It used to be that when you wanted to find an apartment for rent, buy a used car, or pick up used, secondhand items like furniture or a washer and dryer, you looked in the classified section of the newspaper. But like with most other things these days, the Internet has taken over and made things even easier.
Nowadays, if you’re looking for any of these things, the best place to look is probably Craigslist, an online classified site categorized by city.
However, the technology that has made it easier to find what you need has also made it easier for scammers to take advantage of the unsuspecting. Craigslist is a perfect example of that. On any day of the week, you can find hundreds of local listings that include apartment and home rentals, cars for sale, concert and play tickets, jobs, and every conceivable secondhand item you can think of. But scammers are very creative and have put together elaborate rouses to trick even the savviest buyer.
The good news is that you don’t have to avoid Craigslist and all of its wonderful opportunities to avoid being “taken.” You just need to know what to look for.
Here’s a rundown of the most common Craigslist scams along with advice on how to avoid them.
If you don’t plan to use a real estate agent to look for a house or apartment, be on high alert for scammers. Avoid becoming a victim by understanding how they operate and what types of tactics they use. First, we’ll look at the various scams and then we’ll talk about how to avoid them.
1. The Popular Home or Apartment
In this insidious scam, the “landlord” will list a home or apartment at an unbelievably great price. They’ll feature photos of an adorable place with the desired amenities. Of course, they’ll have dozens of people respond to the ad and most will want to snatch it up before it’s gone. This landlord is all too willing to please everyone too. In fact, he will collect deposits, first and last month’s rent, and other fees from anyone who’s interested – and then skip town.
The problem comes when all the renters try to move in and discover it was never the landlord’s to rent in the first place. In one case, such a “landlord” walked away with $60,000 in collected fees from potential renters from a single apartment. A slight variation of this scam occurs when the crook rents a house or apartment with the intention of re-renting it to dozens of people.
2. The Middleman
Sometimes the story is that the owner of the home or apartment is sick, out of the country, or otherwise unavailable and his friend is helping out by renting the place for him. This is called the middleman scam because renters never come into contact with the real owner of the property. If they did, they would quickly realize the property isn’t even for rent!
After a renter pays the deposits and rent, the “friend” disappears and the renter is out the money and still has no place to live. This scam can also be pulled off by people overseas. They do it by finding a photo of a cute house, then listing it for rent. They target people relocating to a new city or town who can’t physically check out the house and won’t know it’s not located in the area claimed.
3. The Over-anxious Renter
Rental scams don’t just target renters. They target landlords too. The most common is the typical Nigerian scam where a person will agree to rent a house or apartment and then send the landlord a check or money order for the deposits, rent, and fees. After the check is sent, however, they realize they “accidentally” sent too much and tell the landlord it’s put them in a financial bind. They ask that the excess be wired to them right away. What the landlord may not realize, however, is that the check or money order is no good. Whatever money they wire the scammer will be their own money, never to be seen again.
- Make sure the “landlord” really owns the house. If it’s an apartment or condo, you can call the related association or property management company and ask if you’re renting from the legitimate owner. If it’s a home, you’ll have to search the property records in the area that the house or apartment is located. If the names don’t match in either of these circumstances, you’re probably dealing with a scammer.
- Get a copy of the landlord’s ID and call the local authorities to make sure it’s legitimate.
- Do a quick Google search on the landlord’s name as well as the address of the house you’re considering renting. If they’ve scammed anyone else, you’ll probably find information about it online. In addition, you may find useful information about the house, like whether or not it’s been involved in previous scams.
- If the person you’re dealing with doesn’t ask you for an application or doesn’t care to screen tenants with a background check, you may be dealing with a scammer. The illegitimate landlords will seem to make renting and qualifying as easy for you as possible.
- Don’t allow anyone to overpay you. If they do, don’t release any funds until their check or money order has cleared your account. Some thieves can produce fake checks and money orders so believable that they’ll even fool banks until the check is finally bounced back weeks later. If this happens, you’ll be responsible for any money you’ve used against the funds and, in some instances, you may even be held criminally responsible. They will likely pressure you to wire money beforehand to “pay them back,” but don’t give in unless you’re sure there’s no chance of the original check bouncing.
- If you’re a landlord, be sure to check all references, credit reports, criminal histories, and employers before you offer a lease.
It’s possible to save hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars by buying a car from an individual rather than from a car dealership or car lot, and many people have turned to Craigslist to find one. But anytime there’s a large marketplace, the scammers aren’t far behind, and car sales are no exception. Here’s an overview of how these scams are carried out and hints on how you can avoid falling for them.
1. Fake Funds
Con artists are experts at producing fraudulent checks, money orders, and cashier’s checks. Some car owners have found out the hard way that after they release their car to such a buyer, the check bounces or comes back as a fraud. The seller is out a car with no real way to trace the buyer’s identity or location.
2. The Accidental Check
Just like in the housing scams, buyers will pay the seller with a cashier’s check or money order that looks real and then suddenly “realize” they paid too much. This usually happens with buyers who are overseas or otherwise unable to meet with the seller in person. The buyer will then ask the seller to just wire them the overage. Then the seller will arrange to have the car picked up by a middleman, or pick-up agent. By the time the seller realizes the check was a fake, they’ve lost the money they wired to the buyer as well as their car.
3. The Out-of-Town Seller
Some sellers will list a car at an unbelievable price and then tell the buyer a sob story to go with it. It may be they are going through a divorce, or have been transferred overseas and can’t afford to have the car shipped or registered to the new locale. Whatever the story, it justifies the low price and the buyer thinks he’s getting a great deal. But because the seller is out of the country, the buyer will have to wire funds to them in order to take possession of the car. You can imagine what happens next – the seller disappears with the money and the car is nowhere to be found.
4. The Safe Deal
If a con artist senses a buyer’s hesitation about wiring money before they have possession of the car, many times they will offer to do a “safe” transaction utilizing a company like Escrow.com or another online escrow service. They will tell the buyer to send funds via Western Union to the escrow account where they will be held until the buyer picks up the car.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? The problem comes when a spoof email (one that mimics a legitimate site) is sent to the buyer from the supposedly secure escrow site. The funds then aren’t routed to a legitimate escrow account, but rather a fake one. The seller is never heard from again and the buyer is left with no money and no car.
Despite all the dirty deals, it’s still possible to make a good, legitimate car deal on Craigslist. But you have to stay aware and pay attention to these warning signs.
- If a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The way con artists lure people into their scams is by offering irresistible deals.
- If you can’t meet with the buyer or seller in person because they’re out of the country or are sick, or for any other reason, you should proceed with extreme caution.
- The seller wants to use an online escrow service of their own choosing.
- The seller asks that you wire the money to an overseas account. Especially be wary when they request that you use Western Union, as many scammers use this service.
- There is an urgency to the transaction. Either someone else is looking at the car or they have to sell it in a hurry. Scammers use a sense of urgency to force buyers to do things they wouldn’t normally do if they had enough time to think it through.
- The only contact information is an email address and the buyer or seller claims they don’t have a phone number to give you.
Craigslist is a great place to look for tickets to a sold out concert, sporting event, or other event you can’t get tickets for through regular venues. In addition, airline tickets can bought and sold on the site when people’s plans change. It can be a great way to get those hard-to-find event tickets or save money on travel. But beware – the scammers have figured out how to steal your money with deals like these. Let’s start by looking at some of the most common scams. Then, we’ll talk about how to protect yourself from them.
1. Fake Tickets
Con artists have figured out how to use a printer, which is bad news for people buying event tickets. The thief will print out fake tickets that look like the real thing and then sell them to unsuspecting buyers. Depending on the event, these tickets can cost hundreds, or in some cases, thousands of dollars. Some scammers will sell complete season tickets for a sporting team or concert series. But when the buyer tries to use them, they’re told that the tickets aren’t real.
2. Selling Canceled Tickets
This is the latest and greatest in the scammers’ world. The seller will buy airline tickets with a credit card, then list the tickets for sale. As soon as they have a buyer, they will cancel the sale which renders the tickets worthless. But the buyer doesn’t know that and will believe they have a legitimate ticket until they show up at the airport and are told that the tickets were canceled. This leaves no recourse for the buyer because the airline didn’t sell them the tickets, the scammer did. And chances are that person will never be seen again.
If you don’t want to be taken for a ride when purchasing tickets from Craigslist, here’s how to protect yourself.
- Know what you’re buying. This is one of the simplest, yet most effective ways to protect yourself against ticket scams. Every ticket looks different and not all scammers have the capability to print out an exact replica of the tickets they’re selling. They will instead print out one-size-fits-all tickets for a variety of events and because most people don’t know what the tickets should look like, they fall for it. Instead, make sure you not only know what the ticket is supposed to look like, but know the seating plan so you can check if the ticket has the right seat numbers and letters on it.
- Ask for a receipt or invoice. If the seller can’t offer you proof that he bought the tickets with an invoice or receipt, then he probably never did. Ask for proof of purchase from the seller and tell them you want a copy of it. Next, call the event’s ticket seller and make sure the tickets were paid for. This is especially wise if you are buying a season’s worth of tickets because many times a scammer will show you a receipt that upon careful examination will show only a few tickets that have actually been paid for.
- Verify the Seller. When a person buys season tickets, they’ll be assigned an account number that should match their name. If you’re buying season tickets, ask the seller for this information and then call the vendor, which will either be the team or ticket agent. Make sure the person you’re dealing with has an account and that the tickets they are trying to sell you are valid. If the seller balks at this, don’t make the deal – that means the tickets are likely fake.
- If you’re buying the tickets through the mail, you’ll need to take additional steps to ensure you don’t get ripped off. Don’t pay the entire amount upfront, but offer to pay half when the tickets are mailed and the other half once you receive them. Put everything in writing via email, including all the seller’s contact information as well as the details of the transaction. And ask that the tickets be sent to you with a tracking number.
Anyone buying a big-ticket item online wants to know the transaction will be safe. After all, it’s a little scary to send thousands of dollars to someone you don’t know and then trust them to send you the item. Out of that worry were born escrow service sites, which are companies that will legally hold money until both parties in the transaction are satisfied. It can be a great way to feel comfortable dealing with the buying and selling of big-ticket items. So it didn’t take long for scammers to find a way to profit from it. Here’s how con artists use escrow fraud to pull a scam.
1. The Safe Buy
When negotiating a deal for a large-ticket item, the seller will reassure the buyer that their money will be safe until the item is received. The seller refers them to an escrow service site they “use all the time.” When the buyer goes to the site, it looks legitimate and instills confidence. They deposit the funds into an account on the site and then wait for their item to arrive.
But it never does. What happened? The escrow service site wasn’t real. It was a phishing site – one that is set up to look just like a legitimate business. Many times these scam artists will mimic a well-respected site in an effort to make the buyer trust it. And too many times it works. The seller will be out their money and have nothing to show for it.
Here’s how you avoid this all-too-common scam.
- Be cautious anytime a seller suggests the use of a certain escrow service site. There are legitimate escrow companies out there that provide great service. If you want to utilize one, pick it yourself. Never do business with a company you’ve never heard of, no matter how legitimate the site looks. In fact, if the seller suggests one, counter it with a site you know and trust. If you never hear from them again, you’ll know you just avoided a scam.
- Carefully look at the site of the escrow service you are considering. Do they have contact information other than just email? If so, call and talk to them. Is English their first language? How about the content on the site – is it full of grammatical errors and difficult to understand? When you Google their business and domain name, what do you find?
Craigslist is a great site that allows buyers and sellers to come together even if they don’t live in the same city. But they don’t get involved in the transactions of their visitors. Still, many scam artists have devised a way to make a buyer feel comfortable by making them believe the purchase has been approved and is protected by Craigslist. Here’s how it works.
- A potential buyer will receive an official looking email from Craigslist saying they have researched the seller and approved the transaction as safe. The email will further say that Craigslist will offer a buyer’s protection service if something does go wrong with the transaction. Next, it will guide the buyer through the steps to complete the purchase, such as sending money. But the email is a fake because Craigslist doesn’t offer any such thing. If you get an email like this, the seller is definitely a scammer and you should report them to Craigslist so they can remove the listing.
Looking for a job is tough enough, but if you get scammed in your job search, it can be downright disheartening. That’s exactly what happens to some job seekers who answer ads on Craigslist. If you’re looking for a job online, read about what to avoid below.
1. The Nanny Job
Some scammers post jobs for nannies and babysitters, targeting the young and inexperienced. They claim they’re moving to the area and need someone to look after their children. They generally offer a nice salary, but not outrageous enough to ring any alarm bells. Once they “hire” someone, they’ll mail them a check along with instructions about exactly what to do with the money. These instructions might be things like buying groceries for the new house, taking out an amount for their salary, and paying the rent to the new landlord.
And that’s the scam. The check the scammer sends the employee is not good and the “landlord” is a part of the scam. The employee will send money from her own account, relying on the employer’s check to cover it, and then everyone disappears. The employee, who thought she had landed a great job, is now out the money and on the line for all of it.
2. The Payments Job
If you’ve read this entire article, you’ll be able to spot the scam here before you get to the end. An employer will claim they’re having difficulty receiving payments from their customers because of trouble with their bank or even their country’s financial regulations. They’ll offer to pay a percentage of each sale to someone who will receive payments into their account, take out their cut, and then wire the balance to the employer. Of course, the received payments will bounce or be fraudulent and the person will be out any money they wired.
Job scams often revolve around an employer who asks the employee to wire money somewhere. This is always a scam. If someone hires you legitimately, they’ll never ask you to use your own bank account for their means.
Finally, be certain you’re on the authentic Craigslist site whenever you make a transaction. Con artists have created spoof sites that are made to look exactly like Craigslist, but are only designed to take your money. The official website address is http://www.craigslist.org/ – anything other than that is not the real deal.
Buying and selling on Craigslist can be an awesome experience. For example, you can find deals you couldn’t otherwise locate in your local area. As long as you pay attention to the details of each transaction and stay aware of the signs that alert you to possible scams, you should be fine. If you believe you have come across a scam, mark it as such at the top of the page and email Craigslist at [email protected]
Have you ever been scammed by a listing on Craigslist? What other fraudulent tactics have you come across on the site?
(photo credit: Shutterstock)