Once upon a time, everyone had to buy multiple newspapers and check endless listings of classified ads if they were looking for a job, car, home or apartment. With the advent of the internet, anyone in any part of the world can now visit Craigslist, an online classifieds site sorted by city, to buy and sell products and services. While I love Craigslist for its amazing service and simplicity, the website has also opened the door to scammers, con artists, thieves, hustlers and your everyday shady business dealers who are trying to separate you from your money with nothing in return.
Even fairly sophisticated internet shoppers can be fooled by these clever thieves once in a while because scammers are constantly coming up with new strategies and tactics for scams. You’ll be surprised at how creative and conniving some of these thieves can be. However, knowing how scammers work can help anyone avoid the traps and pitfalls of using an otherwise awesome website.
If you have doubts about an advertised deal, it is best to skip it altogether. What’s the point of trying to save money or get a discount if you run the risk of losing all your money in the process? If you have questions about current internet or Craigslist scams, below are a list of the most popular and recent schemes.
Free Stuff and A Mugging
I was recently talking to a friend from Los Angeles who told me about a new and potentially dangerous Craigslist scam. Many people who just want to get rid of items advertise free stuff on Craigslist with a physical address, but no phone number or email contact information. While most of these ads are legitimate, some enterprising muggers have found they can recruit their victims by advertising free stuff. When someone shows up, they are confronted by several men who force them to turn over their money and valuables. Keep this in mind when deciding to meet anyone off of Craigslist for a “robbery by appointment” and try to stick with ads that give contact information or have meetings in public.
The same Craigslist scam can be run without the promise of free stuff. In this case, it can actually get worse because buyers show up with cash and the intention of buying something somewhat expensive (electronics, a car, washer and dryer), and the thieves take your cash, credit cards, and identity. This is a perfect example of why you should never walk around with your Social Security Card or bank account information in your wallet, and always show up with a friend or two.
Home and Apartment Rental Scams
Usually, scams for homes and apartments show pictures of adorable places in desirable areas at incredibly low rents. You respond to the listing and the reasoning is that the owner had to leave the country urgently for missionary work or an unexpected family emergency, and needs to cover the mortgage payments for a few months. The “landlord”, “property manager” or “leasing manager” then tells you that he has other interested parties and if you want to make sure you get the place, you should put down a hefty deposit, such as 2 month’s rent. Some scammers may even insist on cash, which if you know anything about renting a property, is a big no-no and red flag. Lastly, to make sure that the transaction feels legitimate, the con artist will request that you fill out a background check, which gives the fake leasing agent a ton of personal information for identity theft.
All in all, the thief will set up a number of appointments throughout the day, even giving each tenant a signed agreement and a pair of keys (not that they’ll work). Once the scammer has collected the deposits, he disappears. On move-in day, all the renters show up and find out they cannot move in and have lost their deposit money. Those who have put in notice at their current apartment or home may have no place to live. Always check out ownership of the property when renting an apartment or home and ask to see the landlord’s identification before signing a lease or leaving a deposit. Never rush into a deal that seems too good to be true.
The Landlord Is Out of Town and You Are Out of Luck
A variation on the renter’s scam is the middleman. The landlord or property owner is out of town, in the hospital or otherwise unable to conduct business. The person showing the apartment is a friend who is doing the owner a favor. In this case, it does no good to ask for identification and a check of property records will likely show the name of the owner is the same as the one provided by the scammer. Never rent any property without meeting the actual property owner.
Scammers are sophisticated and often post pictures of homes offered for sale on other websites. It is common for realtors to post multiple pictures and even virtual tours of homes they are selling. Some scammers even manage to gain access to vacant homes to show them to potential renters. You can check realty sites with the address of the home to find out if it is vacant and for sale. It is relatively easy for scammers to gain access to REO homes that are often vacant for months, so be sure to verify the owner’s identity and check property records.
Other tips for avoiding this scam are never put up cash deposits and always make checks payable to the property owner. Use bank checks not certified checks or money orders since bank checks are usually held by financial institutions for several days, giving renters a chance to double check everyone’s background and references. If the person showing the apartment claims to be the representative of a management company, verify the company’s existence, check the BBB and local chamber of commerce for complaints and call the company to verify the representative’s employment.
Scams That Target Owners
Property owners who rent homes and apartments are not immune from scammers out to steal their money. The Nigerians, known for their eBay scams, target landlords on Craigslist by renting an apartment or home and sending a check or money order to cover the deposit, first month’s rent and application fees. The check or money order is a worthless fake and is deliberately made out for significantly more than the agreed upon rent amount. The renter then contacts the landlord about his “mistake” and asks that the landlord send the extra money by wire transfer, claiming that the overage puts his family in a tough spot. While the bank is still trying to process the fake, the scammer pockets the money and the landlord finds out the check is bogus and he is out of pocket for the transfer amount.
The only way to avoid losing out on this scam is to refuse to send the money to the “renter” until his check has cleared. Check with your bank or financial institution and make sure they have verified the check and it has cleared. Tell the “renter” you will not be able to refund the overage and you will deduct it from the next month’s rent.
Renters can ask for a copy of the landlord’s picture ID and take it to local law enforcement authorities to verify it is legitimate. They can also do a Google search on the landlord’s name and property address to find out if the house or apartment has been used in previous scams. Smart renters expect landlords to run credit and background checks and should be wary of anyone offering rentals without these requirements. Getting an apartment on the spot, signing rental agreement papers and transferring keys never happen within the first 30 minutes of a showing.
On the other hand, landlords should not offer a lease to any potential tenant without running credit checks, background checks and verifying employment. At least with a scammer, you may lose a portion of one month’s rent; with a bum tenant, you are forced to go through the annoyance and long process of eviction.
If a potential tenant sends a check for too much, refuse to accept it and ask for a check in the proper amount. Never refund cash to a tenant who has given a check for the deposit and fees. Ask that checks be drawn on local banks so you can verify the account and wait for the check to clear.
Buying and Selling Cars on Craigslist
Landlords are not the only ones who can be scammed with fraudulent checks, money orders, and cashier’s checks. These checks and money orders are good enough to fool banks and are often not discovered until weeks after they have been deposited. Sellers who release their car to a buyer can lose their car and payment, so do not release your car title until you have actually cashed the check. Furthermore, do not accept checks from out of state banks. Sellers can take checks to a local branch of the bank on which they are drawn to verify the check is good and exchange it for cash. Or just ask the buyer to bring cash in the first place, but be sure to have a counterfeit detector pen on hand for larger transactions. The pens usually cost less than $10 and could easily prevent a situation where you are handed a roll of fake $100 bills.
Other essential tips to avoid Craigslist scams involving buying and selling cars include:
- Never accept a check that is for more than the selling price of the car and agree to refund the difference. The check is likely fraudulent and in addition to losing your car, you will be out of pocket for the “refund” given to the buyer. The same could happen with counterfeit bills.
- Buyer beware of scammers who offer low priced cars and a back story about why the car needs to be sold immediately. Usually these scammers pose as sellers who are out of state or out of the country and are unable to see the buyer in person. You get so anxious to get a good deal that you do not even see the car, just a photo. Of course there is no car and once the seller has your money (usually by wire transfer), he disappears. Never buy a used car without test driving it, having it checked by a trusted mechanic, seeing the title, and pulling a Carfax history report. Do not hand over your money until the car and title are in your possession.
- Beware of sellers who try to pressure you into a quick sale and never wire money to an out of area seller. Even if a car seems like a great deal, insist on taking the car to your mechanic. If the deal is real, the seller will not object because any seller will understand the need to check out a car before buying it. But if there is no car, the seller will likely tell you the car has been sold. Always get contact information, preferably a home phone number and physical address that can be verified. It is too easy for scammers with just an email address to disappear after they have your money.
In a variation of this scheme, sellers will offer to do a transaction through an escrow company which makes the buyer believe his money is safe. The buyer gets an email that appears to be from a legitimate, established company, but the link in the email routes the buyer to a fake escrow site. This is similar to the PayPal and bank email scams that are making their rounds on the internet. Do not click on the links in these phishing emails, and instead go directly to the site. If the seller is legitimate, you will get your car and if not, you will keep your money safe with a real escrow company.
Buying Tickets on Craigslist
Ticket scams are common and not just on Craigslist. Counterfeit tickets are big business for con artists on and off the internet. One way buyers can protect themselves is to ask for photos of the tickets or to meet the seller and ask to see the tickets. Tickets for different events are unique and scammers often do not have the ability to produce replicas of specific tickets. You should know what real event tickets look like and if the tickets offered for sale are different (don’t have the watermark or hologram), do not buy them.
Another way to make sure tickets are legitimate is to check the seating plan for the event venue. Make sure that any tickets you buy have numbers and letters that correspond to the seating plan in the venue where the event is being held.
Ask to see a receipt for the tickets. If they were purchased legally, the ticket company provides the buyer with a receipt which shows the amount paid, the name of the event and the venue, and the ticket numbers. Season ticket holders are assigned account numbers which can be verified through the ticket company or vendor that originally sold the tickets.
Lastly, beware of cancelled tickets. A “seller” can buy tickets with their credit card, and then list the tickets for sale. The minute you purchase them, the seller goes back and cancels the tickets. For example, you’ll never know this till you call the airline a week or two before the trip or show up to the airport ready to travel.
As you can tell, buying tickets on Craigslist is very risky and leaves buyers very susceptible to getting scammed by experienced con artists. If you want to avoid these scams, try your best to buy from a reputable ticket seller or 3rd-party broker.
Buying Through The Mail
Buying any item via mail adds a level of uncertainty. To protect yourself, it is best to offer to send half the money when the item is mailed and you receive confirmation from the carrier company, and the other half when it is received. Keep a record of all correspondence, including contact information supplied by the seller, and request that the seller send the item with a tracking number. Both UPS, FedEx, and USPS have online tracking services. Online tracking services notify the addressee by email when the package has been sent and allow the person to track the package until it arrives at their doorstep. Whenever possible, use secure online payment services, such as PayPal or MoneyBookers, a PayPal alternative, when paying for items that will be shipped. PayPal has an excellent buyer protection system in place and their claims processing department is great at working with buyers to resolve any potential issues.
Generally, it is best to buy locally when shopping on Craigslist. Otherwise, use auction sites like eBay and Amazon.com, the largest retailer online, for out-of-area purchases. Unlike Craigslist, which specializes in classified listings for private individuals, eBay and Amazon offer buyer protection services and a seller rating system. These sites deal with international sellers and take steps to protect buyers from scams. For example, Amazon does not release and disburse funds to sellers until 14 days after a transaction has occurred, safe-guarding buyers in case of a return or fraud. Although Amazon and eBay scams exist as well, the companies do an excellent job of protecting their consumers and rarely do buyers or sellers experience losses.
Escrow Fraud and Spoofing
Sellers will sometimes offer buyers security for large ticket items by suggesting the use of an escrow service. There are a number of legitimate escrow services that offer this protection for online buyers, but the safest way to use these is to suggest the service yourself and contact them directly. Scammers who suggest escrow services may send spoof emails, purportedly from the service or website company. The spoof will ask the buyer to click on a link which will take them to a site, nearly identical to the original, set up by the scammer on a very similar looking domain. This is called a phishing site.
Anyone who has an email account has probably received spoof emails which look exactly the same as emails sent by legitimate banking sites, airline sites and even PayPal. Clicking on the links sends the recipient to a phony site where the scammers try to harvest information such as passwords and account numbers. Do not click on links within these emails. Instead, search for the name of the company on Google and directly visit the site. This ensures that your information is safe and that scammers will not gain access to your personal information, bank accounts, and credit cards.
Online job scams can cost people looking for work thousands of dollars. The most popular scams are the mystery shopper, the nanny and the account manager. An out-of-state family advertises for a nanny and hires a young, inexperienced job seeker. The “family” sends a check so the nanny can pay rent to a landlord whose property they will be leasing, buy groceries or pay other bills. The check is a fake and the “landlord” is in on the scam. The nanny deposits the check into her own account and withdraws the money or writes a check for the rent before the funds are verified and available in his/her account. When the fake check bounces, the nanny is on the hook for the money drawn against the check.
If someone offers you a job as a nanny or babysitter without meeting you, take a step back and think “who would actually trust their kids, pets, or property to a stranger?” Even people who live outside the U.S. are unlikely to entrust their children to a person they have never met.
In another Craigslist job scam, there is an account manager position available from a foreign company that has clients in the U.S. The account manager is supposed to collect money from the “clients”, deposit the funds in their personal account and keep 10%. The manager then sends the rest of the money by wire or money order to the “employer”. Of course the checks are phony and once again, the “employee” is responsible for the money drawn against the checks. Since the phony checks often look very good, it can be weeks before banks even discover they are worthless.
Fake Craigslist Guarantees
EBay and Amazon offer ratings for regular sellers on their sites. These sellers often have virtual stores and frequently sell items on the sites. Craigslist does not offer virtual stores to sellers and they do not guarantee or rate sellers like online retailers. Emails stating that Craigslist has researched the seller and approved the transaction as safe are completely bogus. Anyone who receives an email from Craigslist approving a transaction or offering a buyer protection guarantee should stop dealing with the seller immediately. Buyers who receive these emails should report them to Craigslist so the ad can be deleted.
Spyware Video Scam
One of the newest Craigslist scams try to get readers to download a video by asking them to compare and see if the video matches a product they are offering for sale. The video contains spyware that can compromise a user’s private data and allow hackers access to sensitive information including credit card and bank account numbers and passwords. The best policy is not to visit links or download videos or software unless you are certain that the site is legitimate and free of viruses, malware and spyware.
Advice From Craigslist
Craigslist has tried to take proactive steps to cut down on potential fraudulent transactions by offering buyers and sellers tips to avoid scams. The most useful tip is to deal locally with people you can meet in person. Craigslist listings are categorized by cities and sticking with local buyers and sellers will lower the odds of you being a victim of an internet scam.
Furthermore, you should know that Craigslist does not handle payments, guarantee transactions, offer buyer protection or provide escrow services so anyone suggesting that the website does is a scammer or misinformed. Avoid sellers that offer to ship merchandise or recommend an escrow service. If it is a large transaction, then you should suggest the escrow service you are comfortable using and send the seller a link to use. To avoid identity theft, never submit to background or credit checks for housing or jobs without meeting the landlord or interviewer in person. Finally, never, ever give out any financial information over the phone or via email.
Social media sites, chat rooms and forums engender a feeling that contacts and relationships on the internet are friends when, in fact, you forget that you have never met them. The anonymity of the internet provides the perfect set up for scammers who prey on the trusting nature of genuinely good people. Email addresses and prepaid cell phones are nearly impossible to trace making it easier for these criminals to avoid being caught. While Craigslist is a trusted consumer site, not all the advertisers on the site are trustworthy.
Whenever you are buying or selling goods or services on Craigslist, beware of the dangers of scammers. Use good sense, don’t be afraid to walk away from a deal, and do not trust people who ask you to cash checks or offer out-of-state checks as payment for items you are selling. Sellers that push buyers for deposits or quick sales are likely not sharing the entire truth so take the time to verify information. If the seller does not want you to verify his information, chances are the only thing he/she is selling is a lie.