JAMESTOWN – Small businesses should have their own website to help prevent scammers from posing as their company, according to Chief Deputy Jason Falk, detective with the Stutsman County Sheriff’s Office.
Falk said Michel’s Auto Sales & Parts LLC did not have its own website when one was created posing as the Jamestown business.
“There was very little out there about the place (Michel’s Auto),” he said. “If there had been a legitimate one up and running, they (customers) would have been like ‘this is weird’. Because they didn’t have a website, it was perfect.”
The fake website that was created posing as Michel’s Auto Sales & Parts LLC listed phone numbers with the North Dakota area code and the Jamestown business’ address. The fake website swindled people who thought they were purchasing high-end vehicles out of $350,000.
Falk said the FBI is handling the case.
Wilhelm Chevrolet Buick GMC in Jamestown has a website that is updated, said Steve “Skovy” Jaskoviak, the company’s business manager. He said a majority of Wilhelm’s vehicles are on the website with photos from 28 different angles and include all the tools for potential customers to use.
“From our website, you can pull Carfax,” he said. “There is a payment calculator, and there is a price. Everything is there.”
Falk said the fake website was taken down but the scam has moved to different locations in the U.S. He said the fake websites at other locations look identical to the one for Michel’s Auto.
“There is a couple different websites out there now, and it looks to be the same scam,” he said. “The scam is continuing. It’s just constantly, one gets shut down, and they just pop up another one.”
Falk said some clues that a website could be a scam are being asked to wire money from your bank account, requests for gift cards or making transactions through Western Union.
Customers can contact their local Chamber of Commerce or the Better Business Bureau to check if they are dealing with a legitimate business, said Rod Wilhelm, co-owner of Wilhelm.
“You can Google Map us too,” Jaskoviak said.
Falk said the fake website followed the normal process of purchasing a vehicle online.
“That is where I think these online sales now are going to be extremely risky unless you are there (at the business or location where the vehicle is located) picking up a vehicle,” he said. “I talked to numerous victims where they buy vehicles like this for years and they have them shipped to them, but now it’s such a risky proposition, you don’t dare do it.”
If a customer does not feel comfortable wiring money to the business, Jaskoviak said he will let the individual know that there are direct flights to Jamestown where someone can check out the vehicle.
One victim of the Michel’s Auto scam even gave a review on the scammer’s website and on Google and then got attacked by the scammer.
“Then all of a sudden they got a spam attack,” Falk said. “Their emails got inundated.”
He said another form of retaliation from the scammer could be using information such as a Social Security number they received from a victim to get credit.
Customers scamming business
Even auto dealerships have to watch for potential scams, Jaskoviak said.
He said a customer from Houston tried to purchase a pickup from Wilhelm Chevrolet Buick GMC and sent a $48,000 check. Jaskoviak was told the customer would wire the money to Wilhelm’s business account.
“We waited and waited,” he said. “Then he would only talk to us through email. He wouldn’t talk to us over the phone.”
Then the customer tried to send a check from a bank account out of Maryland for $120,000 and told Jaskoviak to just deliver the pickup and give him the change. After Jaskoviak tried telling the customer to wire the money, a request was made to purchase two pickups instead.
“Then he gave us initially an address in Houston, so I looked up the address, and I know why he didn’t want us to send it there,” Jaskoviak said. “It was a damn empty lot.”
Wilhelm said salespeople have to assume the customer is real and not a scammer. He said no purchases occur online.
When a potential customer contacts Wilhelm Chevrolet Buick GMC, a salesperson will go through the steps with the individual. Tim Schulz, new car manager at Wilhelm, said a salesperson will send customers photos or videos of a vehicle or even contact them via video chat.
“You try to ask all the questions you can from the customer to find out if it is a real car deal,” he said.
After the salesperson finds out if the customer wants to move forward with a purchase, he or she will get a copy of the individual’s ID and insurance card and registration as well if a trade-in will occur.
“Then they bring it into me and I will take it from there,” Jaskioviak said. “I will call the customer up and get all the financial parts taken care of.”
If a customer wants to finance the vehicle purchase, Jaskoviak will pull a full credit application and get the customer’s Social Security numbers and any other information so the bank can do a credit check and approve financing. When he verifies a customer’s address, he will check the address on Google Maps.
“If they want to write us a check, I usually tell them to wire it to us,” he said. “If they do write us a check, we keep the vehicle here a minimum of 10 business days, two weeks, just to make sure that check clears.”
Before Jaskoviak can deposit the check, he will call the bank to make sure the funds are there.
“If you don’t wire it, we keep the vehicle here until the check clears,” he said.
Jaskoviak said Wilhelm Chevrolet Buick GMC has been in business for 61 years and if anyone doesn’t want the deal, Wilhelm can always return the customer’s money.
“The key is to feel safe to wire money,” Wilhelm said.
From an auto dealership’s perspective, Falk said getting money wired is a secure transaction for them.
“It’s the person that’s wiring the money where there has to be a high level of trust because if something goes awry, getting that money back is very difficult,” he said. “I can see as a dealership, why they would prefer that. It’s less risk for them.”
Falk said if you are purchasing a vehicle from out of state to go to the location, obtain the title, pay for the vehicle and drive off with it.