Scams and Complicated Explanations

Have you ever watched a movie or read a book where the villain’s ultimate downfall is that he just talks too much?

The hero lies broken and bruised atop some building at the triumphant bad guy’s feet, while burning bits of debris rain down all around them and helicopters whir away in the distance, their spotlights scanning the ruined streets below. The villain lets out a guttural, joyless laugh and aims some twisted destructive device squarely at our hero’s face…and then pauses. He begins to taunt, and then to talk. Then he launches into a monologue that becomes a sermon, going into great detail of how he masterminded the whole thing, and why.

Several minutes of explanation later, the villain is the one either defeated or put to the run by the good guy, or some quipping accomplice whose fate was left unknown a few scenes earlier appearing from behind an air conditioning unit. If the bad guy had just shut up and acted dastardly, he would have succeeded, and gotten away with it. The entire Harry Potter series would have been a novella about a kid who doesn’t survive his first year of wizarding school if Voldemort would have flapped his gums less.

The “talkative villain” trope holds true in a lot of scams, as bad actors attempt to distract potential victims from how fishy the situation really is.

Pet scams start with an online listing for purebred dogs or cats, often at unusually low prices. The seller may initially agree to an in-person transaction, but will soon come up with complicated reasons why the buyer can’t see the animal or pay in person. They’re out of town on business, or they’re overseas, or somebody is in the hospital. Eventually they ask for payment through a peer-to-peer mobile app, offering to ship the dog or cat on an airplane, tack on a few hundred dollars for shipping, then disappear with the money.

Car sales scams operate in a similar fashion, with some well-regarded used vehicle for sale (at thousands below blue book value) and an offer to ship the vehicle. Why is the price so low, you might ask? Oh, they’re just moving out of the country and have to get rid of everything fast, or it belonged to an ex and they can’t stand the sight of it, or they’re in the military and can’t take it with them. They might ask that you pay through an escrow service that turns out to be fake, or request payment by wire transfer or mobile app. Some might even generously offer to only take half payment now, and you can pay the rest when the car arrives on the trailer (that they’ll ask you to cover the rental for).

Romance scammers will use their alleged military service or job in an oil field to justify why they can’t meet their victim in person, or even video chat (“the internet out here is really bad…”), which also ends up being the reason why the target has to wire money, or to receive electronic deposits and disburse it to multiple bank accounts (i.e. helping the scammer launder money).

Apartment scammers who claim to own a property they have no legal ties to will also give complex reasons (travelling for their career, etc.) why they can’t meet a renter in person and must collect the deposit by some non-reversible, non-traceable means. Other scammers will comb online classified ads and, instead of making an offer and paying like a normal buyer, start asking the seller to add gift cards, or send a check for thousands more than the item is worth (“that’s okay, just wire the difference back”). They might also come up with strange reasons they would pay to have an oak chest of drawers shipped to Oregon from Maine, instead of buying local.

There are things you need to know when it comes to transactions: what is it, how much is it, how the buyer is going to get it. When a buyer or seller starts telling you their life story and using it as a reason to dictate the terms of the transaction, it’s safest to assume you’re dealing with a villain.