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  • LEGO Larcency: Scams, Schemes and Shady Sales Practices...

    Ed Mack

    The definition of Larceny is as follows:

    Anyone who steals, or with intent to defraud obtains by a false pretense, or whoever unlawfully, and with intent to steal or embezzle, converts, or secretes with intent to convert, the property of another … whether such property is or is not in his possession at the time of such conversion or secreting, shall be guilty of larceny. … (Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 266, § 30(1)).

    As Bob Dylan once wrote, “The times are a changin'.”  The term “larceny” and LEGO in the same sentence?  What is the world coming to?  Well, truth be told, I'm surprised it took this long for the crooks and scam artists of the world to infiltrate the innocent world of LEGO bricks.  LEGO sets and bricks are valuable toys and are highly collectible, making them targets of the con men/women out there.  I've been buying and investing in LEGO sets and bricks for years and have bought thousands of sets, from hundreds of sellers from around the world...and I've been ripped off numerous times.  I'm here today to share some of these stories with you and others I have come across in my journeys.  It is my wish that you learn from my experiences and prevent future monetary and time loss for yourselves.

    Let's take a look at a couple of recent stories about con men who utilized LEGO sets in their scams.  Although the following stories are not from my personal experiences, they are a good way to illustrate how far and to what lengths crooks will go to make money involving LEGO sets and bricks:

    Associated Press –Tuesday, May 22, 2012 

    SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -- A Silicon Valley software executive put fake bar codes on Lego sets at various Target stores, bought the toys at a steep discount, then sold them online for thousands of dollars, authorities said.

    Thomas Langenbach, 47, appeared in court Tuesday on four felony counts of burglary that could net him up to five years in prison if convicted.

    He did not enter a plea.
    Authorities say Langenbach bought Lego sets at Target stores but covered their original bar codes with his own bar-code stickers to get a cheaper price.

    Examples of his thefts included a $279 box of Millenium Falcon Legos he bought for $49 and a $90 Anakin Skywalker Lego set he got for $35, said Cindy Seeley Hendrickson, supervising deputy district attorney for Santa Clara County.

    When police obtained a search warrant for Langenbach's posh home south of San Francisco, they said they found hundreds of sets of the colorful toy bricks, many of which he sold on eBay under the name "tomsbrickyard."

    Authorities say Langenbach's house in San Carlos also was filled with Lego creations he had built himself.

    Eight baggies of bar code stickers were found in his car, police said.

    Langenbach works for German software giant SAP. His LinkedIn profile lists him as a vice president in a Northern California division.

    He was already under surveillance by Target security officers who suspected him of the scheme when they spotted him at the chain's Mountain View store May 8. After he completed his purchases using the bogus bar codes, the store called police and Langenbach was arrested, authorities said.

    "This particular crime, the way it was done, the sophistication, the amount of expenditure in time and money to do it, suggests there's something way beyond money that motivated him to do it," Hendrickson said.

    Attempts to reach Langenbach, who is free on bail, were unsuccessful.

    In another related story of a “second LEGO bar-code switch scam”:

    San Francisco Chronicle – Friday, July 20, 2012

    A San Francisco man has been charged with stealing pricey “Star Wars” Lego sets from Target stores on the Peninsula by replacing the bar codes on the boxes with ones that gave him steep discounts, San Mateo County prosecutors said Thursday.

    Sound familiar? It should. Not so long, long ago, in a county not very far, far away, a Silicon Valley executive was charged with executing almost exactly the same fraud scheme at Target stores in Mountain View, Cupertino and San Carlos.

    There’s no indication that Thomas Langenbach, the software company vice president charged in that case, was in cahoots with Donald Michael Morales, who is accused of pulling the scam in San Mateo County, prosecutors say. Apparently, they hit on the same idea independently, authorities believe.

    “The label switch has been around for decades, but the ability to do so in a systematic way is newer,” said Al Serrato, an assistant district attorney in San Mateo County.

    Morales, 44, stole at least 14 “Star Wars” Lego sets from Target stores in San Bruno, San Mateo, Redwood City and Daly City between Feb. 20 and April 14, prosecutors said.

    He allegedly did so by pasting fake bar codes for $15.99 on the collectors sets, which are sold for $139.99. Morales then sold the Legos on eBay for closer to the store price, prosecutors say.

    Security guards at the Target in Redwood City detained him April 14, and a check of other stores revealed him to be the suspect in additional thefts. He’s been accused of 14 felony burglary charges and one charge of grand theft.

    Morales said he was out of work and needed money, according to prosecutors. He probably made less than $2,000 from his eBay sales, Serrato said.

    A judge released Morales on Thursday on his own recognizance. He is to return to court June 28.

    As you can see, these two characters got very creative in their LEGO scams.  But even with technical and unique approach to making a fast buck, their greed led to their ultimate downfall.  But most LEGO scams are not this elaborate, but they might be more prevalent.  One such common scam is called “drop shipping.”  Drop shipping is an auction site scam that occurs quite frequently to buyers on eBay and similar sites.  A crooked seller will list the “deal of a century” for an expensive LEGO set on the auction site.  The set will be $100+ in value and currently available from primary sources, like LEGO, Target, Walmart, etc...in order to maximize profits.  A set similar to a 10214 Tower Bridge or 10188 Death Star would be perfect candidates for this scam.  Basically, the con artist would sell a $400 10188 Death Star for $300-$350 as a Buy it Now.  Potential buyers would snap up these sets in droves.  The listing will look legit with photos and a generic description of the LEGO set.  The sale will be consummated through Pay Pal and the buyer will receive a brand new 10188 Death Star a couple of days later from LEGO or another large chain store.  The buyer will be happy, leave positive feedback and the cycle continues.

    But wait...I said the LEGO set came from LEGO or another store?  Yes.  Basically the shady seller will use stolen credit card information to purchase the LEGO sets online and send them directly to your door.  The original listing will be from one person and the item will be shipped from another.  The addresses never correlate, but the buyer is happy because they got the new set, at a great price and won't bother looking at the receipt in most instances.  There was no reason to think the item was stolen or acquired through fraudulent means.  The seller will do this multiple times, to multiple buyers, over a short time span, so that the person that the stolen credit card information was taken from, will not realize there was any extra charges put on the credit card for weeks to come.  The unethical seller will even have a legit PayPal account to receive your “clean” money and eBay account, with positive feedback.  The seller can easily make thousands of dollars off of a week's worth of fraudulent transactions.

    So you now may ask, “Why do I care?  I got my MISB 10188 Death Star for $300!  LEGO and eBay make lots of money.  I deserve a break!”  Well, for one, LEGO is getting smart to these practices.  They are starting to question orders in which the billing and shipping orders are different.  But even more importantly, they are freezing the LEGO accounts and MVP memberships of customers who received the questionable goods(if sold by LEGO).  How do I know this?  It happened to me.  I bought a 10223 Kingdoms Joust for $105 from an eBay seller.  It was a nice deal, but nothing special because I had to pay shipping costs also.  Regardless, it was a couple of dollars cheaper than the current lowest retail price, which belonged to LEGO, so I pulled the trigger and purchased it.  The 10223 Kingdoms Joust arrived in a brand new LEGO shipping box, with a LEGO receipt in it.  I really didn't know about the scam at the time, so I really didn't even bother looking at the receipt.  Mind you, I have thousands of LEGO sets and the UPS truck is stopping by my house on a daily basis, so unless the LEGO set is damaged in some way, I usually just put the box away.  Several weeks later I go to place an order with LEGO and the LEGO Shop website says to call LEGO customer service.  After a half hour on the phone with the LEGO representative, my name was cleared and my account was restored.  I had to submit proof that someone else sold me the 10223 Kingdom's Joust and submitted the eBay transaction data.

    LEGO has begun a campaign to warn LEGO fans of such practices and want the LEGO community to pay attention and report such irregular and questionable activities.  They are putting the onus on LEGO buyers and are using the suspension of LEGO accounts as a wake-up call and warning to buyers that if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  eBay is also doing its share to stop drop shipping.  eBay is not immediately paying new sellers or sellers with low feedback scores money until an item is received and positive feedback is given.  There is also a time delay in hopes that fraudulent credit card use can be traced back to the criminal.  These are positive steps and I believe they are making a difference.  I have not seen any sorts of crazy deals from sellers lately on eBay, so I hope it is working.  It is up to the LEGO buyer to keep an eye on this unscrupulous behavior and report it to the proper authorities.

    Drop shipping is not the only method the deviants use to rip off the LEGO buyer.  I'll call the next shady scheme, “The Shill Set.”  Basically, a dishonest eBay seller will list a high ticket item, like a $1500-$2000 10179 Millennium Falcon, sell it at a great price, collect the PayPal payment, obtain shipping tracking numbers, submit tracking numbers to eBay and buyer and NEVER SEND THE LEGO SET!  This has happened twice to me.  In both cases, a large and expensive set was bought, paid for and never sent.  In both cases, generic photos of the LEGO sets were used.  In both cases, the seller had decent feedback(more than 15 sales, but less than 50, which is usually enough to get paid immediately by PayPal).  This is the type of scam that takes some experience with the eBay system and some planning.  The shady seller needs to build up some positive feedback before pulling off this scheme.  They must set up a valid PayPal account, which requires a valid bank account.  It is all pretty risky, but the payoff can be thousands of dollars once again.  If they pull this scam off, five to ten times in a month, they stand to make $5000-$10,000 or more.

    You may ask, “How can they get away with this?”  Well, they use the eBay system to their benefit.  First, they use generic industry photos of the item which are readily supplied by eBay themselves, instead of actual photos.  Second, they say the item will ship days after the auction and give some date two weeks in the future in which the item is to be received, thus giving them weeks to pull off additional scams.  And last...they use eBay's customer service and problem reporting system against them.  eBay wants a buyer and seller to work things out on their own and always want each to give the other some 'time' to respond to issues and concerns.  You, as the buyer, might know there is an issue, but once you contact eBay customer service, they put time restrictions of when you can and cannot open a case against a seller, thus giving the crooked seller even more time to take advantage of innocent LEGO buyers.  All in all, a con man might get a month or more after the initial transaction to sucker in other buyers.  Now, mind you, eBay does an excellent job of refunding your money after a case is opened, but you still are without the LEGO set and maybe passed on other great deals while you were waiting for this set to arrive.  Also, the aggravation of filling out case reports and time wasted is another issue for the buyer.  Two things a buyer can do to prevent this “shill” scam from occurring to them would be to ask for actual pictures of the LEGO set being sold and only buying from eBay sellers with 100+ feedback(or if less feedback, make sure other high ticket items were sold and received positive feedback).  These two simple preventative measures can make your life as a LEGO buyer much easier.

    So far we have seen some major ways to defraud the LEGO-buying public.  How about some smaller scams that people need to look out for?  The first simple scam is when eBay or Bricklink sellers will list a set as “new” and remove the minifigures, thus making profit from the minifigure sales and from listing the item as new.  The box is new, the pieces are new, the instuctions are new, yet the shady seller will remove the minifigures and put in real small print somewhere in the listing that the minifigures were removed.  This is just deception at its finest.  I don't know about you, but when something is “new,” it means unopened and untouched, with all the pieces.  These slick sellers really get me angry because I blame myself for not thoroughly reading the “entire” listing.  How can I complain to eBay, when the seller actually has the notation written in the listing?  Just be leery of all listings and make sure you read everything so you don't get any surprises later.

    Keeping with the crooked eBay and Bricklink seller theme, be wary of shipping charges.  This is another deceptive practice that the unscrupulous seller will use to make a quick buck off of inexperienced LEGO buyers.  Simply put, the seller will list an item at a fantastic price, say a MISB 10030 Star Destroyer for $300(Buy it now).  The buyer will say, “WOW, great deal!” and buy it immediately.  What they fail to realize is that the shipping charges were $400.  Ouch...It happens all the time and it has happened to me more than once I'm afraid to admit.  Once again, you can report the item and seller, but it takes weeks to come to any sort of resolution.  Some deceptive selling practices also take place on lower priced items.  A $10 small item with a $25 shipping fee is a very common site.  I report these sellers as much as I can, but a LEGO buyer needs to pay attention and read all the fine print before hitting that Buy It Now button.  If is sounds too good to be true, then I would move on to the next buying option.

    A couple more of the simple LEGO scams frequently found on LEGO auction sites would be the mislabeling of non-LEGO sets and poor descriptions of real LEGO sets to mislead potential buyers, in order to increase profits.  Scan the LEGO auctions on eBay and you will find countless non-LEGO sets listed as and/or with LEGO sets.  These inferior products look like LEGO sets and to the layman, are LEGO sets...until the buyer sees them in person and realizes they were ripped off.  The sellers that list these as LEGO sets are plentiful and should be banned.  Buyers need to be aware of these sub-par building toys.  Another common shady practice is the incorrect and deceptive description of LEGO sets by crooked sellers.  As stated earlier, some sellers will remove minifigures and list the LEGO set as new.  Some characters will list a set that was built as new or new in box.  What?  Seriously.  The set was built and these con men will try and make a couple of extra dollars and say that the set was for display purposes and is “like new.”  Come on.  But it's done, every day.  Please read listings carefully.  Look for actual photos.  Protect yourself and your investment dollars.

    This leads us to the last of the larcenous LEGO schemes.  This one involves the buying of LEGO sets from a large chain department store such as Walmart or Target, carefully removing the seals on the boxes and then skimming some parts from the complete set.  The box is then resealed and returned to the store.  The crooked seller will then resell the parts or minifigures on eBay or Bricklink and make a quick buck, with no investment.  This is probably the hardest theft or deceptive act a buyer or retailer has to deal with.  There is no way to tell if a set was opened, until it was actually built.  This could be weeks or months after a set has been returned and in most cases, the new owner of the set will just contact LEGO for replacement parts.  This type of deception can also happen with older, sealed sets.  For example, if a rare and retired set is sealed and some thief wants to remove valuable minifigures from say...a 10123 Cloud City set, and reseal them, how will a buyer know?  They wouldn't, unless of course the new buyer would break the seals and open the box, which they won't for fear of losing value on that highly collectible set.  It's a Catch 22.  On one hand, check the set and lose value or don't and never know what you bought.  The best suggestion I have for you is to use quality sources to buy LEGO sets.  Only buy from eBay and Bricklink sellers that have great feedback and numerous positive sales.  As for buying from the local Walmart or Target, avoid any sets that look tampered with.  If you do get stuck with a lemon, you can always return it.  ;)

    Well, that's about most of the major LEGO scams I know of.  Times are tough.  The worldwide economy is in bad shape.  Unemployment is high.  The criminals and shysters of the world have discovered that LEGO sets are a valuable commodity and are easily used to make a quick profit through unscrupulous means.  Some of these crooks might be good people at heart, but tough times force them to do things they wouldn't normally do to put food on the table.  Regardless of their reasons, LEGO investors and collectors need to protect themselves.  Take your time and be thorough when reading listings.  Read the fine print.  Look at the shipping charges.  Buy from reputable sellers that have great feedback.  Ask questions and look for real photos of the item.  Look for tampered boxes.  And most of all...if the price seems too cheap, it might be a scam.  I hope this helps some people avoid issues I have encountered over the years.  Please, if you see something that looks fishy, report the listing or item to eBay, LEGO or whatever source you are buying from.  It might just save another LEGO fan like yourself some future monetary loss and aggravation...

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