By Kim Howard
The suite number does not exist. The phone number is not in use. And the Williston Development Review Board never approved the construction of a group of high-rise buildings reminiscent of Manhattan.
But the Web site of “Bid Assist” attempts to make its viewers believe it’s a bona fide company, based in Williston, which serves as a middleman for consumers making on-line purchases.
“It’s certainly not the skyline of Williston,” Vermont Assistant Attorney General Elliot Burg said, referring to a picture of office buildings on the company’s Web site, adjacent to their alleged address and phone number. “Maybe it’s the skyline in the year 2075.”
The facts, as researched by Observer staff, suggest the business is virtual in more ways than one.
Bid Assist’s building address is 300 Cornerstone Drive – the same building as the Observer offices, and across a parking lot from vBay, a legitimate business (with a real office – we can see it out the window) that assists people with neither the time nor expertise to sell goods on eBay, an online auction service.
Bid Assist’s suite number, 38, does not exist, according to Mel Israel, controller for Allen Brook Development, Inc., which is responsible for 300 Cornerstone Drive. Israel also confirmed no entity by the name of Bid Assist leases space at the location.
The business is registered neither with the Better Business Bureau nor the Vermont Secretary of State. The Web site domain names (www.bid-assist.org and www.bidassist.org) are registered to Privacy Protect, an organization that conceals Web site registrant identities. The recording at Bid Assist’s listed Vermont phone number also does not inspire confidence: “This number is not in use. Thank you for calling. Goodbye.”
The company claims to negotiate and pay for merchandise a consumer wants using the consumer’s eBay login information. It then has the merchandise shipped to a warehouse, and has the consumer pay them for the services. Bid Assist claims to ship to countries that online sellers won’t.
The company’s pricing structure alone is “foolishness,” according to vBay owner Wes Paro. “It doesn’t ring true,” he said.
The “couriers,” according to Bid Assist’s “Careers” Web site page, receive $60 per handled package, and not less than $1,520 per month, for up to eight hours of work weekly.
Burg said he “would have very serious concerns about doing business with this Web site in the absence of some kind of confirmation that it’s legitimate.” Beyond the fraudulent company address, the request for eBay passwords is a red flag, he said. Login information, Burg said, is something “people should absolutely avoid sharing with a third party,” a point reiterated by eBay itself.
An eBay spokeswoman confirmed that Bid Assist is not an authorized partner service. Burg said the Attorney General’s Office gets complaints about Internet fraud, including auction-related fraud, “all the time.” He has two pieces of advice for online shoppers at eBay or other online sellers.
“Do not go off-site – the quickest way to get scammed is to link to somebody’s personal e-mail,” Burg said. “Secondly, don’t wire money … You have no protection. Once the money is wired, it’s gone.”
Burg also advised people beware of entities that are “phishing” for personal information – whether it be bank account numbers or eBay passwords. Those scams, he said, often come in the form of an unsolicited e-mail.
A blogger who alerted the Williston Observer to Bid Assist received such an e-mail, offering him a job with the company “founded by three Stanford University graduates” and “officially registered in March 2004 with the Vermont Department of Corporations.” No such department exists.
“Deception Spotter,” the blogger, believes Bid Assist is not a “phishing” expedition, but a job scam.
Other than to say he speaks English, doesn’t live in the U.S., and may accurately be referred to with the pronoun “he,” Deception Spotter refused to identify himself for fear of being targeted by criminals for spoiling their scams on his Web sites: iDeceive.blogspot.com and SuckersWanted.blogspot.com.
The blogger said for years he’s wanted to help solve the problem of spam.
“The predatory nature of spam began to offend me…so I decided to document as much of this activity as I could,” he said in an e-mail.
As spam laws have taken effect, he believes the effect has not been less spam, but more sinister efforts. Bid Assist, he believes, is one such example where people are scammed into becoming “mules” or go-betweens involved in re-shipper fraud.
Internet job scams are on the increase, according to a Better Business Bureau advisory issued in March.
“Complaints to the Better Business Bureau span dozens of sites, to include employment advertisements listed on well-known, legitimate job sites such as Monster, CareerBuilder and Yahoo Hot Jobs,” the BBB advisory reads. “A common denominator in all online job scams is the employer’s lack of interest in meeting the employee.”
Of all the tip-offs that Bid Assist may not be legitimate, perhaps the biggest is that these virtual Willistonians have no need to meet their employees. Vermonters, after all, are a congenial bunch.