A fake transaction

Man scammed IRL for a phone he sold online

If you’re looking to sell an item which you’ve advertised online, be on your guard. Even when everything looks to be working as it should, things can go wrong very quickly as one unfortunate IT graduate recently discovered. You would think that there’s no way the in-person sale of an expensive device, with money exchanging digitally on your own doorstep, could possibly go wrong. And yet…

Fake apps, real items

Chris Gray of Howdon possesses an IT degree, and considers himself to be tech-savvy. Sometimes having a preconceived idea of what a scam may look like can contribute to being caught off-guard by something completely out of left field. In this case, the scam involved the sale of an expensive mobile device which had been listed online.

The buyer appeared at Gray’s home and agreed to pay a bank transfer using a mobile app in front of Gray. Gray says the app appeared to display the agreed sum being sent to his bank account. When the money still hadn’t arrived after 20 minutes, Gray did a quick Google and, seeing it could “up to 2 hours” for the transaction to show up, sent the buyer on his way. The buyer left with the phone, and Gray was left with nothing. No money ever turned up in his bank account.

There was no reversing of the funds, no claim backs. So what happened?

Gray believes the scammer was using a fake mobile app designed to look like it was processing a bank transfer. No matter which details were punched in, it would have looked as though a transaction was taking place. In reality, it seems it was all just a very clever front to part someone from their mobile device. This tale ends with Gray being blocked on social media by the phone thief, their only other point of contact.

The continued problem of fake payment apps

This isn’t the first time this has happened, and law enforcement is definitely taking an interest in these fake app payment scams.

Just last month, West Yorkshire police warned about this exact type of fraud. Following a similar pattern to the above, targets are usually selling items on social media when the criminals make their move. From the release:

“When a meeting takes place to hand over the item being sold, the victim puts their bank details into a fake app on the criminal’s phone. It then produces a screen which makes it appear that the money has been successfully transferred.

But when the victim then checks their account, they find that the funds haven’t actually transferred. 

The criminal then pretends to call his bank saying that it takes up to two hours for the funds to show. But the money is never received by the victim.”

There’s that two hour window warning again! We don’t know if these dubious purchase attempts are from the same person, different groups of people, or if it’s some sort of group dedicated to going up and down the UK making bogus purchases. One thing is for certain, this makes the prospect of social media selling a bit riskier than it already is.

How to avoid selling to a scammer

People will often sell items away from sites such as eBay for various reasons, but when doing so they’re at the mercy of people who may not have the best intentions. Here are some of the ways you can keep yourself safe from harm, courtesy of West Yorkshire Police:

  • Accept that selling away from more traditional online marketplaces means you won’t have any backup protection in place as a buyer or a seller. No third party will come to your assistance if you’re making deals on Twitter.

  • If you agree to make a payment transfer via a buyer’s “app”, feel free to ask them in advance of them coming to your home about the app’s name and other details. If it’s something you’re unfamiliar with, Google it. Check if you need an account on the supposed app to be able to receive money in the first place.

  • Don’t feel pressured to accept a payment. Rush tactics are very common in scams, whether online or off. This scam grants the criminal a little more leeway under the guise of “payments taking up to 2 hours”.

  • Contact your bank once a payment has supposedly been made prior to handing over any goods, and see if there is indeed a payment pending.

  • Use an app of your choosing to receive money. It may not be prudent to have the supposed buyer make the call where this is concerned. If you’re using recognised payment services, you’ll likely have some measure of additional protection if things go wrong down the line.

  • Don’t hand anything over until the money is in your bank account or payment app.

Stay safe out there!


Christopher Boyd

Former Director of Research at FaceTime Security Labs. He has a very particular set of skills. Skills that make him a nightmare for threats like you.