How to spot an online firearm scam

How to spot an online firearm scam

It's easy to find great deals on guns online.  Unfortunately, it's also easy to get scammed.  You can protect yourself by learning how to spot the scams.  We'll show you how, using actual Armslist scams that involved an incredibly dangerous twist.

Armslist is a thriving marketplace for firearms.  Because it's easy and free to post firearms for sale, Armslist is very active and has a huge variety of guns to choose from.  But for the same reasons, Armslist has a lot of scammers.  Here is a detailed breakdown of an actual Armlist scam that included a dangerous surprise.

We played the role of a Buyer who was searching for an LWRC rifle on Armslist.  We quickly found an LWRC M6A2 that seemed like an outstanding deal.

how to spot armslist scams
Nice rifle, low price. Can we make a safe purchase?

Preliminary scam checklist

Here is a basic scam checklist you can follow when looking at a firearm advertisement for the first time.  None of these things are definitive, but they can help you build a case.  The more boxes you check, the better you can feel:

  1. Is there a photo?  There should be.  You're going to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for a firearm.  You deserve a photo of what you're buying.  In our case the post includes a photo.  So far, so good.
  2. Does the photo show the actual gun?  Photos should not look like they came from the manufacturer or a gun review website.  You want photos of the specific gun that's for sale.  In our case, the photo looks like the real thing on someone's desk.
  3. Are there multiple photos?  One photo might be good enough for something worth ten bucks.  But again, you're paying hundreds or thousands.  The best sellers will post multiple photos, including close-ups.  But many sellers don't, simply because photos are a hassle, so this isn't a big deal either way.  In our case, there is only one photo.
  4. Is it a complete description?  Again, a good seller will explain exactly what is included in the sale, and its condition.  A nice long description with supporting information is a good sign.  For example, it's good if the description explains why the item is being sold and what payment methods are accepted.  In our case, the description is short.  It explains what is included in the sale, but not why it is being sold or how payment can be made.
  5. Is the payment method safe?  PayPal and other payment platforms have banned firearms, and will seize your funds if they find out you have conducted a firearm transaction.  Money orders also aren't safe for buyers – they are actually scammers' preferred method of payment, because they're so easy to steal.  Checks aren't safe for buyers or sellers.  Not only are they also easy stolen, they are packed with information for identity thieves.  Plus, they can be charged back after the fact, meaning the payment can be permanently seized from the seller's bank account.  In our case the Seller hasn't specified a payment method, so we don't know if a safe payment method is available.
  6. Is the price reasonable?  You need to be careful when the price seems fantastically low.  But that can be difficult to judge.  It's amazing how often people are willing to sell guns at incredibly low prices.  In our case, an LWRC M6 generally sells for at least $1,250.  The price of $750 is $500 lower than anything else we've seen online.  This is the biggest sign so far that this is a scam, but it's not definitive.

Identifying a scam for certain

So how can you find out if a firearm advertisement is a scam for sure?  Cops and attorneys are trained to identify a lie by asking questions.  You can do the same.  Just contact the seller.  (On Armslist there's a big "CONTACT SELLER" button you can click.)

If your scam checklist raised any questions, you can ask for answers.  In our case, we wanted to know why the price was so low.  We wondered if the gun was in poor condition.  We also wanted to know if the Buyer could use a payment method that would make the transaction safe for both parties.

Buyer on June 11 at 10:20 AM:

What condition is the rifle in?  Also, could I pay you through to have you ship to my FFL in Texas?

Seller on Jun 12 at 2:24 AM:

Hello, I am sincerely sorry for my late response; please bear with me as its been a difficult time for me trying to get well after a recent auto accident which has left me incapacitated on wheelchair but getting better though. The rifle is in great and excellent shape without any issues. And Yes I would sip to your FFL in Texas and payment will be through Postal Money Order Only. Let me know and read from you so we can proceed.
Thanks and Regards.

That is a decent response.  The Seller directly answers the questions that were asked.  However, there are some problems:

  • Strange capitalization.
  • Odd phrases like "on wheelchair," or "great and excellent shape".
  • Abnormal email time of 2:24am.
  • A sad story to get you emotionally invested in the transaction.
  • A dangerous payment method: "Postal Money Order."

Any of those concerns are forgivable individually.  But combined they are cause to worry this Seller is a fraud.  In particular, money orders are a problem.  Let's ask the Seller to compromise to make this deal safe for the Buyer.

Buyer on Jun 12 at 7:55 AM:

Wouldn't use a money order, sorry.  Just heard too many horror stories from gun guys.  That's why I wanted to use GunTab.  Much simpler and no risk.  What do you think?

Seller on Jun 12 at 8:19 AM:

Sorry, won't use any aside postal money order

Buyer on Jun 12 at 8:23 AM:

Ah, that's too bad.  Okay.  Thanks for following up with me.

This seemed like the end.  The Seller wasn't willing to make the transaction safe for the Buyer, so the Buyer passed.  The end.  Or so we thought, until the Seller circled back unexpectedly...

Seller on Jun 12 at 8:35 AM:

Too many bad news online and so were the good ones too. I am 81 years old on wheelchair, a retired fire service man and I have bought and sold over 43 firearms online without any federal or state issues..

The Seller is trying to convince the Buyer that the transaction will still be safe with a money order.  But there are problems with this message too:

  • The first sentence is incomprehensible!  Is that the pain medication talking or what?
  • More strange phrases.  Have you ever heard an American firefighter refer to himself as a "fire service man"?

Fortunately, the Seller gave us something to work with.  If he has really "sold over 43 firearms online" he is probably "in the business" of firearms and therefore should have a Federal Firearms License (FFL).  And if he has an FFL he is much safer to do business with.  So let's see if he's legitimate.

Buyer on Jun 12 at 9:01 AM:

Over 43 is a lot, I guess you must have an FFL.  Would you mind giving me your FFL number so I can look you up?

This is where things got interesting.  The Seller responded with nothing but an attached file.

Seller on Jun 12 at 4:21 PM:

The FFL sent by the Seller

That is a Federal Firearms License, as requested.  Many people would take it at face value.  "Okay, this guy is legit."  There's only one problem.  This FFL is fake.

Analyzing an FFL document

How could the Seller have sent a fake FFL?  Having the cojones to send it is a question for the people who raised him.  Having the fake FFL is another.

It's actually very easy to find an image of a real FFL online.  It's also fairly easy to use software to edit images.  Put steps 1 and 2 together, and you have a fake FFL.  According to the file's metadata, the Seller used CorelDRAW to doctor the image of a real FFL.  It's hard to spot the flaws, but you can see them if you look closely:

Some flaws in the fake FFL. The invalid ZIP was the biggest tipoff.

Most people probably wouldn't bother to analyze the image, or wouldn't know what to look for if they did.  Thankfully there's a much easier way to spot a fake FFL than using a magnifying glass.

Every FFL has a license number printed in large font in the top right corner.  For this fake FFL it's 4-61-227-02-0C-05875.  All you need to do is take that license number to the ATF's FFL eZ Check website.  Here is the result:

The FFL eZ Check result does not match the fake FFL

As you can see, the license number on the fake FFL belongs to a real FFL; Smith's Grove Gun & Pawn LLC in Kentucky.  It doesn't belong to Arms-Fair in Tennessee, which is another real FFL.  The FFL eZ Check website says, "If you are certain you entered the correct license number, there is a  strong possibility that the FFL you are attempting to verify is invalid and/or this may be an attempt at a fraudulent transaction."  In this case it's more than a strong possibility, it's a certainty.

A fake FFL is an all-or-nothing play.  Either a buyer will accept it at face value and then believe whatever the scammer says, or do some checking and refuse to communicate further.  If you receive an FFL from someone online, always check it on FFL eZ Check, and always use the phone number and address shown there.

How to Use Armslist Safely

Whether you’re looking to buy or sell on Armslist, there are a few tips and tricks you can implement to ensure safe and successful use of the platform.

If the lessons learned from our own experience on Armslist are any indication, it’s all about the details.

For Sellers

If you’re trying to sell responsibly, be sure to include as many details about your firearms or other products as possible. That includes a few pictures, and a valuable description. Don’t just say what it is, detail exactly what you are selling, including information on the model, the manufacturer, included accessories, or anything else worth mentioning.

While you don’t necessarily need to be spending hours crafting the perfect listing, putting in a little more effort than usual will not only give you more credibility, but it will also do wonders when it comes to attracting more potential buyers!

The most effective tactic to protect against scams

One final tip for identifying scams.  Remember how the Seller absolutely refused to use GunTab as a payment method?  Scammers can't use GunTab, because GunTab makes transactions totally safe for both sides.  Simply asking to use GunTab is a great way to reveal a scam.

If you have any other tips for identifying online firearm scams, or good stories about scams you've encountered, please share them in the comments below!

P.S.  Please keep in mind that neither Smith's Grove Gun and Pawn nor Arms-Fair did anything wrong.  They were just unlucky – the scammer picked them from the ATF's publicly-accessible FFL information.  They are both legitimate FFLs and we encourage you to do business with them.

P.P.S.  Watch out for Cynthia King of 510 Glen Arbor Circle in Cordoba, TN.  That's who the scammer asked the Buyer to send the money order to.  She apparently operates under quite a list of aliases.