An espresso deal that wasn’t: Times pulls ad after complaints

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The espresso machine that caught Richard Terbrueggen’s eye was the kind that grinds coffee beans and turns them into espresso with the press of a button. The advertisement offered it for $350, nearly half off the retail price, and it seemed almost too good of a deal.

But when he called to inquire about the offer on Monday, the man who answered the phone was polite and professional, checking to make sure he had his information correct and telling the King County resident he’d get an email confirmation with a tracking number.

On Tuesday, Terbrueggen received something else: a fraud alert from his bank. Someone had used his credit-card information to purchase a different espresso machine and a milk cooler from a New Jersey-based coffee retailer — for almost $4,000. Terbrueggen hadn’t used the credit card for several weeks before he’d ordered the espresso device, called the Breville Barista Express.

Suspecting a scam, he turned to the place that alerted him to the offer: The Seattle Times, which ran an ad for it in Sunday’s paper. He wasn’t alone.

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The Times received “four or five” complaints about the espresso ad, according to Gary Smith, vice president of advertising for The Seattle Times Co. The ad will not run in future editions.

“We take these issues very seriously and deeply regret the negative impact on our readers,” Smith said in a statement. “We have an intensive process in place that minimizes the occurrence of these scams,” he added. Sales representatives vet websites, phone numbers and contact information for every ad, and the finance department runs a credit check on ad-buyers who do not prepay.

“Sadly, defrauders have become very creative over the years and occasionally one of them slips through the net,” Smith said. It is company policy not to disclose the identity of the ad-buyer, he added.

The website provided in the ad, www.expressoamerica.com, lists only the Breville espresso machine and no information about the company selling it. Its description of the espresso machine matches word for word the description of the item on the website of Williams-Sonoma Inc., the cookware retailer, which lists it for $599.95.

An online repository of internet domain registrations shows that www.expressoamerica.com was registered on March 16, 2017. The person who created it signed the name “william sonoma” and provided a San Francisco address that is the global headquarters of Williams-Sonoma.

A Times reporter called the number on the ad and was told a supervisor would call back. A voice message seeking comment wasn’t returned, nor was an email to the address associated with www.expressoamerica.com.

On Tuesday morning, within 24 hours of Terbrueggen’s attempt to order the espresso machine, a coffee retailer in New Jersey received a separate order with his name, address and credit card. This order was for a Jura Z6 espresso machine and milk cooler that totaled $3,991.77, according to James Smith, owner of 1st in Coffee LLC.

The order was bound for an apartment in Los Angeles, according to an electronic order notice that Smith provided, but Terbrueggen’s bank declined the charge.

“If you’re in e-commerce today, fraud is an everyday thing,” Smith said in a phone interview. The shipping destination of an order doesn’t necessarily point to a fraudster, he said, because some will notify the United Parcel Service to hold the order for pickup.

Internet crime has risen sharply in recent years. In 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation logged reported losses from cyber theft around the world that topped $1 billion. Washington state reported $27.6 million in losses that year, the fifth-highest of any state in the U.S., and nearly double the losses reported in 2014.

As of Wednesday, Terbrueggen said he had not received any confirmation about his order of the Breville Barista Express, and wished he’d stuck by his initial skepticism.

“They seemed very professional,” he said. “I thought, ‘Well, hopefully it’s legitimate.’ But now I know it wasn’t.”