Perils of Craigslist: 4 Common Scams & How To Avoid Them

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It’s true that you can find almost anything on Craigslist: musical instruments, used cars, computers, concert tickets, furniture, a ride, a date, and everything inbetween. Unfortunately, it’s also true that you can stumble into big trouble if you’re not careful. Not only might you run into old-school scams like concert tickets that never appear or fake money orders, but you might even find yourself ensnared by a computer virus or malware from a suspicious file attachment.  Here are some common Craigslist scams, and how to avoid them:

Suspicious Pricing

They say if it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t – and they’re right. When you’re looking to buy something on Craigslist, one red flag is suspiciously low prices. This is especially true if you’re looking to buy a car or rent an apartment.

The Scam: When it comes to cars, suspiciously low prices are probably in place to attract more attention to the ad, and are usually there to lure unsuspecting buyers into a scam. They might try to get you to pay for the car before seeing it, when in fact there is no car or it isn’t what they advertised.

For apartments, a suspiciously low price might be in place to lure you into a bait & switch scheme. This is such a common Craigslist scam in New York City that Craigslist was considering charging a fee to post an apartment ad in order to deter scammers. In one instance, a woman scammed renters out of $5,000 in the Bronx.  

Basically people will try to get you to pay for an apartment (that may not even exist) without seeing it first, or will show you a very nice apartment and when you arrive at your rental (after paying rent and deposit) you’ll find it looks nothing like what you saw.

How To Stay Safe: First of all, know the value of what you want to buy. If you’re renting an apartment, get to know the usual going rates in the area. If you’re looking for a car, use the Kelley Blue Book or NADA Guides to find out the ballpark range for the type of car you’re looking for. Then you’ll know what a reasonable price looks like.

When buying and selling cars on Craigslist, some red flags to be on the lookout for are if the person is overseas, wants to do the transaction via wire transfer, the post doesn’t include a phone number, unusually low prices, and if the seller seems overeager to conclude the sale. Familiarize yourself with different types of cars and their values so you can have an idea of how much they are worth, in order to spot any suspicious pricing.

As a general rule, it’s best to only buy or sell cars with people in your area, so you can go see the car, meet the person face-to-face, and make sure you’re getting what you’re paying for.

When renting an apartment, make sure you meet the landlord, and supervisor, and see the entire apartment – the actual unit you’re planning to rent. Make sure you have everything in writing – when you move in, who can live in the apartment, what’s included with the rent, and what’s expected of the tenants. It’s also a good idea to chat with your prospective neighbors before you hand over any money to see what the building and the landlord are really like.

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Fake Items

On the internet, it’s really hard to know who you’re talking to and whether or not what they’re selling is real. That’s especially true on free sites like Craigslist, where it’s incredibly easy to post a phony ad. There are two different types of scams that might make use of fake items to lure you into becoming a victim: counterfeit tickets, and cyber scams.

The Scam: The counterfeit tickets scam is simple. These days, with a rudimentary image editing program and a good printer, it’s all too easy to counterfeit tickets to concerts, sporting events, festivals, and other events. Craigslist is the perfect place for ticket scammers to get top dollar for their fake wares.

Cyber scammers are more insidious with their use of fake items, though. If you see an ad that has outbound links to images, asks you to “download more information,” or if a seller offers to email you images of their item and the email has suspicious looking attachments, you may just have stumbled on a cyber scam.

In one reported attack, people were invited to open a link to see pictures of a car for sale. Upon clicking the link, a malicious website then installed a virus on the unsuspecting victim’s computer. It’s also possible for someone to contact you through Craigslist with emails that contain suspicious attachments, as in the resume scam that was seen on Craigslist earlier this year.

How To Stay Safe: There are a few things you can do to make sure that when you’re buying tickets on Craigslist, you’re really getting what you paid for. Make sure you know what your tickets are supposed to look like, so you can be sure you’re getting the right ones. 

You might also want to familiarize yourself with the venue and seating chart so you know exactly what you’re getting. Be sure to check the date, time, and event on the tickets you get to make sure it’s all correct.

In general, to avoid falling victim to these phishing scams that use fake Craigslist items, you should only open attachments or click links sent from people you know – and even then, use caution. If the file name is strange or the sender is unknown to you, don’t open it. Avoid sending your personal information to anyone from Craigslist. It’s also a good idea to use a separate email account than your usual personal one when you’re conducting business on Craigslist.

Finally, make sure you have your computer protected by the latest antivirus software. This way even if you slip and click a suspicious link, your antivirus program can stop malicious programs before they infiltrate your computer. Norton Security is a good choice for both PC and Mac users, and it’s easy and simple to securely download it to your computer.

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Correspondence Dangers

If you want to buy or sell something through Craigslist, you’re going to have to correspond with other buyers and sellers. Most of this correspondence will probably take place either by email or phone. As with any time you correspond with someone you met on a website, there are some risks involved, and you should proceed with caution.

The Scam: There are a couple of different ways you can get in trouble when corresponding with people from Craigslist. First off, as mentioned above, scammers could send you emails with attachments containing viruses and malware, or links to sites that will install malware on your computer. Identity thieves also might try to trick you into sending personal information to them, such as your address or even banking information.

How To Stay Safe: As a general rule, share the minimum possible amount of personal information when corresponding with people on Craigslist. Never send anyone your personal details, especially not banking information. 

As mentioned before, it’s a good idea to use a separate email account from your personal one when you’re corresponding on Craigslist. Finally, once again, make sure you have your computer protected with the latest antivirus software!

Payment Scams

If you’re going to do business on Craigslist, whether you’re buying or selling, money is going to have to change hands at some point. Because of the anonymity of the internet, it’s unfortunately very easy for scammers to take advantage of unsuspecting Craigslisters and scam them out of their money.

The Scam: There are a couple of ways people might try to scam you when it comes to payment. In general, be wary of anyone who wants to pay by wire transfer or cashier’s check, especially from another country. They also might try to get your banking information in order to wire you money, but plan on stealing money from you instead. You should also be wary if the person you’re corresponding with seems overeager to conclude the sale.

In some cases (especially with car sales), the scammer will send you a cashier’s check for more money than what your item was supposed to be sold for. Then they will notice their “mistake” and ask you to send them the difference. You’ll send them the money only to discover that their check was fake. Another common scam is that someone might try to trick you into sending your item before you receive payment.

You should also be wary of people who want you to pay for a car using any strange or questionable method of payment, such as payment cards. One woman in New Jersey lost over $1,500 in a Craigslist car scam where scammers asked her to pay for a car on MoneyPak cards. In the end, the car did not exist.

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How To Stay Safe: In general, it’s just a better plan to do business with local buyers who you can meet in person. This makes it a lot less likely that you’ll fall victim to a payment scam.

If you do decide to accept payment by money order, make sure it clears your bank before you send your items to the buyer. If it doesn’t clear, don’t ship your goods!  If the person you’re dealing with says that they sent you too much money and asks you to refund some of it, be on your guard. Make sure their payment is valid before you refund anything.

Never wire funds. According to Craigslist.org’s information on avoiding scams, anyone who asks you to wire funds is a scammer. Anyone trying to get your bank information is also a scammer – don’t give it to them!

Meeting In Person

Craigslist is a local service, so it’s pretty likely that you’ll end up meeting up with the person you’re doing business with. In fact, meeting in person is usually the best way to make sure you’re not getting scammed. But there are some dangers to meeting up in person – as with any time you plan to meet up with someone you met online.

In fact, so many Craigslist meeting have resulted in crimes that police stations across the country are starting to offer safe spaces for Craigslist users to meet and complete their transactions. If there is no such place in your area, with some common sense and planning you can still keep yourself safe.

How To Stay Safe: First of all, the best way to plan a meet-up with someone from Craigslist is during the day in a public place. If you have to meet somewhere that’s not as public, or if you have to meet at night, bring a friend with you. It’s also a good idea to avoid carrying lots of cash on you. 

If you’re paying for a big-ticket item, plan to pay by check or Paypal to avoid walking around with wads of cash. Another thing to avoid is getting in the car of anyone you don’t know – one Fremont, CA couple lost $8,500 in a Craigslist car scam gone wrong, which could have been avoided if they hadn’t gotten in the car.

Craigslist is a great tool, and I’ve used it to buy and sell plenty of things. But as with any other online tool, it’s important to proceed with caution. In general, use common sense, don’t give out personal information, and use an antivirus program

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