Unfortunately, not everyone on Craigslist buys or sells with honest intentions. Craigslist is, after all, only a website for posting advertisements, and is not a full-fledged e-commerce website (such as Amazon or eBay). Therefore, it takes a rather hands-off approach to business deals, leaving them up to the buying and selling parties involved to work things out. This, sadly, makes scams and other fraudulent activity easier through Craigslist than through more conventional shopping websites.
Fortunately, if you know what to look for, you can avoid most scammers and only deal with people who are looking to buy or sell fairly. Below are some common types of scams on Craigslist, along with how they work and/or why they're likely scams. We'll then recap with some general tips for avoiding scams on Craigslist.
HOW IT WORKS: A buyer or seller will tell you that Craigslist or some other third party has certified them as a legitimate businessperson, or will handle and/or otherwise guarantee or protect your transaction. They will usually send you a fake (but official-looking) email from Craigslist or their alleged third party to this effect.
WHY IT'S (LIKELY) A SCAM: None of these third-party certifications mean anything on Craigslist. Transactions are intended to be between buyers and sellers only; the other person shouldn't need anyone else's guarantee for you to trust that they're dealing fairly. In addition, many third-party online "escrow" services that process payments and hold on to money for people making transactions are run by scammers.
HOW IT WORKS: A person looking to buy/rent an item from you or hire your services sends you an email or text message with an advance cashier's check or money order. Usually, it will be made out for much more than your item or contract is worth; the person may say that this is a show of trust in you, and that they expect you to wire a money order equal to the difference back to them. They may even ask for your personal information so that they know who to make the check out to.
WHY IT'S (LIKELY) A SCAM: If a person sends you a check or money order worth much more than what you're selling, that's a major red flag that a deal is too good to be true. The fact that they ask for money back means that the check or money order will almost always be fake. Not only will this let the person basically steal your money, but it also may get you in trouble with the law, as the bank will hold YOU responsible for trying to cash a fake check. Also, it is almost never a good idea to send out personal information over email, especially to someone whom you barely know or have never met in person.
HOW IT WORKS: A person looking to sell or rent you an expensive item asks you to wire a money order to them in order to pay for it. They may claim that they are "travelling" or "relocating" and thus cannot meet with you in person or over the phone to discuss or complete the transaction. They may also (falsely) claim that you need to provide them with a confirmation code so that they can accept the money from you.
WHY IT'S (LIKELY) A SCAM: Almost everyone on Craigslist who asks you to pay for items through money orders is a scammer. In addition, scammers like to operate through emails and texts; they will try to avoid meeting you in person or talking to you over the phone. These latter types of communication are more nuanced and make it easier to tell if someone isn't who they say they are, or is otherwise being dishonest with you.
HOW IT WORKS: A person selling you an item (or items) asks you to pay a portion of the selling price upfront. To put pressure on you to do so, they may also claim that they have already shipped the items that you want to purchase.
WHY IT'S (LIKELY) A SCAM: Again, this is a tactic commonly used by scammers to avoid doing business with you through a more personal form of communication (such as over the phone or face-to-face), where you can more easily tell whether they're lying or not. It also may be a strategy for pressuring you into making payments over services that are unsafe, such as money orders (as we mentioned above).
HOW IT WORKS: A person may post an advertisement or send you an email offering a job at (or as) an "escrow" service. That is, they will claim that they cannot receive payments from their customers directly, and require you to accept payments and then wire them the money that you receive. They will also often offer you a percentage of each payment that you process as a commission.
WHY IT'S (LIKELY) A SCAM: As with Craiglist check scams, in a setup where you're given (extra) money and then asked to send it somewhere else, the payments you receive will almost always be fake. In addition, these setups often pressure you to make unverified money order payments. So, you're basically just giving your money away to strangers.
The following are some brief tips on how to not get caught in scams on Craigslist. We have more thorough explanations of these tips in our Is Craigslist Safe article.
Never deal with people who have to ship items to you or otherwise refuse to meet you in person; deal with people face-to-face in cities or areas close to you that you know well.
Never purchase an item or rent a property until you've seen what it looks like in person, and never pay in advance.
Never accept cashier's checks or money orders from potential buyers, and never send either of these things to sellers as payment.
Never accept a transaction that has to be "guaranteed" by a third party; this is meaningless on Craigslist.
Never give out or permit access to your personal information over email, including your banking, credit card, social security, or background details.
One last piece of advice that we'll give is that if you think that someone is trying to scam you or anyone else on Craigslist, contact Craigslist and report them. (See our How to Contact Craigslist tutorial for instructions on how to do that). Also, depending on how deep you are into the transaction, you may want to contact your local police department, or even a regional or national anti-fraud bureau.
That's our advice on how to spot and avoid Craigslist scams! We hope that it helps keep you safe when using Craigslist!
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