A Minnesota-based website was listing just the sweet ride the Illinois farmer wanted: a "like new" Mercedes-Benz to replace the well-worn one from his younger days.
Now Dave Wolken is out more than $10,000 trying to buy a 1979 Mercedes 240D that was never for sale in the first place.
Wolken is one of roughly 460 people who have contacted the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota (BBB) in recent weeks with their suspicions that seven fake auto dealer and shipping websites in the state have been scheming to dupe would-be buyers out of thousands of dollars.
The BBB has placed warnings on the business profiles it has created for each of the suspected scammers purporting to be operating in Minnesota. That includes Fergus Transportation, the one Wolken said lured him in.
The others go by Nebula Freight, MN Express Logistics, Hashi Freight LLC, Ziegler/Zeigler Freight, WDS Transport and USTopCars.com. They routinely use Craigslist and similar sites to list vehicles at exceptionally low prices.
Online personas for the seven vary: from professionally photographed images and extensive "about" pages detailing their services to one that merely redirects visitors to a web domain building service.
Calls to each this week drew similarly varying results, with none leading to someone on the other end of the line. A few generically suggest leaving a message, while others say "Dan Paulsen" is not available to come to the phone, a clue of possible connection among some of them.
"It is highly likely that the same entity may be behind two or more of the sites," BBB spokeswoman Bao Vang said Monday, but she acknowledged that it's often difficult to track down who runs a specific web domain.
The BBB said that the heftiest loss reported was $34,500 by a car shopper dealing with Nebula Freight, whose website lists a south Minneapolis address and includes a slew of glowing customer testimonials. One shopper was told the seller was a professor in Beijing helping the World Health Organization with the pandemic and needed to sell his car quickly for living expenses, according to the BBB.
In the meantime, two victims have contacted the FBI, and police in Fergus Falls are aware of one man's woes trying to buy a Mercedes said to be in Florida, Vang said.
"I'm not a collector," said Wolken, 65, who farms 240 acres of corn and soybeans about 15 miles up the road from Champaign in east-central Illinois. "I just wanted that car."
The photos on the website kloompy.com "had pictures underneath the car and everything," Wolken said, and none resembled the "rust bucket" Mercedes he once owned.
"It looked like a brand-new car," despite a listed odometer reading of 91,000 miles, he said. "Even on the bottom, it looked like it hadn't gone down the road."
Through Fergus Transportation, which listed an address of a legitimate business on Industrial Park Boulevard, Wolken e-mailed with someone he thought was a widow but never spoke with over the phone.
He had his bank wire $10,600 as directed and waited in vain for the car to be delivered on March 31.
He contacted the BBB the next day, noting it was April Fools' Day.
In the event that he starts shopping again, Wolken said, "I'm going to drive and look at it first."
As of Monday afternoon, the Mercedes was still being dangled as bait. Seller "Angela Gordon" explained in response to an e-mail inquiry that the car was her late husband's "baby." But don't delay, she suggested, because "I have others interested as well."
Suspicions served a 59-year-old Californian well recently, when he had his eye on a snazzy 1960 Chevy Impala.
Jim Zootis has a birthday next month and lives about 75 miles up the coast from San Francisco in Windsor. "I always wanted a '60 Chevy. That would be cool on my 60th birthday."
But the clues of a ruse started piling up, he said. The $24,400 price was about $20,000 below what his research suggested it should be. He couldn't get the owner on the phone. The vehicle supposedly was in Carson City, Nev., but the seller was Hashi Freight in Minneapolis.
"I wanted to believe it was true, but deep down I knew that it wasn't," said Zootis, who shared his concerns last week with the BBB. "I started adding things up and figured this wasn't right. You just have to do your research."
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482