Digital Vigilantes: Using eBay to Catch a Truck Thief

This is Part Two of a series. .

On the morning of November 17, Ben Adams found himself hiding beneath the retractable cover in the back of a Chevy TrailBlazer. The truck was parked in front of a warehouse in Duncanville, Texas. His friend "Sam," the TrailBlazer's owner, had just finished a test drive on a 1949 Chevy truck--the same trucCredit: Ben Adamsk Adams was certain had been stolen from him four months earlier.

Adams pulled out his mobile phone and dialed 911. "Please help me," he said. "I'm at a warehouse. There are criminals all around me."

The story of how a mild-mannered software developer from San Antonio, Texas, ended up running his own undercover sting operation against eBay fraudsters begins with a truck. And if the story has a lesson, it's the one told on Adams's blog: Don't mess with Texas, especially if it involves a truck.

Last July, Adams sold the 1949 Chevy in an eBay auction. The buyer, who called himself Derrick Colbert, appeared to be from Georgia. And when a transport company employee showed up at Adams's door with a cashier's check for $9,600, Adams let him load up the truck and promised to hand over the title when the check cleared.

The next day, he learned from his bank that the check was a fake.

Adams immediately contacted no fewer than 15 law enforcement organizations and eBay itself, but he also began some sleuthing of his own.

He found that the thief had made an important slip-up. While corresponding about the truck, Colbert had sent Adams an e-mail from a second eBay address, different from the one he used to purchase the truck.

By tracking the sales and purchases of Colbert's second eBay ID and contacting a Colorado dealer who had sold him a junky 1950 Chevy truck, Adams was able to track Colbert down to the South Dallas area. But he still didn't have his truck.

By now, Adams had put together a 10-page packet of information and sent it to every law enforcement agency he could think of. But police didn't seem to have much interest in working on the case, and although he had reported Colbert to eBay, that didn't get him anywhere either.

"At this point, I was kind of depressed," remembered Adams. "Every few weeks, I'd do regular eBay searches for all automobiles made between 1948 and 1952 that were within the Dallas-Fort Worth area... I even searched in Craigslist."

And then on November 13, his luck changed.

Colbert had listed the pale blue 1950 Chevy for sale on eBay. Only it wasn't junky anymore, and it didn't look like the 1950 Chevy that Colbert had bought from the Colorado dealer a few weeks earlier. It looked just like a repainted version of Adams's 1949 truck. It had the same windows in back, the same missing gas cap, and the same yellow stain across the passenger side of the front windshield.

"It made me sick to my stomach," Adams said. He called local police, but they were skeptical. So he decided to set up a sting.

First step: fake ID. He took a tip from the thieves and bought a prepaid mobile phone in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Then using a friend's well-established eBay account, he placed a couple of bids on the truck to show that he was an interested buyer. His name became "Sam."

He didn't want to seem too eager. In fact, he didn't want to do anything to tip Colbert off. And although he thought he might be putting his life at risk, Adams called Colbert and asked to set up a Saturday morning test drive. To be sure that Adams wouldn't be recognized, a friend volunteered to play the part of "Sam" during the face-to-face meeting.

And that's how Ben Adams ended up hidden inside a Chevy TrailBlazer on a Saturday morning, calling 911. Patrol cars speeding to the scene met up with Adams and his friend about a half-mile from the warehouse and followed the amateur sleuths back to the truck.

"They probably had a two-minute window where they probably could have shut the warehouse door and hit the road," Adams said.

But the thieves didn't leave, and now Adams has his truck back. And this time he plans to keep it.

When a newsgroup acquaintance offered to let him have sex with his 6-year-old daughter, Brad Willman changed his life and became a crusader against child pornography. He wrote a Trojan horse program that he claims helped send 70 pedophiles to prison, including a prominent Orange County, Calif., judge.

Tomorrow:

(Nancy Gohring of IDG News Service contributed to this story.)

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