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6 Types of Common Craigslist Scams to Watch Out For

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. 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 or region.

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 creative and have put together elaborate ruses 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, the red flags that often accompany them, and advice on how to avoid them.

Home and Apartment Rental Scams

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, the scammer will collect security deposits, first and last month’s rent, and other fees from anyone who’s interested. Then, the scammer will skip town — or maybe maybe never lived in town in the first place. The problem comes when all the renters try to move in and discover the home was never that landlord’s to rent in the first place.

A slight variation of this scam occurs when the crook rents a house or apartment with the intention of re-renting it to multiple people. In 2018, a Kentucky woman was accused of relieving two would-be renters of $800 each after convincing them to put down security deposits on a unit she didn’t own, according to WKYT.

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 the property owner’s friend is helping out by renting the place on their behalf. 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.

A variation on this scam occurs when the scammer pretends to be the apartment’s current occupant, rather than a middleman. In an alleged Michigan apartment scam uncovered by a reporter for the Detroit Free Press, the scammer’s cover story involved a sudden job-related move.

3. The Over-Anxious Renter

Rental scams don’t just target renters. They target landlords too.

The most common variation on this scam involves a person who agrees to rent a house or apartment. As the landlord expects, this person sends a check or money order for the deposits, rent, and fees. So far, so good.

Then things go south. After the check is sent, however, they realize they “accidentally” sent too much and tell the landlord it has put them in a financial bind. They ask that the excess be wired back 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.

How to Avoid Craigslist Apartment Scams

Now that you understand the basics of how thieves take advantage of tenants and landlords, here’s how you can avoid becoming a victim.

  • Confirm Ownership of the Property. Make sure the landlord really owns the property. If it’s an apartment or condo, you can call the related association or property management company and ask whether 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.
  • Check ID and Background. Get a copy of the landlord’s or tenant’s ID and call the local authorities to make sure it’s legitimate. If you’re a landlord, screen potential tenants by thoroughly checking all personal and employer references, credit reports, and criminal histories through a background check before offering a lease. This can easily be done through a service like RentPrep.
  • Do Some Online Sleuthing. Do a quick Google search on the person’s name. If you’re a prospective tenant, look up the address of the property you’re considering renting as well. If the person has scammed anyone else under the same name, you’ll probably find information about it online. Looking up the property could reveal that it has been involved in previous scams, along with other useful information like public safety complaints or code violations.
  • Expect a Background Check If You’re a Would-Be Tenant. 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 Would-Be Tenants to Overpay You. If they overpay you, don’t release any funds back to them until their check or money order has cleared your account. Some thieves can produce fake personal checks, certified checks, or 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.

Car Buying and Selling Scams

It’s possible to save hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars by buying a car in a private party transaction — from an individual rather than from a car dealership or car lot. Many buyers and sellers use Craigslist to facilitate these transactions.

Unfortunately, so do scammers looking to dupe unwitting people on either side of the transaction. Here’s an overview of how these scams occur and tips to 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 that out the hard way after they release their car to such a buyer, only for the check to bounce or come 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

As in the housing-related version of this scam, buyers 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 claim to be overseas or otherwise unable to meet with the seller in person.

After claiming to realize their mistake, the buyer asks the seller to send a wire transfer for the overage and asks the seller to arrange to have the car picked up by a middleman (pick-up agent). By the time the seller realizes they’re holding a fake check, they’ve lost the money they wired to the buyer as well as their car.

3. The Out-of-Town Seller

This scam is similar to the “accidental check” scheme but without the claims of overpayment. It usually begins with a seller listing a car at an unbelievable price. This person has a sob story to tell interested buyers: Maybe they are going through a costly divorce and need to get rid of the car fast 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 they’re 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 (Escrow Fraud)

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. Con artists know this as well as anyone. To assuage buyers’ hesitation about wiring money before taking possession of a car, scammers might offer to do a “safe” transaction using an intermediary known as an online escrow service. They 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 email directs the buyer to a similar-looking fake site that siphons the buyer’s funds into an account that the seller controls. From there, you can guess what happens: The seller disappears with the money and the buyer is left with no money, no car, and wounded pride.

Escrow scams aren’t limited to private automotive transactions, by the way. Fake escrow sites entrap online buyers seeking all sorts of big-ticket items. Proceed with extreme caution whenever a seller suggests conducting the transaction through a particular escrow site or other secure intermediary, especially if they seem fixated on pushing it on you.

How to Avoid Craigslist Automotive Scams

Despite all the dirty deals, it’s still possible to make a good, legitimate car deal on Craigslist. But you have to mind these warning signs and understand how to avoid potential scams before it’s too late.

  • The Deal Sounds Too Good to Be True. 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.
  • The Buyer or Seller Doesn’t Want to Meet. If you can’t meet face-to-face with the buyer or seller in person because they’re out of the country or are sick, or for any other reason, don’t proceed with the deal. Likewise, use extreme caution as a buyer if the seller demands to use an online escrow service of their own choosing.
  • The Transaction Involves Overseas Money Transfers. This is a bright, flashing warning sign that the transaction is fraudulent. Never, ever agree to transfer money overseas using Western Union, MoneyGram, or any other money transfer service as part of a Craigslist transaction supposedly taking place in the United States.
  • The Buyer or Seller Communicates Urgency. If your counterparty insists that you complete the transaction immediately because someone else is looking at the car or they have to sell it in a hurry, take a breath and think twice about proceeding. 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 Buyer or Seller Doesn’t Have a Contact Number. If the buyer or seller insists on using only the anonymous email address provided by Craigslist and won’t give you a working phone number, assume the worst.
  • Never Use the Seller’s Preferred Escrow Site. There are legitimate escrow companies out there that provide great service. If you want to use 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 different site you know and trust. If you never hear from the seller again, you’ll know you just avoided a scam.
  • Evaluate Escrow Sites Carefully. If you don’t yet have a preferred escrow service, carefully evaluate your options. 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? Use the California Department of Financial Protection & Innovation‘s guide to escrow fraud for further guidance.

Ultimately, your best bet might be to avoid Craigslist’s automotive section entirely. Other popular car-buying and -selling websites, such as eBay Motors, are less susceptible to fraud.


The Fake Ticket or Event Pass Scam

Craigslist is a great place to look for tickets to sold-out concerts, sporting events, and other exclusive outings for which tickets aren’t available through regular channels.

Unfortunately, many offers of tickets and event passes for sale on Craigslist are fraudulent. Well-funded con artists with access to high-quality printing equipment can easily create tickets or passes that look exactly like the real thing, sometimes down to the hard-to-duplicate watermark or reflective backing.

When genuine, these credentials are worth many hundreds or even thousands of dollars — for example, season tickets and sideline passes for an NFL franchise — and the seller prices them accordingly. But when the buyer tries to use them, they’re told that the tickets aren’t real.

How to Avoid Fake Ticket Scams on Craigslist

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. Scammers without the ability to print out an exact replica of the tickets they’re selling will instead print out one-size-fits-all tickets for a variety of events and change the names, dates, times, and fine print accordingly. Because most people don’t know what the tickets should look like, they don’t recognize the subterfuge and plow ahead with the fraudulent transaction. To protect yourself, do two things. First, make sure you know what the ticket is supposed to look like using a Google image search to confirm. Second, study the seating plan of the event venue to confirm that the ticket has the right seat numbers and letters on it.
  • Ask for an Original Receipt or Invoice. If the seller can’t offer you proof that they bought the tickets with an invoice or receipt, then they 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, that means the tickets are likely fake and you should call off the deal.
  • Avoid Buying Tickets Through the Mail. Always meet in person to physically exchange tickets or passes and payment. Too much can go wrong when buying through the mail, and the seller is just as likely to abscond with your funds than to even bother sending you fake tickets.

Job Scams

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 fake and the “landlord,” if they exist, is a part of the scam. The employee covers the requested expenses from their own account, expecting to rely on the employer’s check to get whole. By the time the check bounces, the “employer” is nowhere to be found, and the unsuspecting employee is out hundreds or thousands of dollars of their own money.

2. The Payments Job

In this underhanded scheme, a dodgy “employer” claims 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 and the person will be out any money they wired.

How to Avoid Craigslist Job Scams

The guidelines for avoiding job-related Craigslist scams should be familiar at this point. They include:

  • Never Wire Money As Part of a Job Offer. No matter how eager you are to land a paying job, rule out any job listings that include phrases like “wire money” or “cash a check.” These are invariably scams.
  • Never Spend Your Own Money for an Employer You Haven’t Met. A legitimate employer should never ask you to use your own funds to cover job-related expenses without providing detailed guidance on how and when you’ll be reimbursed. And an employer should never, ever ask you to use your own bank account to complete business transactions. They should have their own business bank account for that.
  • Research Would-Be Employers Online. Thoroughly research your employers using the name they give you and their company. Employers and companies with thin or nonexistent online footprints are just as likely to be fake as real. Pay attention to customer or employee reviews and complaints as well. Even if the company is real, a pattern of Better Business Bureau complaints or legal entanglements shouldn’t inspire confidence.

Fake Craigslist Guarantee

Craigslist is a great site that allows buyers and sellers to come together even if they don’t live in the same city. But many Craigslist users don’t realize that site management doesn’t get involved in users’ transactions or prevent them from occurring except when listings clearly and flagrantly violate U.S. law — for example, by advertising illegal weapons or human organs for sale — or violate Craigslist’s own terms of service.

That leaves an opening for scam artists whose con lies in convincing Craigslist buyers that their transactions are approved and protected or insured by the company. Spoiler alert: They’re not.

Fake Craigslist guarantee scams typically work something like this. After making first contact with the seller, the buyer receives an official-looking email that appears to come from Craigslist. The email assures the buyer that Craigslist has researched the seller and approved the transaction as safe. Craigslist is so confident that the seller is legit that it’s willing to offer a buyer protection service if something does go wrong.

The catch, of course, is that the buyer must pay for this service by wiring money or providing payment card information through a “secure” payment portal. The entire exercise is a setup to take the buyer’s money or steal their credit card. Craigslist does not offer buyer protection, period, so you can safely assume that any offer of such a service is fraudulent. Report the offending listing to Craigslist right away. After all, it certainly qualifies as a violation of Craigslist’s terms of service, if not U.S. law.


Fake Craigslist Site

The simplest Craigslist scam of all is also one of the easiest to avoid. Con artists have created spoof sites that are made to look exactly like Craigslist but are in actuality designed only to take your money. So, be certain you’re on the authentic Craigslist site whenever you make a transaction. The official website address is http://www.craigslist.org/ — any other URL is not the real deal.


Final Word

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 abuse@craigslist.org.

Brian Martucci
Brian Martucci writes about credit cards, banking, insurance, travel, and more. When he's not investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, you can find him exploring his favorite trails or sampling a new cuisine. Reach him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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