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Can you spot a fake? This week I learned the hard way how difficult this is. Using Kijiji – an online marketplace considered a ‘grey market’ for new and used physical items – I bought a brand new Apple Watch Series 6. This Watch was posted as new and sealed in the box for $450.00, a price I haggled down to $420.00. The practice of selling clone Apple Watches is common, but the work made to present this product as new and legitimate is unique. I investigated this phenomenon while ending up with two excellent duplicates, $420.00 poorer and in a confrontation with a scammer.

As a longtime Kijiji user, I’ve seen all sorts of problematic sales. One seller tried to pass off a stolen Macbook laptop, and with a bit of in-the-moment sleuthing, I caught it and walked away. To say I’m “seasoned” in this environment is no understatement. As someone living and working in technology for more than two decades, none of this is intimidating. Yet, a seller fooled me.

It started like any other transaction. I made an overture to meet the Kijiji user calling himself “Christian.” It’s common for users on Kijiji to use aliases, and Christian’s response was to offer an address in the community. Being as careful as possible, I checked the location on Google Maps Street view – it was a bank with second-floor apartments. That seemed okay. Christian connoted multiple times that he lived at this location.

When negotiating, Christian offered $440.00 twice and, when I offered $430.00, he went radio-silent for an hour. In return, Christian says, “I can do 420 todaybi (sic) apologize.” This response was somewhat unorthodox, given I’d already offered more money. It should have been one of many red flags, but I ignored it. People tend to focus closely on things of value and would not have given up ten dollars like that. I, however, accepted it and planned to get to the meeting.

The Watch Christian was selling retails for $699.00 at the Apple Store. His newly wrapped Apple Watch is top-of-the-line and includes health monitoring features and a mobile connection so users can make calls without an iPhone. Comparable products on Kijiji range from a slightly damaged $400 to $550 or more for a new product. Given the sophistication of the fraudsters and the high price of these items, it’s now more important than ever to question things or buy directly from Apple.

As another means of protection, I generally request a phone number to call or text. It helps to gauge whether the person is legitimate and willing to expose themselves a little more. Christian offered a number (647-957-6060), and we communicated that way from then on. As I waited, he said, “Give me a moment. I’m just finishing with a client.” I noted his texts were green-tinted on my phone. This usually indicates that the sender has a service turned off or isn’t using an iPhone. Given the product on sale was Apple, it seemed odd that Christian might not have an iPhone. I noted in hindsight that this could have been a red flag – or at least a sign I should have been more concerned about.

Efforts to ensure this clone watch looked real appeared very elaborate.

Christian also mentioned he’d “be right down in 2 minutes” as if to indicate again that he lived in the building above the bank. It’s a slight touch, but when he did arrive, I saw that he was walking up the street – and not out of the apartment complex in front of me. The mishap with pricing, the green messages, and now obviously not living in the building. The red flags were accumulating. Yet, I continued to ignore them at my peril.

Christian arrived 10 minutes later with a basic mask on with the Watch in a cream-coloured grocery bag. His slender build appeared frail; his walk, confident. Standing 5’8″, Christian is a black man dressed as an office worker. The dark button-up shirt and khakis made me think he was well-off. His easy-going nature helped to sell innocence. His speech patterns were smooth and confident. On arrival, Christian asks how I am, and he seemed to want to know genuinely. Christian’s presentation as non-threatening is crucial to the success of this ruse.

The first thing Christian grabs from his grocery bag is a receipt. He hands this to me mid-stride, anticipating my first move. I noticed the paper was on thicker stock than usual, though it did not make me hesitate; I know receipts are printable at home. The name on the accurate-looking Apple receipt is “Shane Benard.” I ask Christian if this is his real name; he says yes somewhat hesitantly and that his uncle purchased the Watch for him as a gift.

“I was going to ask you when you bought it,” I said while looking at the paper and back at Christian, appearing to smile on the mask.

“November 2020”

I looked down at the receipt, and it indeed said “November 2020.” What I missed in my glance at this paper was it also said “Return Date.” My feeling at the moment was that November of last year was odd. A new, sealed product that hadn’t been open in this many months? Another inconsistency I ignored. Checking the serial number on the receipt against the Apple Watch, I noted that they matched exactly. A promising sign, I thought. I passed the receipt back to Christian and let him know I wouldn’t need it.

“Can I open the box? I have the money right here,” Handing Christian the cash while holding the sealed box in the other hand. I noted that Christian did not count the money as he looked at me. I thought for a split-second, Christian might run. He had the cash in hand, and I had a yet-to-be-discovered fake. This moment created the first tinge of worry that washed over me, but I still pressed on.

He didn’t bolt and let me go through the process of ripping off the shrink wrap, opening the box and looking through the contents. The charger seemed okay. I glanced at the watch face and picked it up. I noted it the face seemed lighter than expected, but I hadn’t seen one in a long time – so this was probably okay. Being cautious, I searched Apple’s online warranty check service and noted a legitimate serial number and model. Again, I did not question what I saw.

“I don’t mind you looking at it, but I have to get back to work. I work at Hydro One,” said Christian.

While he seemed like he could be the typical work-from-home office worker, this nudge worked perfectly. The practice of creating just enough urgency to move things along allows a fraudster to keep things moving while re-wiring your brain to look less closely. I perused the rest of the package quickly, and everything seemed legitimate. I waved off Christian and let him walk into the ether, excited to be the owner of a new Apple Watch.

It would be about two hours before opening the box, attempting to pair the Watch with my phone and realizing it wasn’t possible (fakes can’t replicate Apple-integrated functions). As I tried to reach Christian, there was no reply from Kijiji messages, and his phone number was suddenly “not in service.” As I sat there in a cafe on Sherbourne Street, the sophistication of this scam started to sink in. The receipt looked legitimate and contained the correct serial number. The Watch was in warranty. Even if you turned on the fake Watch and checked that serial number inside the software, it lines up. Top to bottom, I would have only noticed this was fake if I tried to pair the Watch with my iPhone. The counterfeit Watch I purchased may be worth no more than $40.00, representing a profit of $360.00 or more for Christian.

Tips
– Ask for ID if you can. Connect the person’s name with a receipt or some other means.
– Don’t just meet in a public space. Meet in a police station or a coffee shop where you can sit down and slow the pace – fraudsters bank on rushing you.
– Don’t buy anything you can’t thoroughly test—for example, a large screen TV in a parking lot. If the product requires a charge, make sure it’s fully charged on arrival.
– If the price is too good to be true, it is.
– Listen to your gut instinct. Pay attention to the signs. If anything is off, call off the purchase and walk away. Take a close look at the difference between a fake (top) and a real (Bottom) Apple product. This is the sophistication you’re facing when buying gray market.

I realized I knew nothing about Christian and this very sophisticated world of counterfeit Watches. Soon I would find and confront one of them and learn they were flooding the community with knock-offs. Stay tuned for part 2 of this story.

An abridged version of this will appear in The Bridge News.