Scammers are trying to rip off eBay sellers by forging PayPal transfer information in an attempt to make them send expensive items which actually haven't been paid for.

An example by Tony Levene

A friend of my daughter had two identical watches. She decided to sell one, which was still in its original packaging, on eBay. While it wasn’t one of those incredibly expensive ones that do all sorts of wonderful extras, it also wasn’t a £5 watch from a market stall.

She checked a high street jewellery chain to see how much they were charging for it. It was on sale for £195.

She listed it on eBay at a starting price of £95, figuring she would get something like £130-£140. So when a South African bidder offered her £190 (plus postage to that country) within minutes of the watch appearing on eBay, she couldn't believe her luck.

If it's too good to be true...

Rule number one is that if you can't believe it, it's a scam. And by the speed of the response, it would appear to be an automated racket. The scam here is to make it appear that payment is on the way, when in reality the seller will never see a penny.

At first, she was overjoyed that her watch had sold so quickly and for so much. She contacted the prospective buyer to confirm the deal and ask for their postal address.

The buyer soon responded, saying that they had made the payment to PayPal and including the postage information.

[Related story: Warning about scammer Derek Jones]

What's in a name?

This is where things became even more suspicious. While the emails came from someone called Hammer Garrard, the watch was to be sent to someone named Mustapha A with an address in Pretoria. That could be explained, though. After all it might be a present, so it is easier to have the sender use the final recipient's address.

My daughter, assuming the money had gone into her PayPal account, contacted the buyer to say the watch would be posted immediately. But after checking her account she discovered the money wasn’t there – it appeared as ‘pending’, rather than having been paid – so contacted the buyer again.

By now the buyer was getting desperate, sending a pleading message emphasising that the money really had been paid, as well as a ‘Receipt for your Group Money Request’, a usual PayPal procedure except that this one was a clear phoney.

At this stage, she realised that the whole thing was a racket and stopped communicating. But it is clear how easy it would be to convince someone new to selling on auction sites to send goods which will never really be paid for.

[Related story: How to spot fakes this Christmas]

A new variation on an old trick

This scam has similarities with the old ‘Buy your car for more than you ask for’ swindle. Here, you advertise your car on a legitimate website for, say, £5,000.

You probably expect to be bargained down a bit but you have a floor price below which you will not sell. So when someone offers £7,500 – claiming your car is worth more elsewhere, for example eastern Europe – you go for it!

You can't post a car. And you know better than to take a cheque. The fraudster posts a banker's draft, collecting the vehicle later.

The draft should be as good as cash. Except it is a forgery. Few ever see drafts, so we don't know what they look like. But by the time the seller realises the draft is dishonest, the car is half way across the continent.