Tim Burrowes is the founder of well-known marketing website mumbrella.com.au.  Yet even he became a victim of one of the thousands of scammers operating on the internet today.  His first-person story is a lesson in why you need to be careful who you choose for the most mundane tasks.

Like half of Australia, my week was knocked somewhat off course by removalists.

In my case, it wasn’t just the mask-dodging Covid spreaders who have pushed Melbourne back into lockdown. We got scammed by fake removalists.

With my time on staff coming towards an end, Plan A had been a post Mumbrella Awards road trip at the end of this month, terminating our rental in Sydney and taking a load of stuff to our place in Tassie.

But the lockdown put a couple of spanners in the works. 

For starters, as you may have read this week, we’ve had to cancel the Mumbrella Awards as an in-person event at The Star in Sydney and take it virtual on July 29. There’ll be no epic leaving party for me.

And, with Victoria closed to those who’d been in greater Sydney, we had to make a Plan B and find removalists to ship our stuff, instead of the drive down to the Spirit of Tasmania. There wasn’t a lot of stuff, but more than you’d want to fly with in suitcases.

Our mistake was to use the online marketplace Oneflare to find the removalist rather than doing our own due diligence. Businesses that use Oneflare pay the site for leads. Oneflare is minority owned by Domain, which is of course in turn majority owned by Nine. You’ll find a link to Oneflare at the footer of all Nine’s major online publications. The SEO juice from the likes of the AFR, The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald would be a major contributing signal that helps Oneflare appear prominently on Google when searching for businesses.

I must admit that until it entered my life this week I knew nothing about Oneflare, including its Domain connection. It turns out Oneflare is run by industry stalwart Billy Tucker, the former boss of Nine’s short lived group buying venture, Cudo. Tucker makes a cameo in my book Media Unmade, as it happens, insisting on stage at the first Mumbrella360 in 2011 that group buying was not a bubble. After group buying turned out to be a bubble, Tucker was succeeded at Cudo by Mike Sneesby, now boss of Nine, as it happens.

So we had not realised that Oneflare has been accused of being a magnet for scammers. As one review of Oneflare puts it on Trustpilot: “There are a lot of scammers on this website and they don’t do anything about it after receiving reports from customers. More and more victims fall for those scammers as Oneflare will remove bad reviews and only leave good reviews.” I’m not alleging that’s true of course, but that was the first review I found after Googling the words Oneflare and scammers.

But of course, due diligence is on us. Buyer beware, I know.

My partner’s submission resulted in quotation emails from Oneflare from removalist companies, which seemed legit. Before she even had time to click on the quotation links, one of them, “Nick” called.

He was offering a slightly lower price than we expected. He had a plausible explanation why. They already had a container going to Tasmania. It wasn’t quite full, so they’d be able to fit our stuff in for a bargain $795.80.

Because he had called so fast, she never actually clicked on the link back to the quotation on Oneflare. So she did not see there was already a review of this particular removalist from back in May: “Terrible, no show at the time, probably scammers, don’t use them, don’t use them.”

She swapped some emails with Nick, arranging the practicalities. At first glance, the removalist’s website looked legitimate. He sent an invoice with all our shipment collection and delivery details filled out. They agreed a time for pickup and she made the payment.

Wednesday saw me shift my lockdown work video calls to the bedroom so as not to be interrupted by the removalists. But, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, they didn’t show up.

At first we gave them the benefit of the doubt. When have removalists ever turned up on time? Perhaps they were Fairfield-based, and caught up in the Covid testing traffic chaos that had unfolded that morning when the NSW government abruptly announced anyone in that suburb would need negative tests before going to work.

So my partner tried the mobile number that helpful Nick had called from. It was dead. She made a charitable assumption: Perhaps his phone had a flat battery, which would also explain why he hadn’t called to warn of the delay. The landline on their website rang out.

I started to look more closely at the website. Soon, there was a sinking feeling. 

The pictures on the customer testimonials page looked rather like stock library shots. I looked up the website domain on the WHOIS database. Hosted by GoDaddy, it was only registered a month ago. Yet if it was a new company, why were those testimonials dated from 2020?

Soon there were other hints. The slogan on the home page was “Proffesional service from A to B.” That didn’t seem to be a particularly professional spelling.

Pasting in some of the promotional copy from the website into Google revealed a match. It had been lifted from a removals company in the UK.

The removalists were not just late. They did not exist.

It was time to involve the bank. The promise on the ANZ website: “You’ll be reimbursed for fraudulent transactions on your ANZ card provided you notify us promptly and didn’t contribute to the loss.”

Had we contributed to the loss? Looking hard at the website I was able to conclude it was scammy, but I live and breathe media every day. My partner, for the record, is far better educated than me, with a couple of degrees and a proper job away from the media in healthcare. Yet, receiving the quotations from the third party of Oneflare had given her greater confidence. The endorsement was implied.

It took 20 minutes for ANZ to pick up the phone. The man in the call centre seemed optimistic we’d get our money back. But it will also take us up to six weeks to find out for sure. Later we reported it to the cops too.

It was a hassle, but we were relatively lucky. We still had a few more days in our apartment, and time to organise something else. It’ll be big suitcases on the plane after all. And the neighbours have just gained some rather good wine from Mudgee that I’d hoped to put in the cellar in Tasmania. And we may even eventually get our money back.

But imagine how much of a wreck it would have been for somebody making a full house move if the removalists were a no-show on the day.

Incidentally, I warned Billy Tucker yesterday afternoon about that particular scammer being on his site, and that I’d be writing about the experience.

His view is that I should not be writing about it here and that it would be demonstrating the approach of “A Current Affair” to do so.

Instead, Tucker argues that such occurrences are extremely uncommon on Oneflare and that they have a helpdesk of 100 people available to assist with customer problems. However, he did suggest that where there are scammers, it is for people buying the services to make their own checks once the referrals are sent across. Like I say, buyer beware. 

He said that in the case of the removalist Oneflare had connected us to, his staff had previously reached out to the person who left the review on his site warning that they were scammers. That reviewer had not wanted to take things any further, so Oneflare left the account active.

They have now suspended the removalist’s account and Tucker told me that Oneflare has a policy of assisting the police with their investigations.

Regardless, I find myself wondering why Nine is linking to Oneflare from its major news mastheads.

Oneflare facilitates scammers, and failed to do anything about it when a previous customer warned them. Nine’s websites send Oneflare traffic. For news businesses built entirely on reader trust, delivering them into the hands of scammers strikes me as an unnecessary reputational risk.

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