DRAGASANI, Romania – Hundreds of people in the poor Romanian town of Dragasani have grown rich by conning eBay online auction customers with deals that seem too good to be true — and often are.
The scammers have even put the new town hall up for sale on eBay, the mayor admitted last week.
"I mean, who would want it?" he asked.
Despite growing concern about online frauds, the European Union has poured $300,000 into computer training courses in Dragasani over the past three years in "special recognition" of its information-technology skills.
"I heard about another offer on eBay selling a MiG fighter jet. There was a photo and a very good price as the customer was only being asked to pay for the fuel to fly it. One guy paid $2,000!" the mayor, Gheorghe Iordache, exclaimed.
"The victims are mainly Americans because they are on the Internet most often and they're naive," he added. "I've heard about local guys who have suddenly bought apartments in Bucharest, Germany, Holland, but haven't a job. Others have BMWs, Mercedes, Porsches and they don't work. So where do they get the money from?"
With few local jobs available in this industrial town in Romania's Valcea wine-growing region, defrauding eBay customers has became a popular career path for many of Dragasani's young people.
A classic scam is the "second chance auction," in which fraudsters contact an eBay user who has just missed out on an item, offering them another chance to buy it outside eBay rules. The scammers persuade their victims to purchase the fictitious items using payment methods that do not allow them to recover the money.
Other frauds include hacking into eBay accounts and stealing an identity to make fake offers. Local police say thousands of victims have been defrauded by the scammers. The biggest case involved the sum of $300,000.
Mihai Popescu, 29, is serving a three-year jail sentence for his link to one such scam. He was lured into online fraud when he was unemployed.
Last week his parents protested that he had been made a scapegoat after playing a minor role in the crime, in which his identity card was used to pick up a cash payment from a victim.
"He is only 5 percent guilty. He doesn't even speak English," said his father Stefan.
According to Virgil Spiridon, chief of the national cyber-crime unit, there were 752 arrests and 84 convictions last year, many of them in cases where Romanians posed as Britons.
A spokesman for eBay said it had "invested millions" in fighting fraud in Romania.