Caravan and motorhome scammers target Australians during the coronavirus pandemic
Carolyn Robertson never saw herself as the kind of person who would buy a caravan.
But with a trip to Queensland cancelled in May and no international travel on the horizon, she and her husband Laurie figured it might be a way to get away once Victoria’s lockdown lifted.
“I said to my husband, ‘if we don’t like it, what’s the worst that can happen? We sell it again’,” she said.
Instead, the Robertsons paid more than $10,000 for a caravan that never arrived from a website called Acecaravancampers.com.
“I emptied our savings,” Ms Robertson said.
“It basically left us with nothing.”
IDCare, which supports the victims of online scams and identity theft, says there has been a spike in the past month of people reporting similar scams.
“Our thinking around why caravans is, people aren’t necessarily able to travel internationally at the moment so they’re looking for ways to enjoy themselves on holidays domestically,” cybersecurity expert and IDCare founder David Lacey said.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s ScamWatch service says it received 214 reports mentioning “caravans”, “motorhomes” or “campers” between January 1 and October 16 this year — with over $129,000 in losses.
“So, the criminals are obviously monitoring that,” Professor Lacey said.
The Acecaravancampers.com website had a slick design, Australian contact details and photographs of a team of salespeople.
“We checked all the websites, ABN, ACN, all looked legitimate, couldn’t see anything that raised any flags,” Ms Robertson said.
In emails seen by the ABC, a representative of the company told Ms Robertson the showroom was in Ryan in Queensland, but she would have seven days to inspect the caravan once it arrived at her Narre Warren home and would get a full refund if she was not satisfied.
She spoke to a representative linked to a Queensland number listed on the site and even had the bank teller look over the details before making the transaction in late October.
She transferred $10,700 to the nominated bank account, which the representative said would be held by the freight company in escrow.
The day before it was meant to arrive, she got an email saying the delivery had been delayed due to the driver testing positive to COVID-19.
She asked whether it would be cleaned, and got no response. She then went to check the website and it had been taken down.
“That was when it hit me,” she said.
‘He made me look like a dickhead, he took all me money’
Not long after Ms Robertson realised the business was a scam, the website re-appeared with a different host.
A reverse image search revealed the photographs were of real people based overseas — who are not linked to the company — and the Victorian address listed is linked to a forging business, not a caravan store.
Northern Territory Consumer Affairs said a company called Ace Caravans and Campers Pty Ltd was once a legitimate business and their ABN was still current, although they confirmed that they stopped trading a long time ago.
“They are not associated with this website in any way,” a September consumer alert said.
Professor Lacey said although consumer and cybercrime watchdogs could issue take-down notices for websites, it was easy for scammers based overseas to simply use a different host or create a new website.
Moama concreter Craig Hope fell victim to the same scam, spending a total of $17,900 on what he thought would be a Christmas present for his children.
“The year sucks and this just really, really topped it off,” Mr Hope said.
Like Ms Robertson, he said he spoke to someone on the phone before making the payment, and documents seen by the ABC show he was promised the same seven-day return window and referred to the same freight company.
When it failed to turn up, he called the freight company and realised it was the same number provided by the caravan salesman.
Arfreightservices.com has also been identified as a scam by consumer watchdogs. It is not to be confused with the legitimate business A & R Freight Pty Ltd and their website arfreight.com.au.
Mr Hope said he was now going to take out a personal loan to buy a caravan for his kids for Christmas like he promised he would.
But he said he would inspect it in person.
“This bloke sucked me in, he made me look like a dickhead, he took all me money, so there’ll be nothing ever done online by me ever again,” he said
Legitimate Melbourne business caught up in scam
Looking for answers, Mr Hope called the closest business he could find — Ace Caravan Repairs in Cheltenham in Melbourne.
“I spoke to the bloke there and he said ‘mate, I’ve been trying to get these people shut down … It’s a scam’,” he said.
Michael Kougras runs the Cheltenham business, which is in no way associated with the scam site, and said it had been “pretty hard for the past six or seven weeks”.
He said his business partner was dealing with about 20 calls a day from people who had been ripped off by the other site.
“He’s pretty resilient with a lot of stuff, but he was pretty mentally drained by it,” Mr Kougras told ABC Radio Melbourne’s Libbi Gorr.
Professor Lacey said there were often “multiple victims” of the scams, as real business details and photographs of real people were used to make the fake sites seem legitimate.
Watchdog believes the same people are behind other ‘big-ticket’ scams
Consumer Affairs NT has investigated a number of similar scams and posted consumer alerts online, meaning people from around the country report their experiences to the NT watchdog.
“Over the past year we’ve detected caravans, motorhomes, tractors, farming equipment generally, construction equipment, motorbikes, boats,” acting deputy commissioner Ann Holland said.
Ms Holland said while the watchdog could not definitively prove it, they suspected it was a group of scammers based overseas creating multiple sites.
Many of the websites have a similar design and sell large items at below-market cost.
“[They are] big-ticket items, so that when people fall foul of these, it’s not a small amount of money,” she said.
“They’re losing on average, $10,000 to $20,000.”
She said the websites had “increasingly good levels of sophistication”, such as creating fake reviews, and consistently used the business details of legitimate Australian companies.
Professor Lacey said scammers purporting to sell caravans, motorhomes and farm machinery was “absolutely national”.
“What we do see, though, is that the victimisation of the scams this year seems to be a lot more prevalent in Victoria … employment scams, investment scams and relationship scams,” he said.
“I guess a by-product of being contained in your home, particularly if you’re alone, is that you might be more susceptible to the scammer.”