Craigslist: Boon or Bane?

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The online service Craigslist began as an electronic bulletin board in San Francisco in 1995. It morphed into a world-wide listing of events, things for sale, and other miscellanea. Today, its charming old-school text-based interface harks back to an internet before flashy graphics and auto-play videos. It’s still the go-to place to load up on or unload stuff you didn’t know you needed.

Unfortunately, this growth has made it popular with crooks as well as honest humans. How can you still use Craigslist without getting taken? We’ll look at ways to stay safe.

Overall, you should establish a Craigslist account. It’s free, and gives you a little more protection than just an anonymous user. These benefits include being able to see a seller’s history, and anonymizing your email address for replies.

If you’re selling goods or services, the first thing to look out for is the certified-check scam. Here a “buyer” responds to your ad (usually quickly) and says they are sending a certified check (or online transfer) for the purchase price. When the money arrives, it’s always for more than you asked. The “buyer” then emails that you should wire or otherwise transfer the overage back to them. If you do this, you’ll find the supposedly certified check or transfer bounces, and you’re out the money you refunded the seller. If you get caught by this, always contact your bank or payment company and tell them of the fraud. While you may not get your money back, it can help law enforcement apprehend the crook.

Probably the most common peril these days for Craigslist buyers is the bogus rental. The scammers will post a picture of a very nice property, stolen from another web page, and add alluring details. The properties are usually real, and you can drive by to see them. The problem is that the scammers don’t own them. Reply that you’re interested, and they ask for an “application fee” or “deposit”, or even get you to send them the full rental cost. Of course, when you show up to move in or vacation, you find that the property owner or current renter is NOT moving and you’re out the money you sent the scammer. If you’re interested in a Craigslist rental, do a Google search on the address. If you see results that show the scammer isn’t the owner, walk away. Also, if the search doesn’t show that the property is a rental in general (i.e. it’s not listed on other sites besides Craigslist), walk away.

Goods for sale can also be counterfeit, in that the seller doesn’t actually own them. Like the rental scam, you send the seller money (PayPal, Venmo, etc.) and never get the goods. Another variation on this is concert tickets, which are frequently not legitimate.

If you encounter a scam, here’s what to do. On the main Craigslist page, click “avoid scams & fraud” in the left sidebar. Then in the section “Who should I notify about fraud or scam attempts?”, click “send us the details.” Click “scams, spam, flagging,” choose the type of Craigslist scam you’re reporting, and finally click “Contact us” and fill in the form. While Craigslist will acknowledge your submission, you may not hear if the scammer gets caught. 

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