Fact Check

Empty Box Scam

Warnings about scammers who sell boxes supposedly containing valuable merchandise.

Published Apr 1, 2009

Scam:   Scammers sell victims supposedly unopened boxes containing brand-new merchandise, but the cartons actually hold worthless junk.

Status:   Real fraud.

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2005]

The following IS true, it happened to my friend Stephanie recently (4/16/05) at the Jon's parking lot in Hollywood (between Sunset Blvd., & Hollywood Blvd., on Vermont).

She was approached by a man on a bike who had 3 laptop boxes inside Staples bags. He told her that he works for OfficeDepot (there's your first clue - Staples bags?) unloading the delivery trucks and he took 4 laptops for himself; he had three left. Stephanie said that all 3 boxes were CLEARLY unopened and packaged with wrapping and all.

He pretended to be nervous because he claimed someone was watching them and he quickly unloaded a Pentium 4 laptop on my friend for $100.00 and then scurried away (on his bike mind you).

My friend (who is USUALLY quite bright) was very happy @ the thought that she had gotten laptop for $100.00. She was going to give it to her daughter. Low and behold, the box contained a phonebook!- that sucks.

This, IS a true story as related by my friend and can easily be verified. I scolded my friend (in between laughter) and told her that that is what she gets for buying (presumably) stolen stuff.

Don't let this happen to YOU!

Origins:   One of the oldest cons in the book is to steal stuff (preferably items which are easily portable yet valuable, such as jewelry or small electronic devices), and then quickly unload the loot by

Empty box

selling it to someone else at bargain prices (commonly known as "fencing"). This may be a quick and effective way of picking up some cash, but it's not so good in a legal sense: the seller is likely to be on the hook for any number of crimes (burglary, larceny, grand theft), and both buyer and seller could be nabbed for possession of stolen goods.

A slightly less risky scam is to dupe customers by offering them seemingly cut-rate prices for items that look expensive (e.g., designer clothes and purses, high-priced watches) but are really just cheap knock-offs (or counterfeits) masquerading as the real thing. It's still illegal, but you don't have to take the extra risk of breaking into homes, businesses, or cars for your supply, and you don't implicate your customers in a crime as well. (On the other hand, you still need to find a source to provide you with convincing counterfeits.)

The least legally risky incarnations of these kinds of schemes are versions like the one described in the example quoted above: You allow your customers to think they're getting a great deal on brand-new, stolen goods, but you really sell them cheap crap or worthless junk.

One instance of this scam I used to commonly see around town was pulled off by guys who traveled around the parking lots of malls and sold unboxed stereo equipment (or equipment in unmarked boxes) to passing shoppers out of the backs of their vans. The sellers

would be deliberately vague or evasive about where the equipment had come from in order to allow eager customers to convince themselves that they were getting great deals on obviously "hot" top-of-the-line merchandise, but what the buyers actually got was overpriced shoddy merchandise from low-quality manufacturers — a fact they didn't discover until the sellers were long gone. This scheme works out great for the sellers because there's no actual crime involved: they don't need to steal or counterfeit to obtain their supplies of goods, and as long as they make no representations about the merchandise they're peddling, they're unlikely to face any fraud charges. The buyers' (mistaken) belief that they're getting purloined goods restrains them from asking too many questions that might reveal the true nature of the merchandise they're bidding on, and once they find out they've been taken, there's little they can do about it (especially since they probably won't even be able to find the sellers again).

Another version of this same con eschews the shoddy merchandise route and simply uses deception to peddle worthless junk. Scammers approach passers-by with what look like unopened boxes of expensive brand-name merchandise (such as, in the example above, laptop computers) and offer to sell them at unbelievably low prices. The sellers may explicitly state (again, as in the example above) that the goods are stolen, and may even display examples of opened boxes as convincing decoys. Potential customers paradoxically take it on faith that a thief peddling stolen merchandise wouldn't rip them off, assume that what they're seeing is what they're getting (even though they haven't really seen what they're getting, because it remains sealed inside unopened boxes), and plunk down their cash on what they think are great deals. Only after they finally open the containers and inspect their purchases (by which time the sellers are likely to be well out of sight) do they discover that the boxes of "brand-new merchandise" were simply empty cartons into which the scammers had placed something weighty (such as bricks or telephone books) to create the illusion that the boxes actually held what was pictured on their outsides.

The "empty box" scheme doesn't require the seller to make an investment in any type of goods (cheap, counterfeit, or stolen), and although it may be an illegal form of fraud, the chances of getting caught are low. After all, how many people are going to report to the police that they got ripped off while purchasing what thought they were expensive stolen goods?

Last updated:   18 April 2005


David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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