The “Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Return That Unordered Computer” Scam

Over dinner this weekend, friends (who, like the Duchess and me, live in Chapel Hill, NC) regaled us with their account of an expensive, unordered Dell laptop being delivered to their door. Being worldly, vigilant folks, they immediately checked their credit card account to discover that they had indeed been charged nearly $2,000 for the computer. They then contacted their credit card issuer to stop payment and cancel the card. They also called Dell, but, despite speaking to a succession of customer service agents, they were still uncertain if any of those corporate representatives actually understood the circumstances.

So, by the time we heard the story the next day, it was clear this was a scam1  – the question was how the scammer expected to profit. Even if the charge had gone through, the money would have accrued to Dell and the purchased item, the unordered computer, would be in the hands of our friends. The worst case scenario, as far as we could determine, was that – even if our friends hadn’t stopped the credit card payment – they could have sent the item back to Dell for a refund.

It was a puzzle, but, hey, all’s well that ends well. Pragmatically,  the only remaining loose end was the return of the unordered – and unpaid for – computer to Dell.

Well, does the phrase, “Lulled into a false sense of security” ring a bell? Have you ever tensed up when something suspicious happened in a movie scene (e.g., the sound of something scratching at the window on a dark, rainy night), then, along with the hero/heroine, been relieved to realize there was a benign explanation (e.g., seeing branches being blown against the window), and then being all the more shocked at the real cause (e.g., a zombie disco queen raking her nails down the window before crashing through to consume the hero)? Well, congratulations. You will appreciate the new world of scam.

It turns out that we had only now arrived at the point when this scam’s unique angle comes into play. Let’s return to our nonfiction story. Cue the scammer zombie disco queen analogue.

On the way home, I Googled possible references to the scam (our friends had already performed the same search without success).  I happened upon a set of search terms that turned up the description of an incident2 that looked relevant: A new scam: Watch out for deliveries you didn’t order: Money Matters (Cleveland Plain Dealer: April 23, 2017). That post revealed the trick: the scammers set it up so the return of the unordered merchandise is sent not to the retailer/manufacturer but to a villainous confederate. Excerpts follow:

The next day, after I’d returned the laptop, the mystery was solved. A FedEx guy turned up at the house and said he was there to pick up a return to Best Buy. Of course, I had already returned the computer. I googled the address on his shipping label and found the return address was not a Best Buy facility, but rather a small house on a Philadelphia street.

This excerpt from that piece is PNC Bank’s explanation of the swindle:

“The scammers have the merchandise shipped to the cardholder so as not to raise any red flags with the merchant,” she said. “The scammers count on the cardholder not paying attention to the return shipping address,” Mortland said. “Often the cardholder is so preoccupied with reversing the transaction that they fail to realize that they are, in fact, not returning the merchandise directly to the merchant.”

If you’re wondering why a thief would be willing to expose their home address (like the Philadelphia address), there’s a good chance they’re not. “Scammers recruit ‘reshipping mules’ whose sole function is to receive packages and reship them to another destination,” Mortland said. “They are often recruited under the guise of ‘work-from-home’ opportunities (another realm of fraud scams).”

On the chance that it might be  helpful, I sent the link to our friends.  Here’s the email I received the next day:

SOOO – we really were a part of a scam and avoided it by the information in your link and my repeated refusal to let “Dell” send FedEx back to pick up the package. I called the phone number on the credit card receipt and after talking to 3 different people who were difficult to understand, didn’t have a good feeling. Looked up a Dell customer service number – but not the web site I realized later – and got the same run around with a promise of an email to be sent none ever sent) and the ‘easy’ way to just let them send FedEx back to my house to pick it up..

Then I called the customer service number on the Dell web site and finally got a man who sent me an immediate email with all his information and a Fed Ex label by separate email that is the address on the original computer box.

We were discussing all this when FedEx showed up on our doorstep to pick up the computer. The name was Laura Campbell at “Dell” in Indianapolis on the’ ship to’ line!. We freaked the FedEx guy out by telling him it was a scam and that we needed to take a picture of the label, but would not be giving him anything. We checked and indeed it is a private residence.


So THANKS for the link – it helped us avoid an even bigger inconvenience.

I called the NC AG’s office earlier in the day to report what was happening, but they said since we had the computer and it was sent to our address, we really hadn’t been scammed.

Yep, just another day in the life of DrHGuy, ScamBuster.



  1. OK, there was the one in 3,983,388 chance this was the result of a fluke coding error, a keyboarding slip by a Dell order taker, an order mistakenly made by the wife during a petit mal seizure (the husband’s favorite hypothesis), or an accidental intrusion into a time-space warp []
  2. There were two hits, both of which referred to the same event []

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