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Online scammer to get time in slammer

In one of the toughest sentences for online auction fraud, a Virginia man is sentenced to 12 years in prison for defrauding hundreds of shoppers.

In one of the toughest sentences for online auction fraud, a Virginia man was sentenced to 12 years in prison for defrauding hundreds of shoppers on eBay and Yahoo auction sites.

Thomas Houser was sentenced Tuesday after pleading guilty to one count of criminal mail fraud. More than 260 people lost nearly $100,000 in the scams after Houser "sold" electronics, paintball guns and other items through what was called the "Houser Family Store," collected the winning bids from auctions, then failed to deliver the goods.

Houser, 25, of Fairfax, Va., avoided detection by moving from state to state, changing e-mail accounts and using a private mailbox, prosecutors said.

This is Houser's second conviction for auction fraud. He pleaded guilty to similar charges in December and was released on bond. Yet he kept the fraud scheme going even after his plea, prosecutors said. In February, he was arrested in connection with a second round of Web fraud offenses, after police conducting a traffic stop in Dade County, Ga., found $46,000, numerous electronics and pieces of false identification in his car.

"This case involves an emerging threat to consumers," Paul J. McNulty, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in a statement.

Auction fraud has consistently been one of the biggest consumer complaints about online retail. Complaints jumped to 11,000 in 2000 from just 106 in 1997, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Online auction giant eBay has instituted several new programs in an attempt to improve user confidence, including using anti-fraud software and implementing a stricter seller review process.

However, some researchers have found that few people guard against fraud by, for example, paying with a credit card. Houser's victims were duped into sending checks and money orders. Houser has been ordered to pay $94,527.21 to his victims.

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