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I am selling something on ebay Kleinanzeigen (German equivalent to craigslist in the US). A potential buyer first acted like a private person in writing, rather young at age, maybe even a teenager. After we agreed on a price, the buyer suddenly revealed that they were buying for a company and their text messages sounded more professional. The company is actually registered in Germany ("UG (haftungsbeschränkt)"). The buyer then asked me for a receipt of payment before the payment was transferred on the name of that company.

The company's Google reviews show that they frequently buy similar items on ebay, and that most people were happy, but many people also reported the same strategy as in my case. I am quite sure that it is a scam but I do not understand how it works.

I am wondering two things:

  • how does the scam work? I guess they are going to use my receipt to account for stolen items or to use it for tax fraud. But why do they need my signature on the receipt? Since they cannot prove the payment to my account, where is the difference to simply faking my signature?
  • isn't it quite a blatant mistake to actually provide me with the company's name? Should I inform the police - or is the company scammed, too, and I should inform the company?

Update

I should have rather asked the question "is this a scam?" but I was afraid that the answer was obviously always "yes". In this case, it is not! The buyer, although working for a company that apparently frequently buys electronic items from private sellers, did not know the difference between a receipt for payment and a purchase order. What they were actually asking for was a purchase order. I sent it to them, with a note saying "This is not a receipt for payment but a purchase order.", and just a few hours later they transferred me the money via Paypal.

I would like to thank user TTT for pointing out the existence of purchase orders and its acronym PO, which initially enabled me to trust the buyer.

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    This could go in any number of directions, but it should be pretty obvious why you shouldn't provide documentation that you've received payment for something before you've actually received payment.
    – glibdud
    Dec 16, 2021 at 14:23
  • You stated many people reported they requested a payment receipt before paying, but also that they were happy. Does this mean the company actually paid after receiving the receipt early?
    – TTT
    Dec 16, 2021 at 15:36
  • @TTT I have wondered the same. They could be fake reviews but they actually last up to 3 years back. The ebay account, hoewever, is just two months old.
    – LuckyPal
    Dec 16, 2021 at 15:50
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    In the US, some companies require a purchase order before they can make payment. The PO would include the negotiated price on it, and it's not far-fetched that a signature could be required on the PO from the seller (though I've never been asked for that before). Once paid, the seller could provide an additional receipt if necessary, though that isn't usually requested. This sort of seems like a PO instead of a payment receipt.... Can you simply ask why they want a receipt before they pay instead of after they pay?
    – TTT
    Dec 16, 2021 at 16:22
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    @TTT interesting! They actually labeled the document that they sent to me as "PO-dd-mm-yy". I did not know that PO stands for purchase order. I actually asked them, why they need it before the transaction, and they answered, that it would be required for their booking system and that some sellers tend to forget to send them the document, which would cause bureaucratic problems on the company's side. So maybe there is no fraud, but just a sloppy handling of financial wording?? In German language, there is a clear difference between receipt for payment and purchase order, too.
    – LuckyPal
    Dec 16, 2021 at 16:33

3 Answers 3

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As we've discovered from the comments and the updated question, in this case it isn't a scam. It was a simple misunderstanding about the definitions (or translations) of the word "receipt". What the buyer is requesting you sign is commonly referred to as a Purchase Order (PO), and this is standard practice for some companies to provide one to you before making payment. It is not the same thing as a receipt for payment, which would obviously happen after payment is received. Many companies that use the PO method don't even require a receipt for the actual payment.

The typical progression for a company to purchase an item may include some subset of these steps:

  1. Seller provides an Estimate or a Quotation.
  2. Buyer provides the seller with a Purchase Order and may request it be signed.
  3. Seller provides an Invoice to the Buyer, with the PO number referenced.
  4. Buyer pays the Seller referencing the Invoice number.
  5. Seller confirms payment. (Possible receipt or Thank you message.)

Although it is no longer relevant to this question, here are some thoughts on the initial question around the possible scam of requesting a "payment receipt" before payment is made:

  1. In general it would be difficult to use a receipt to scam an individual. In the scenario where a payment receipt is requested before payment is made, and the seller asks why, and the buyer gives some excuse, and the seller gives in and says "OK, here's your receipt but you aren't getting the item until you pay." There isn't much the buyer could do to try to get the item without paying. Claiming to law enforcement that "Here's my receipt; of course I paid!" isn't going to have much weight when there's also additional communication about getting the receipt beforehand, and no additional payment proof. In fact it would likely prove that fraud was the intent to begin with.
  2. There is a potential for tax fraud, in the case where a company could deduct extra expenses that they never actually made, with the assumption that if they are ever audited they could provide the invalid receipts. The problem with this though is it brings in a third party (the seller) who could prove that they are attempting to commit fraud if asked, since the seller could explain that they specifically asked for the receipt early, and then never paid. If tax fraud was the goal, the company would be better off making up fake receipts without involving the seller at all.
  3. Perhaps the most likely reason for someone to request a receipt without intent to pay is to scam some third party organization that reimburses for something based solely on receipts. But similar to the previous point, this let's a potential seller know that you are attempting to commit fraud, and the user would probably be better off just trying to fake their own receipts in the first place, rather than get a real one from a seller who now knows they are likely attempting fraud.

Conclusion: there probably isn't an intelligent scam that could be done by requesting a payment receipt before paying, and then purposefully not paying.

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  • This description of purchase orders is exactly backwards. A purchase order goes from the customer to the vendor - it conveys the details of what the customer wants to order to the vendor. The vendor may send some acknowledgment back to the customer (possibly informing of tax, shipping, etc), then deliver the order to the customer and send an invoice to the customer.
    – nobody
    Dec 17, 2021 at 23:22
  • @nobody yup, after re-reading I agree with you. It's fixed now. Thx.
    – TTT
    Dec 18, 2021 at 0:09
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The obvious scam is that once you have provided the written receipt, they won't pay you, but will still demand the goods you have offered.

If it ever ends up in court, they will produce your receipt as proof that they paid.

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  • True, that is another possibility additional to the ones mentioned in my question, money laundry and tax fraud. I am wondering how the court would decide, as I would have written evidence that they were asking for the receipt before the payment was done. But threatening with a lawyer alone might scare some people enough, that they either send the goods or "pay back" the money.
    – LuckyPal
    Dec 17, 2021 at 9:14
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"How does this scam work?" questions are hard to answer. Only the scammer really knows. Even then the scammer may be using lackeys or mules that don't have the big picture. There may also be multiple victims in a single transaction.

Some common scams for selling goods online are:

  • Sending an overpayment from a bogus or stolen account then asking for the extra money to be sent somewhere else. You will lose the payment AND the extra.
  • Saying goods were never received and demanding a refund from the bank or payment processor. You lose the money and won't get the goods back.
  • Paying for goods then sending them to someone other than the buyer. This is not a scam per-se but it is questionable. The buyer could be buying from you to fill their own orders on a similar item.
  • Asking for extra information from a seller to steal information.

As a seller - You need to be paid, for the exact amount, in a non-reversible payment method before you send any items. Scammers often use reversible payment methods and claw back a refund so they have the money and the item.

Sending a written quote, a purchase-order, or other documentation saying what is being sold and for how much before the deal is done is reasonable. Sending a receipt after payment is received in full and showing the buyer has paid is also reasonable.

Sellers should decide what effort and risk is worth it for them. For example the time to sell a 50EUR item should be short and the risk is low. Selling a 1000EUR item will take more time and the risk is high.

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  • This is a rather generic answer to my specific case. Maybe you can transform some of your useful general remarks into ones that apply to my question? That would certainly improve the answer.
    – LuckyPal
    Dec 16, 2021 at 17:41

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