after Neil listed the first item – a 2014 Kubota compact tractor (pictured above) for £5,600, plus £160 for delivery from Aberdeen – he started receiving emails from potential buyers
Most wanted to view the vehicle before buying. This is a common request because eBay does not provide a money-back guarantee on vehicles sold through its website. But when Neil asked Sandberg if this was possible, he was told to say no.
One buyer asked if the tractor was in full working order, why Neil was selling it, if he was the original owner and whether he was able to supply the original manuals and purchase documents.
Neil went back to Sandberg, who told him to say that the tractor was in perfect working order and was being sold due to lack of space. Neil was told to say he was the original owner and would supply all the relevant paperwork.
Foolishly, Neil went along with Sandberg’s suggestion and the buyer paid £5,760 into Neil’s PayPal account on the understanding that the tractor would be delivered within three days.
As soon as the payment had been made, Sandberg asked Neil to transfer the money to his account. Sandberg said this was urgent because he wouldn’t be able to deliver the vehicle to the buyer until he had received the money, as he had to pay his suppliers and delivery fees.
NatWest has refused to help Neil clear his debts
Sandberg wrote: ‘You will need to have a little trust in this deal, otherwise I will need you to cancel the transaction and refund the buyer.’
Neil then transferred the £5,026 to Sandberg’s NatWest account, taking £734 for himself to cover his commission and eBay fees. The next day Sandberg sent Neil a new vehicle to list – a 2000 John Deere 4×4 tractor costing £4,500 plus £160 delivery. But this time a buyer messaged Neil shortly after making payment to say he’d spotted the exact same photos of the tractor on an American website.
It was at this point that Neil became suspicious that something was seriously wrong.
When Neil asked Sandberg to confirm the vehicle was in his possession, he became defensive and ordered Neil to transfer payment immediately. Neil says: ‘I told him if he was a legitimate seller there wouldn’t be a problem. I tried to call him and couldn’t get through so I sent a message saying unless he could show me the paperwork, I wasn’t going to pay him.’
Sandberg never replied, so Neil thanked the buyer for bringing the photos to his attention and agreed to refund the payment, explaining that they had both been a victim of a scam. He contacted eBay and Action Fraud, the cybercrime reporting service, and his own bank The Cooperative Bank. But several weeks later, £5,760 was removed from his PayPal account.
It turned out that the first buyer’s bank had clawed back the payment for the 2014 Kubota compact tractor which had never been delivered. Banks can do this under so-called Chargeback rules for debit cards or Section 75 rules for credit cards.
This plunged Neil thousands of pounds into debt. His PayPal and eBay account have been disabled until he repays the money, which he says he does not have. Neil has since discovered Sandberg’s scam was linked to a larger police investigation into online fraud.
In June, Money Mail revealed that nine major banks had allowed 82 accounts to be opened by a criminal gang using fake passports, driving licences and utility bills.
Police found Sandberg’s NatWest account among these and confirmed to Money Mail that Neil was a victim of crime. PayPal, however, is still demanding payment.
Neil says: ‘I told PayPal the fraudster owes them the money. I said the police were dealing with it. I shouldn’t be liable for this debt.
‘The bank should also take some responsibility. NatWest gave the criminal an account with fake documents. If I made this kind of error in my work, I’d be hung, drawn and quartered.’
Arun Chauhan, director of Tenet Compliance & Litigation, a law firm that advises on financial compliance, says a victim in Neil’s position would need to prove in court that a bank failed in its money-laundering checks, which would be extremely difficult.
Otherwise the company does not have to take responsibility for the missing money.
NatWest has refused to help Neil clear the debt and says it meets ‘strict regulations when opening an account for a new customer, including verifying customer ID and other details’.
A PayPal spokesman says it is working with Neil to ‘find a way of helping him manage this debt’ and has written off the PayPal fees associated with the original transaction as a goodwill gesture.