How to Avoid Craigslist Scams
By Jeff Seehorsch
For over two decades, Craigslist has been the go-to online marketplace for a reason – it works. You can list just about anything for sale and no matter what it is, chances are it will sell. As a buyer, you have the freedom to negotiate price and you don’t have to pay shipping fees because it’s local.
Most of the time, transactions go smoothly. But like any online marketplace, Craigslist also attracts scammers looking for an easy payday. Whether you’re a regular on the site or just thinking about trying it out, here’s a rundown of Craigslist scams to look for and best practices to use as you shop or sell, especially if you have a big-ticket item like a car or a home in mind.
Craigslist Safety Tips
Any time you share information online or meet face-to-face with a stranger from the internet, it’s best to take a few precautions. Check out Craigslist’s safety guidelines and these tips for a good starting point.
Meet in a Public Place. At the very least, you should arrange to meet somewhere that’s well-lit and populated, like a coffee shop, diner or mall. Even better are SafeTrade Stations, which are designated areas at police stations or similar law enforcement buildings.
Bring Backup. It’s always a good idea to bring someone along like a friend or family member. There’s less likelihood of any shady business, and chances are you’ll feel much more comfortable with a familiar face around.
Deal in Cash – Carefully. Most people know Craigslist is primarily for cash-only deals, which help prevent sellers from getting scammed. With that said, you don’t want to bring a duffel bag of hundred-dollar bills somewhere. If you’re buying an expensive item, tell the seller you’ll go to an ATM after checking things out – or you could even meet at a bank.
Protect Your Identity. The key to avoiding identify theft is always safeguarding your personal details as much as possible. As a seller on Craigslist, be sure to use the site’s proxy email address feature so you don’t have to give out your personal email. As a buyer, you’ll need to use a disposable email service like Mailinator or Maildrop. Whether you’re buying or selling, you can also avoid giving out your phone number by using Google Voice, which lets you use a different phone number to receive calls and texts on your phone.
One more thing if you’re a seller – many smartphones will embed data in the photo about where it was taken. Be sure to before posting photos of an item for sale.
Common Craigslist Scams
Since 1995 when the site launched, con artists have tweaked age-old scams and created new ones to target both buyers and sellers. Here are a few of the most common Craigslist cons to watch out for.
Whether you’re buying plane tickets or concert tickets, you need to be on the lookout for fraud. Even if you see photos of the tickets you think you’re buying, they might have been stolen, counterfeited, expired, cancelled, or not exist at all. And if you’re trying to get into a sold-out event, there isn’t always much time to make sure the tickets you get are legit. So, do your best to validate the tickets with the information you have. Ask for seller’s invoices stating the tickets have been paid for. Get the account number and call the ticket rep for confirmation. In every instance, research the tickets you’re buying as much as you can to make sure everything checks out.
This involves a scammer posing as a buyer who sends you a check or money order that exceeds the agreed upon price. The fake buyer will apologize for sending too much and request that you send back the difference. Only trouble is, the check or money order is fake. Oftentimes, sellers won’t realize this until they’ve sent a check of their own to the scammer and it’s too late.
The Absent Homeowner
A common Craigslist scam in the rental section involves a “homeowner” listing a home for rent, complete with all the details and plenty of photos. After you express interest, the scammer will explain that they’re out of town or dealing with a messy divorce, and as a result they’re looking to rent the place out fast but unfortunately aren’t available for a showing. You’ll be asked to wire a deposit and first month advance if you want to take advantage of the bargain, after which you’ll never hear from the fake seller again. In some cases, scammers rent out a place and list it as if it were their own. This allows them to show the place off and collect deposits and down payments before skipping town.
As the public has grown wary of phony websites and giving out personal information, con artists have upped their game when it comes to creating phony sites. Crafty web designers can create sites that look almost identical to Craigslist pages, with words like “Certified” and “Official” sprinkled throughout as you’re asked to submit personal information. Another common fake-out involves escrow services for big money sales. In escrow scams, a supposedly legitimate third-party company holds on to payment until a buyer gets what they’re paying for. Many of these sites look legit, but as soon as you deposit any money, it’s gone.
How to Spot Scams and Protect Yourself
There’s no surefire way to spot every Craigslist con, but knowing the most common red flags will make it a lot easier to avoid getting ripped off.
- Communications from someone who isn’t in your area
- Poor spelling or grammar
- A seller who claims to be out of town or otherwise unavailable
- Requests for wire transfers, cashier’s checks or money orders
- Requests for personal details like a social security number, PIN code or password
- A buyer or seller who’s anxious to get a deal done quickly
- The person receiving the call is referred to as a “pickup agent”
Even if you don’t detect anything suspicious (but especially if you do), follow these best practices whenever you buy or sell through Craigslist:
- Never wire money in advance
- Only accept cash
- Always examine the goods in person
- Make sure the buyer or seller is willing to meet in person
- Reverse-search photos in listings to make sure they weren’t lifted from somewhere else
- Never give out more information than necessary
- Trust your gut – if something doesn’t feel right, walk away immediately
Check out our blog for more tips on how to avoid Craigslist scams If you ever spot a suspicious listing, encounter someone trying to pull a fast one, or fall victim to a scam on Craigslist, be sure to file a report with Craigslist and the authorities immediately.
For Major Sales and Purchases, Consider All Your Options
Craigslist has many benefits: convenience because it’s local, cost-savings because you can negotiate, and control over how you conduct your business. Still, as a free, non-regulated site, Craigslist brings with it more risk as the price of what you’re buying or selling goes up.
Sections that feature big-ticket items like cars and homes are immensely popular on Craigslist, but they also attract a significant amount of spam and scams. Most fraudulent postings and inquiries are obvious and easily ignored – though still a pain to sift through. Others are far more sophisticated, which means you always need to stay alert.
When it comes to homes, many real estate agents and For Sale By Owners use the site primarily before open houses. Because there’s no fee to use it and it reaches so many people quickly, Craigslist is a great way to drum up a lot of interest. As a buyer, you can see a lot of homes for sale in one place and use it before setting out to do some house-hunting.
Bottom-line – Craigslist is great for generating and providing visibility. But when it comes to big money deals, it’s typically best used as one marketing tool among many other tools like social media to broaden your buyer audience.
Tips for Selling Your Home on Craigslist While Staying Safe
Once you do the research to price your home, have some professional photos taken and identify your key selling points, you’re ready to create your listing. The two most important aspects to drive visibility will be your headline and how frequently you give it a refresh.
When you write your headline, avoid using your home’s address or the number of bedrooms and bathrooms. In most cases, a blur of numbers won’t stand out and draw a buyer in. Instead, make sure your headline has at least a little appeal and is location-specific – something like “Beautifully Furnished Springfield Home for Sale.”
How long your ads stay visible on Craigslist will vary depending on how active your housing market is, but you’ll probably need to renew or repost them at least a few times before they drop off. Doing this will also keep your listings on the first page, which is where you want it before you’re about to host an open house.
It’s always important to protect yourself and your belongings when you show your home to prospective buyers, and even more so when you publicize it to the kind of massive audience Craigslist attracts. Be sure to remove all valuables, keys, personal photos and prescription drugs from the property. Ask a neighbor to keep an eye out as people come and go. Also, check with your insurance carrier so you know what your policy covers. Just to be safe.
Check out our blog to learn more about safety tips for before and during a showing.
Stay Alert and Stay Safe
Craigslist is a highly beneficial tool to buy or sell anything, as long as you’re aware of the risks and how to avoid the dangers. This goes double for buying or selling something that can have a major impact on your financial future, like a car or a home.