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Wednesday, May 23, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Checks made out to fugitive recovered

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Quick work by Seattle police resulted in the recovery of about $46,000 in cashier's checks, money orders and personal checks made out to Antony Zyrmpas, a federal fugitive sought for wire fraud. The detectives' swift action has earned them accolades from some of the 91 buyers who have been reunited with their money.

"Thank you for recovering the $1,225 that I paid to Antony Zyrmpas," buyer Keevin Luke said a recent e-mail to Detective Al Thompson of the Police Department. "It was a surprise (to say mildly) to have received the checks and paperwork that I had sent to the seller for the fraudulent auction. My deepest thanks!"

Last month, Luke, 37, of Boston, sent Zyrmpas two money orders to cover the cost of a Compaq laptop that Zyrmpas never sent. Luke said he has been doing business on eBay since 1998, and had bought and sold roughly 60 items during that period without any problem. Luke's documents were among the papers detectives seized last month from two mailboxes Zyrmpas had rented, according to Seattle police and the FBI, who are jointly investigating.

Zyrmpas, 23, a former University of Washington graduate student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, is believed to have fled the area and possibly returned to his native Greece. A federal warrant for his arrest has been issued.

Zyrmpas was charged in U.S. District Court in Seattle this week with a single felony count of wire fraud. Authorities believe he is the mastermind behind a scheme to defraud hundreds of online-auction buyers, many of whom Zyrmpas apparently lulled into believing he was a trustworthy seller.

He did that, authorities say, partly by building a good reputation on eBay by using as many as 11 identities to give himself positive reviews, Thompson said yesterday. Buyers from around the world, including a pastor from The Netherlands, who is out $935 for a laptop he never received, bid on Zyrmpas' goods.

Authorities are still determining how many of the roughly 800 "winning bidders" in Zyrmpas' auctions on eBay actually received the goods they paid for. More than $165,000 from nearly 300 victims had been identified as of May 4, and additional charges are expected in state or federal court, authorities said yesterday.

In an April 24 e-mail to buyers who had complained about Zyrmpas, eBay fraud manager Angela Malacari acknowledged that it was aware of a problem and that it was working with the FBI and Seattle police.

eBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove later said that eBay has a software-detection tool that aids in identifying previously suspended users, but he declined to provide details.

Seattle police got involved in the case after two Renton victims contacted the department early last month. About the same time, the wife of Seattle police Sgt. Duane Hendrix purchased a laptop from Zyrmpas that he never sent.

Hendrix and Thompson began investigating and determined there were many more victims. They obtained warrants authorizing them to freeze money in three bank accounts Zyrmpas had in Seattle, and to seize documents from two mail drops Zyrmpas set up, one at The Mailbox at 300 Lenora St., the other at Mail Etc. at 4739 University Way N.E.

Buyers like Luke were fooled into thinking that the Mailbox on Lenora was a physical address rather than a mail drop.

"I thought it was a residence," Luke said yesterday, noting that he used to live in an apartment building with multiple "boxes" as part of the address.

"Maybe in my mind I thought I could always track him down," he said.

Thompson said buyers like Luke who send cashier's checks or money orders take greater risks than those who use credit cards because they have little recourse if the buyer turns out to be a crook.

Even though he got taken, Luke said he's unlikely to change the way he buys on eBay.

"I guess it's just my twisted way of thinking," Luke said. "I feel most of the time, people are honest."

Online buyers beware Some 35 million Americans participated in online auctions last year, according to the National Consumers League, a private, nonprofit organization, set up more than a century ago to protect consumers. About four of 10 buyers reported having problems with online auctions. Here are some tips from the League, (http://fraud.org) which also provides links to Web sites where fraud victims can file complaints:

• Understand how the auction works.

• Check out the seller before you bid.

• Get the contact information of the person or company you're dealing with.

• Look for information about insurance for buyers.

• Payment by credit card can protect both buyer and seller.

• Consider using an escrow service.

Ivan Orton, a King County deputy prosecutor with extensive experience in fraud cases, has these thoughts regarding online-auction transactions:

• Anything short of a direct credit-card transaction between buyer and seller has risk, and individuals should make choices based on that understanding.

• Search for buyers and sellers in your region, and complete the deal face to face.

• Check out the other party's ratings. But as the Zyrmpas case illustrates, if someone wants "to take people all of a sudden, you don't get feedback that would have warned you off until it's too late," Orton said.

Peter Lewis can be reached at 206-464-2217 or plewis@seattletimes.com.

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