If you have a pulse, you’ve likely noticed that the level of fraudulent inbounds to your cell, email, Facebook, etc. have grown exponentially over the last year. From the text that clearly was meant for someone else from a random number asking if you got the tee time for Tuesday or the Facebook message that appears on its face to be totally legit until you read it and see the sender clearly has zero mastery of the English language, the dial on shenaniganry, in all forms, has been turned up to ten. It’s no exception with the bourbon scene where fake accounts and fake bottles abound, and a network of shady characters work night and day to take advantage.
Let’s take a second however to set the stage, as fraudulent and seedy behavior isn’t exactly foreign to the bourbon scene. From its earliest beginnings the American bourbon industry had a dark side. In the 1800’s adding coloring and flavoring to moonshine (or even at times gasoline or other liquids that will straight up kill you dead) to make a quick buck was a thing. This unscrupulous behavior brought about the Bottled-in-Bond Act in 1897 to create a set of strict regulations that guaranteed the quality of the spirit you were buying. Fast forward to Prohibition and bootlegging and the less than legal behaviors that went along with that period were commonplace. Certainly, the whiskey world is no stranger to dodginess. In today’s modern era nobody is worried about gasoline being added to their bourbon – but the digital space provides a ripe arena for whiskey scams.
The most common whiskey scams come in a couple of different forms these days. The first of which is the bargain priced bourbon scam, whereby an individual will steal a photo of a rare bourbon(s) and post it to a social media group suggesting they are selling it for what would be considered a steal. Whether seeming to be ignorant of its value, a widowed woman selling her recently deceased veteran husbands’ collection or multitudes of other backstories the plot unfolds much the same. Anxious for a deal given the rarity and markups that are seen across the secondary market, a quick deal is made over Facebook Messenger and the unsuspecting victim sends a payment via Venmo, Zelle, PayPal, etc. and as quickly as the deal is done the scammer pockets the cash and is off to the next victim with another new fake profile and a similar too good to be true offer.
Folks will similarly pose as starting a new online bourbon group, and with their dozens of fake profiles, spam legitimate groups trying to get whiskey enthusiasts to join on the promise of access to bottles or other seemingly valuable perks. I personally spend a chunk of time deleting these fake spam comments from the Bourboneur Facebook page daily. It’s a lot of effort removing all the junk and underscores the amount of effort being expended by these undesirable characters. Once in, there’s loads of fake accounts to use to suggest the legitimacy of the fake seller, with fake profile after fake profile piling on “he’s good to go” “deal in confidence” “bomb proof shipper.” Of course, all this is a ruse to simply get the transaction to occur before blocking the person and never sending along the bottle that’s been purchased.
Although it’s difficult in some instances to spot a fake, unless you happen to have some bourbon forensics superpower, bourbon distilleries are starting to come along and help out with ensuring that what you’re getting is the real deal. For some of the higher end bottles in Buffalo Trace’s lineup, such as their Antique Collection (consisting to Eagle Rare 17, George T. Stagg, Sazerac 18, Thomas H. Handy and William Larue Weller) the distillery places a Near Field Communication (NFC) tag located inside the foil at the top of the bottle. Its purpose is to alert buyers if the bottle has been opened and tampered with. By simply downloading an app from Buffalo Trace that reads NFC tags from your phone you’ll be armed to ensure the legitimacy of that high end bottle you’re looking to trade. In a parking lot down the road from my house I recently met a gentleman to trade for a bottle of George T. Stagg; with a quick scan of the bottle using my NFC tag reader I was able to confirm that it was unopened and not tampered with. Quite a cool piece of technology – of course, it’s only been 2021 since they started using these but a step in the right direction, nonetheless.
Given the desire to obtain rare bottles and the opportunity to profit from others misfortune that comes along with the backchannels required to land many of these coveted bottles, it's not surprising that this is a scene that plays out over and over again and will continue to morph in the years ahead. There have even been Facebook groups stood up to counter this trend; one such group has over 22,000 members as of writing. The moral of the story is that if it seems too good to be true, it is, and there's a certain amount of diligence required with a transaction that sees you shelling out hundreds, or even thousands of your hard-earned dollars for brownwater. The bamboozling game is going to be constantly changing, and you will always be taking on some level of risk - personal, financial or otherwise when you wade into buying bottles from strangers online.
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