I was a perfect victim of a con-artist

SINGAPORE - The woman on Craigslist who had agreed to sell me a mint-condition doll house (still in its original packaging) for $30 was 15 minutes late.

So irritating. I had driven all the way to the guard house of her condominium in UE Square. The least she could do was to come downstairs on time.

Just then a smiley woman who looked to be in her mid-20s - wearing glasses, skinny, nerdy-looking - bounded up to me in a flouncy skirt.

"You're here already? I was here too, but didn't see you," she said.

I doubted that, given that you could see anyone approaching the guard house from miles away. But, whatever, I was here for the doll house - a gift for my helper's daughter in the Philippines.

I took the box from her (which had a note with my name on it taped on top) and handed her the money.

Who are you buying the doll house for, she asked. When I told her, she commended me for my generosity, informed me that she had bought the toy from Takashimaya and that it cost $80 originally.

My daughter didn't like it, but hopefully your maid's will, she chirped. When I turned to leave, she yelled after me: Have a happy new year!

I drove off, glad to have ticked an item off my to-do list.

At the first stop light, I inspected the package and noticed something I had missed under the dim street lighting: Tape zig-zagging the plastic wrapper and the worn-out corners of the box inside.

Then red flags started popping up in my head.

The woman looked too young to be a mother. She was a tad too chatty and had approached me from the street-side of the guard house when we met, not from inside the condominium compound where she supposedly lived.

And unlike my other transactions on Craigslist - I've bought more than 10 items on the online marketplace, including a jogging stroller and loud speakers - this woman had not given me a telephone number.

And how would she know that her daughter didn't like the doll house when the box hadn't even been opened yet?

By the time I pulled into my driveway, I knew I had been scammed.

I gingerly opened the package. And there it was: A broken and dirty doll house with none of the 35 pieces of furniture and figurines as advertised on its box.

So how did I, this newspaper's consumer correspondent, become victim of such a scam?

Mr Stephen Lea, a psychologist at the University of Exeter, who has studied why people fall for scams, would say that I was the perfect target.

According to him, good background knowledge of the subject of a scam offer, say experience in investments, may actually increase the risk of becoming a victim through "over-confidence".

In other words, I didn't think I was going to get hustled, so I was the perfect mark for the con-artist.

My swindler had also exploited basic human desires - in this case greed (I hoped to save $50) - to cloud my judgment. She had also used the "scarcity tactic" by telling me that someone else was also interested in the item, and had rescheduled the sale once, possibly to make me more impatient to seal the deal.

In haste, I had ignored all the warning signs and saw only what I wanted to see.

But I am not alone - not by a far cry.

I've never had any issues with Craigslist here, but the site's overseas versions are apparently crime cesspools.

A rash of robberies in California was traced to a gang advertising luxury cars for sale and then mugging buyers who showed up. A pair of Ohio serial killers dangled a dream job as bait, iPhone purchases turned up empty boxes, apartments were rented out with the owner still living in them, and stolen vehicles were offloaded for a song.

The Chicago police have even termed Craigslist crimes "robbery by appointment" because it allows crooks to schedule their crimes.

In some towns in the United States, Craigslisters have been offered parking spaces at police stations to transact business safely under the glare of round- the-clock surveillance cameras. Such an idea could also work here.

In the meantime, know that no matter how street-smart, educated or good-at- reading-people you may be, it is quite possible that, someday, you too might be duped.

But if you can still honestly say that you would never fall for any scam after reading this, do drop me a line: I have a fantastic doll house to sell you.

This article was first published on January 18, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.